The exquisite Parrtjima (Par-chee-ma) Festival, now an annual event, was first launched within the vast expanse of the red centre, Mparntwe (Alice Springs) in 2016 surrounded by both excitement and serious cultural controversy.
This year will see the Northern Territory’s Parrtjima event in its third succession, not only with light installations across the land but also a full line-up of emersion art, sculptures, film, an interactive children’s space, a knowledge program, artist talks, live music from local and interstate musicians and other events that cement both a cultural and magical experience.
The McDonnell Ranges of Mparntwe loom large as the backdrop for this visually inspiring festival, that’s full of vivid and contrasting colour and is essentially used to highlight the enduring culture of the land as entrusted to the Traditional Owner tribe of the Arrernte.
The concept is glorious; ‘the only authentic Aboriginal light show of its kind in the world’, produced by various First Nations artists descending from the Mparntwe region and surrounds.
Curated by renowned Indigenous creative director Rhoda Roberts, Parrtjima has always involved staunch community consultation with a number of different groups and individuals that has proved vital and paramount to the festival’s continuing success.
"As a Widjabul woman, what excites me most about Parrtjima (from Arrernte dialects) is the essence of the event," she told NITV.
"It’s all about shedding light and understanding through the elements of our wisdom keepers, knowledge holders and custodians that is steeped in a spiritually that ensures the tangible and intangible of our people elements are explored, shared and witnessed.
"It's that deeper understanding that is weaved through the stories the songlines and the landscape that connects us all as Australians."
The local custodians of the region; the Arrernte, have in previous years been divided as to the appropriateness of the festival on sacred land.
The grand-scale event has polarised community; many feeling that sites of sacred significance should be left just that way— sacred. Yet this ‘festival in light’ has also seen strong support from Traditional Owner members who feel it highlights the in-depth beauty of the land and is a type of education to the world of Arrernte culture and its on-going significance to its people and in looking after the country.
“The most important thing for us is to keep passing on our culture to the coming generations. Parrtjima helps us show the world that this is Arrernte country and how beautiful it is,” Benedict Kngwarraye Stevens, Traditional Owner Apmereke-artweye of Mparntwe said prior to last years' festival.
“Parrtjima shows people that the country is alive, so that visitors and all non-Arrernte people who live here can have deeper respect for it, and start to see how much it means to us. We want people to understand that it has always been a part of us.
Parrtjima helps our young people stand tall in front of the world to say, ‘This is our country, this is our art, and this is our culture— and it is good
“Parrtjima helps our young people stand tall in front of the world to say, ‘This is our country, this is our art, and this is our culture— and it is good,” he said.
The sacred creation stories of the Arrernte and surrounding tribes are ancient, yet still live today. The Arrernte hold the deep understanding of the spirit of a site or place (the energy of something); this is evident in their internationally sought-after art, in their ceremonies, songs, dances and languages. They possess a deep awareness that this energy can change, but is never dead.
"[Being] under the stars in the heart of the nation, is like no other. It makes you feel the belonging," Roberts said.
Finding the balance between respect for the land and culture (in a practical sense) and using this ‘festival in light’ to essentially highlight and celebrate culture has proved intricately complex for all involved.
Despite the controversy, this stunning light show has also captured the imaginations of many— both national and international —as it has marked a sense of awe and gratitude within the hearts of those who have visited, for both the beauty and magnitude of the Australian dessert and its First Peoples; their culture of care for the land.
Parrtjima has allowed visitors an opportunity to connect to the vast expanse of land in this region, ‘the heart’ of this continent and its deep energy. And the 2018 festival is no exception with a new ‘two-kilometre light show’ being launched against a ‘300 million-year-old natural canvas’, as derived from the ancient MacDonnell Ranges.
This year also sees a new section added to the Parrtjima landscape; Todd Mall in the Alice Springs CBD will also display light installations and artworks throughout the 10-day festival. The crux of the event, however, takes place at the Alice Springs Dessert Park, where the MacDonnell Ranges are lit up in a luminous display of light contrasting against a star-filled night sky.
Over twenty artists from the Arrernte and surrounding regions as well as the Central Dessert are involved this year including Sarah Morton, Stacey Davis, Kelly Dixon, Benedict Kngwarraye Stevens, June Smith, Evelyn Young, Peter Peltharre Wallace, Susan Chalmers Mbitjana, Samuel Miller, Graham Wilfred Jr, Lillian Inkamala, Pamela Lalara, Caroline Bohning, Andrick Ross, Lindy Brodie, Susannah Nelson, Jessie Peterson, Carol Beasley, Rachel Wallace, Ursula Napangardi Marks, Ruth Fatt, Myra Patrick Herbert, Susie Lane, Keturah Zimran, Kathy Inkamala, Mervyn Rubuntja and Patricia Ansell Dodds.
An array of soft earthy palates combined with the bold colours of contrast offered in nature will light up the land in a magical way, whether highlighting a symbolic piece that pertains to a creation story of immense significance or simply showcasing the natural elements of country. There’s no doubt that anyone can deny this annual event’s uniqueness nor its vital importance in contributing to the on-going healing of our nation.
Parrtjima: A Festival in Light in Mparntwe Alice Springs runs 28 Sept – 7 Oct 2018.
Kate L. Munro is a Gamilaroi journalist, specialising in the Aboriginal arts sector.
All photography by Rhett Hammerton ©