Unbeknownst to most coastal city dwellers, the Australian Central Desert is overrun with life.
The vast desert landscapes that seemed dry and baron to European settlers and pastoralists are a source of wealth to local Traditional Owners. This same abundance also rings true when it comes to the people, culture and the arts scene of the Red Centre.
The annual ‘Desert Mob’ Exhibition is one of the best kept secrets of the Australian art world. Since its establishment in 1991, hundreds of Aboriginal artists from all over the Central Desert, the APY Lands and the Top End have gathered in the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs to celebrate their culture, their art and their achievements.
The exhibition is a spectacle like no other. The explosion of colour and the vibrancy of the works can only be matched by the enthusiasm of the crowd. This year, there are over 250 artworks on display, including paintings, ceramics, works on paper, photography, sculpture and installations, by 236 artists from 31 art centres.
Art collectors and dealers in the know fly in from all corners of the world to get first dibs on pieces by outstanding traditional and contemporary Aboriginal artists. At the marketplace sale on day 3 of the event, people from all walks of life fight over thousands of bargains. Many cannot resist the temptation of stocking up with art. For some, biting the bullet and charging the credit card is easier than having to make a choice.
The unassuming superstars of the gathering are the artists themselves, whose works may sell for thousands of dollars overseas. But here you can see them chatting casually while sitting on the on the grounds of the Araluen Arts Centre, surrounded by scores of children, grandparents and supporters.
Some of the big names that can regularly be found amongst the crowds are internationally renowned carver, Billy Cooley, whose wooden snakes or punu have been exhibited in Shanghai; emerging multi-award winning contemporary artist Robert Fielding, who explores identity, feminism and sexuality through his photographic work; and veteran artist Rene Kulitja, who painted ‘Yananyi Dreaming’ on a Qantas plane in 2002, and represented Australia last year at the Venice Biennale, together with artist Fiona Hall and the Tjampi Desert Weavers.
Araluen Cultural Precinct Director Dr Mark Crees says “No other annual exhibition presents as clearly the shifting dynamic mix of traditional and contemporary art practice of Aboriginal artists from desert art centres.
At the symposium, Desart member art centres from the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia take centre stage to share new ideas and triumphs.
“Desert Mob is unique among Aboriginal art exhibitions with artists and their art centres selecting the artworks to be exhibited, rather than through a pre-selection process,” Crees says.
Desert Mob has become a nationally significant annual review of art from art centres across Australia’s desert lands. This year’s event launched on September 8 and will close September 10.