The free ten night festival, a celebration of Indigenous art and culture which runs from Friday, 23 September to Sunday, 2 October lights up the Desert Park every night from 6.30pm to 10.30pm, stretching over 2.5 kilometres of the iconic MacDonnell Ranges, showcasing contemporary and traditional Indigenous art, which has been created by a large number of local artists.
The idea for a festival of light was first sparked by a local Alice Springs resident mid- 2015 and from the outset, the project managers sought advice from companies that have undertaken similar projects and a consultation process with the Alice Springs community, in particular the Indigenous community, including The Institute for Aboriginal Development , who offered the name for the festival and the idea of artwork being created for the event to showcase.
Andrew Hopper, the General Manager of Northern Territory Major Event Company told Koori Radio in an interview this week, "we saw ourselves as the facilitators of showing those pieces of art and arriving at the right outcome with the community." The organisation spoke with an excess of 90 groups and individuals, and adapted the exhibition from the consultation/feedback regarding what to light up and what not. The groups which included Arrente elders, Araluen cultural precinct, and CAAMA, individuals were also consulted.
"We received feedback around not lighting heavy tree gap, and we’re not lighting heavy tree gap… We’re not putting light on Mt Gillen. Those are just a couple of examples." Hopper said. "We’ve spoken to Doris Stuart, who has been quite vocal in her views. We certainly met with her on three separate occasions, what amounted to 2.5-3 hours per occasions, consulting with her and hearing what she had to say”.
“The challenge we face is that not everyone agrees with what is ‘the right way’, so we’re working within that. But we still believe the event had support from many members of the Indigenous community. Not everyone is going to love everything, but some of the claims that we haven’t consulted are quite unreasonable, as we have consulted and made changes as a result of what we’ve heard. We’re always listening and willing to talk.”
However, not all Alice Springs residents were happy with the concept, with some claiming that laser beams projected on to the MacDonnell Ranges could cause disastrous effects on the wildlife population that inhabit the area and in particular the nocturnal Rock Wallabies who are known to abort their foetuses when under stress.
The most vocal opponent has been local Mark Carter, a zoologist and local wildlife tour operator, who established a Facebook page and 1200 signature petition to urge locals to boycott the event. The petition which is addressed to the NT Chief Minister Hon Michael Patrick Francis Gunner MLA & Lauren Ross MLA: Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Tourism and Culture, states 'Mt.Gillen near Alice Springs is home to some of the last colonies of the Federally protected Black-Flanked Rock Wallaby Petrogale lateralis. The NT Government funded Parrtjima Festival (23rd Sept-3rd Oct) plans to blast 2.5km of cliffs where these special nocturnal mammals live with very strong lights (lasers?)'
In response to the concerns, Hopper told NITV that they sought advice from scientists and local environmental groups to assess the threat.
"Obviously there were claims made, quite serious claims, by Mark Carter. We’ve given them the due consideration they should receive, because the severity of what has been said. We’ve investigated those working with Desert Park and equally the scientists from the NT Department of the Environment and Natural Resources." Hopper said.
Obviously there were claims made, quite serious claims, by Mark Carter. We’ve given them the due consideration they should receive, because the severity of what has been said. We’ve investigated those working with Desert Park and equally the scientists from the NT Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.
With the findings the decision was made to go ahead with the festival. "They’ve gone away and had a look at the information we’ve provided them regarding the technology we’re using and also they’ve weighed it up with the claims they’ve made and told us it’s a low risk activity and we feel we’ve done due process there."
The company felt that the strength of the lights being used was minimal so required no risk assessment with Hopper stating, “We’re not creating light that is outrageously bright. It’s actually very subtle, more so than what people would expect. It’s hard to explain unless you see it. It was not confirmed (that the light would affect wallabies’ eyesight or cause them to miscarry). What I do know is that the most damaging lasers are pinpoint hot-beam lasers… and we don’t use any of those lasers at this event, and that was taken into consideration by the scientists.”
The festival, which is government funded, hopes to bring tourists to the area, with the organisers emphasising the benefits of collaborating as a community with artists both young and old.
Upon seeing her circular Mt Sonder (Arkutja) painting enlarged and illuminated, contributing artist Lenie Namatjira, Albert Namitjira's grand-daughter said: “It looks pretty good lit up in the night. I hope the young ones who see it will listen to my story about the woman lying down, which is how we see the mountain after travelling all round Australia and deciding 'This is a good place for my people’.I want everyone who comes to the festival to be able to see my skirt painting and hear my stories about the skirts.”
Local Aboriginal school children were also a part of the exhibition . "They heard the story of the caterpillar and then they created their own illustrations and we were able to bring those to life in a large scale. We took them in on the Thursday before the event opened and showed them and it was lovely to see them so happy and really excited."
There are a handful of other installations including six Arrente artists whose artwork projects on to the earth, with the intention of returning the work to the earth. Hopper stated that "what’s lovely about that is on a large scale and people can immerse themselves in the art."
NITV has sought comment from Mammals Association (as their convention was meeting in Alice Springs), Australia Zoo and NT and SA Dept of Environment, as well other conservation groups and professionals for confirmation of the claims (re harm to wallabies) but had not received a response at the time of publishing.
The festival has seen a steady stream of visitors and despite concerns on the environment will continue to run until this Sunday. For more information head to the Parrtjima website.