• Elsie Gabori fabric painting of the late mother's, Sally Gabori, country (Instagram / @gracelillianlee)
OPINION: Camping and adventure fishing might be at the forefront of Cape York tourism, but writer and artist, Jack Wilkie Jans says there's strong potential in its art scene.
By
Jack Wilkie-Jans

29 Mar 2018 - 5:03 PM  UPDATED 2 Apr 2018 - 9:32 AM

Art is a growing industry for regional areas. The era of the art centre has taken hold and the days of commercial galleries are slowly coming to a close.

While this could have negative implications for the viability of high-stakes sales and commissions to private collectors, this shift does present more positive potential as it shines a light on the communities where the art is actually created and where the artists are from.

Of them all, the arts is possibly the most sustainable and workable sector within Indigenous business. This is in due parts the joy of involving oneself in creative pursuits, and the seemingly unabated thirst from arts’ academia and collectors who search for more and more contemporary artworks.

With the growing number of Indigenous art events coupled with increased Indigenous representation at art fairs abroad, the economic benefit of Indigenous art is a growing boon for artists, many of whom live in remote areas. The industry has become more proactive in promoting artists than just selling their works and this has lead to a growing interest in more than the aesthetic value of art. It promotes the cultural, contemporary and historic aspects of the artwork’s background, as well as the places behind the pieces. As such, growing the Indigenous art industry on Country is next to be championed.

In remote areas where tourism is an emerging industry and where the framework is still a moving feast, art should play an equal role in the pull of remote regions, just as much as their environmental assets and the thrill of adventure.

The arts, right across the colour spectrum, is in much need of a philanthropic funding influx. The current cyclic flow of public investment in almost every stage of art’s production, promotion and purchase is a false economy. Where a return in art can be seen in remote areas however, is in realising art as a cultural industry’s symbiotic potential. In remote areas where tourism is an emerging industry and where the framework is still a moving feast, art should play an equal role in the pull of remote regions, just as much as the environmental assets and the thrill of adventure.

Where regions like Cape York Peninsula are starting to develop its tourism infrastructure, should environmental draw cards such as fishing, Pajinka (the “Tip”), bush and coastal landscapes will be complemented by a cultural tourism? The economic potential for an on Country role of art (as opposed to being just an export industry) could see things turn around for the many disadvantaged communities of the region.

As it stands, the Indigenous sector within Cape York’s mainstream tourism industry is not one with much imagination. Indigenous tourism in Cape York mostly revolves around aspirations of on Country tours, cultural and bush tucker walks, and campsite management and permit issuing, with accommodation and fishing ventures being mainly non-Indigenous owned and run.

While all things must start somewhere, Indigenous tourism must increase its market by expanding its product. Every element of this tourism fabric is crucial to a successful business and while this is a great way for people to participate in earning money and showcasing their area, it does have limitations for success.

Setbacks facing tourism in Cape York are not problems of visitation exactly. Gradually, problems around access are slowly being resolved. The Cape York Region Package, for example, is being rolled out along the Peninsula Development Road and other arterial roads. According to data collected by Tourism Cape York, visitation to the region has grown remarkably. However, visitors mostly go to Cooktown, Lockhart River, Weipa and by far, the Northern Peninsula Area, thus the majority of visitors bypass so many other towns.

As the road to tourism in Cape York is being paved, there’s so much more that can be achieved, and encouragingly, starting anew only means the sky’s the limit. Obstacles such as security of tenure and lack of collateral for business start-ups to secure finance remain some of the biggest setbacks to Cape York in emulating tourism at the level that destinations such as Uluru and the Kimberley enjoy. There also must be an acceptance among would-be entrepreneurs that branching out into a tourism venture does not necessarily mean one gets a starring role. Indigenous tourism can also mean Indigenous-owned cafes, catering, cleaning and laundrette companies, and so on.

The collectability and global recognition of many contemporary Indigenous artists from Tropical North Queensland currently rivals that of the critical heyday of the Central Desert.

When looking at broader tourism opportunities, as aforementioned, our art industry has every potential to generate on Country income. If successful, it could negate the total need to send works of art outside the region and thus adding a whole new dimension to the art-purchasing process. Anyone who frequents art fairs will know of the great leaps in popularity and skill that artists from the North have made in recent years. Artists such as Arone Meeks, Alick Tipoti, Dr. Ken Thaiday Snr., Brian Robinson and Janet Fieldhouse continue to go from strength to strength here and around the globe. All are steadfast powerhouses of creativity. Artists of their ilk laid the foundations for the rising stars of Teho Ropeyarn and Grace Lillian Lee. As examples, these two keep the faith alive and epitomise the true versatility of contemporary Indigenous art. Venturing into works on paper, multimedia sculpture and textile and fashion, Ropeyarn and Lee are among a new generation of young artists who are redefining what Indigenous art can be. So much so, the collectability and global recognition of many contemporary Indigenous artists from Tropical North Queensland currently rivals that of the critical heyday of the Central Desert.

More and more, artists are expected to play a central role as individuals in their careers, flying around the country (and at times, the world) to be the face of their artwork. It’s said that top collectors these days will rarely buy solely on the instincts of dealers, with the true deal sealer being the personal engagement punters are able to have with the actual artist(s) themselves. Given that —and the fact that infrastructure and subsequent visitation to the areas where the artists dwell is advancing—, it is sad that the art centres are operating fairly isolated from the tourism industry. Acclaim and value matched, where the Cape differs from the Central Desert is that art collectors do not yet fly to the Cape to buy directly, instead they wait around Cairns, Sydney and Melbourne to buy from the events or galleries there.

As it goes, local and renowned events such as the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) only send their guests of the Collectors & Curators Programme as “remote” as Yarrabah — an hour by car on the opposite side of the Trinity Inlet from the Cairns city. Considering the competition around the middle, it’s clear that buyers don't need to come to the region to buy the region's art, instead they come to CIAF for the sake of it being an amazing event in a beautiful setting.

If the art centres somehow find the support, be it through philanthropic or other public sources, to host visitors to the communities, it would change the playing field right across Cape York.

People have very few reasons but for curiosity and a love for different scenery to visit — let alone stay — in remote communities in Cape York. Most towns are off the main drag by some many hours and struggle to compete with adventure fishing and the urge to stand at the most northern point on the Australian continent.

People have very few reasons but for curiosity and a love for different scenery to visit — let alone stay — in remote communities in Cape York. Most towns are off the main drag by some many hours and struggle to compete with adventure fishing and the urge to stand at the most northern point on the Australian continent.

But imagine if everything fell into place, and that the people on the ground were given the opportunity to have diversity of tenure over the land, ergo a diversity of possible land uses, potentially leading to more exciting accommodation options which offer a unique experience, local produce which could lead to local cafes, restaurants and export suppliers, thus providing a solid economic platform for towns to grow and businesses to start up. This would take a great deal of political will, the likes of which remote living Australians have never seen before. Should the web of red tape (which Cape York currently nearly asphyxiates on) be cut in order to ease various processes, the banks, lenders and investors would all be more prepared to fund start-ups and entrepreneurs would be more inclined to start up them.

If government initiatives such as Queensland’s Advancing Tourism Strategy 2016-2020 and the Commonwealth’s Developing Northern Australia investment fund be further utilised to secure basic infrastructure needs for the Peninsula (such as water security, telecommunications, roads) it will no doubt open up the region for further, diverse business away from the crux of mining.

For existing tourism providers in Cape York it isn’t business as usual anymore; it’s time to step up. For the art industry, it needs to get more strategic as to how it invests in culture.

Art deserves a greater role in the broader economy and it certainly has the potential to do so.

 

Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Aboriginal affairs advocate and artist. He is from the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes.

 

For more on Indigenous Tourism, watch The Point tonight, 8pm on NITV (Ch. 34) for a special report on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in Australia's tourism industry. 

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