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From the numinous beauty of ancient Aboriginal rock etchings to the bold shapes and intricate patterns of lino prints from the Torres Strait, Queensland’s Indigenous peoples have long weaved traditional narratives into their work to create powerful pieces of visual storytelling that transcend time and place.
Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in the state’s Indigenous art scene.
And, if you’re looking for more Indigenous experiences in Queensland, check out this eBook: Connect with Culture.
1. DISCOVER THE ORIGINAL ROCK STARS
Quinkan Country, about 200km north west of Cairns, is home to some of the oldest artwork on the planet. It’s a pretty awe-inspiring experience to stand in front of something made by another human that’s over 15,000 years old, so prepare for your mind to be officially blown.
We recommend basing yourself in the nearby town of Laura, but to get out to the sites you’ll need to sign up for a tour. Jarramali Rock Art 4WD Tours offer regular day trips out to explore the sandstone escarpments and ancient sites with a local Kuku Yulanji guide.
Further south, there are more ancient artworks to be found west of Gladstone in the spectacular Carnarvon Gorge. Art Gallery and Cathedral Cave are two of the most famous sites, where the sandstone walls are adorned with thousands of fragile ochre stencils, thought to be over 3650 years old. Each is a 4-6 hour round trip over occasionally challenging terrain, so you’ll need to have moderate fitness levels to take on this challenge.
2. GET A CULTURAL EDUCATION AT QAGOMA
If contemporary art is your jam, you’ll want to set aside some time to explore the national galleries in Brisbane’s buzzing cultural precinct. Spend an hour (or five) immersing yourself in QAGOMA’s impressive Indigenous Australian Collection as well as its unrivalled collection of Torres Strait Islander art.
If you’re an Albert Namatjira fan, don’t miss the Namatjira Story exhibition, a showcase of the celebrated Aboriginal artist’s early landscapes. You can also view works by the countless artists he influenced, including artists from the Arrernte landscape painting tradition, the Hermannsburg Potters and his great-grandson, Vincent Namatjira.
3. EXPERIENCE CONTEMPORARY ABORIGINAL ART AT HENDERSON GALLERY
Craving culture with a side order of coffee? The heady aroma of Birrang Coffee (the Wiradjuri word for ‘journey to another place’) in Henderson Gallery is an otherworldly experience in itself.
Nestled away on Ernest Street, just a few minutes’ walk from South Bank’s main drag, Henderson Gallery is the brainchild of First Nations artist and curator Rob Henderson, a Wiradjuri man. Rob describes his beautiful, often haunting works as narratives which tell difficult stories and explore First Nations’ contemporary and historic presence. It’s a potent mix.
While the focus is on providing a platform for First Nations and emerging artists, this hip art space also offers weekend social art classes with Rob and fellow Aboriginal artist Wayne Weaver. If you fancy yourself as a budding artist, BYO wine and get schooled under the tutelage of some of Brisbane’s most talented Indigenous artists.
Tip: Get there in time for brekkie and treat yourself to a Birrang Big Breakfast – the thick cut hickory bacon is a house special.
4. HIT THE CAIRNS GALLERY TRAIL
Home to a plethora of contemporary galleries and arts centres, Cairns is the undisputed queen of Queensland’s Indigenous art scene. And while there’s plenty happening year round, serious art fans should time their trip to coincide with the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, a ground-breaking three-day event which takes place each July.
Thrumming with Indigenous artists, dancers, and performers, this is the quintessential celebration of the visual and performing art of Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and one of the hottest tickets on the Aussie art calendar.
While in town, make your next stop the outskirts of the CBD, where inside a traditional Queenslander on Sheridan Street is UMI Arts. This lively arts hub features three galleries and a retail shop selling authentic, locally-sourced arts and crafts.
Next, wind your way down to the Canopy Arts Centre where paintings, sculptures, and weavings are showcased alongside Australia’s largest collection of ‘ghost net’ art, created from abandoned fishing nets.
Make the Cairns Regional Gallery in the heart of the city your final stop. The spectacular heritage-listed building is an homage to Australia’s Indigenous art, craft and design and features a mix of contemporary and ancient pieces with a distinct Pacific Rim influence.
5. CHANNEL YOUR INNER ARTIST AT JANBAL GALLERY
Famous for the ruggedly beautiful Mossman Gorge, the picturesque township of Mossman is also home to the Janbal Gallery, where you can pop in to browse or buy authentic Aboriginal artwork by artist-owner Brian ‘Binna’ Swindley.
A Kuku Yalanji man from the east rainforest and coastline, Binna takes his inspiration from the natural world – you’ll often see motifs from nature in his pieces, from seeds and shells through to the kurranji (cassowary) – a famously elusive rainforest bird native to Tropical North Queensland.
For those who prefer a more hands-on approach to art appreciation, Binna also runs intimate art classes where visitors can learn traditional Aboriginal painting techniques and take home a self-painted match box bean souvenir.
6. SEE PAST AND PRESENT CONVERGE IN THE TORRES STRAIT
The Torres Strait’s colourful reefs and coral cays have long been a source of inspiration for artists that hail from the tropical island archipelago. If you’re making the journey up to the Strait, a trip to the Gab Titui Cultural Centre should be top of your must-do list. Housing two galleries, the centre showcases a mix of ancient artefacts and contemporary art, masks, headdresses and more. If you’re in the market for an authentic souvenir, there’s a high chance you’ll stumble upon something unique in the ethically-sourced gallery shop – so make sure you leave plenty of room in your suitcase.
Psst! Here are 7 bucket-list-worthy things to add to your Torres Strait itinerary.
7. DISCOVER LARGER-THAN-LIFE DREAMTIME STORIES
Stumble off the beaten track to the remote Outback Queensland towns of Bedourie, Betoota, and Birdsville to encounter the ‘Sand, Dust and Gibbers’ contemporary art project (‘gibber’ is the Aboriginal word for stone.) These three breathtaking large-scale sculptures tell women’s Dreamtime stories that will make you stop in your tracks.
Gibbers can be found at Deon’s Lookout, Birdsville, and depicts the Dreamtime Serpent travelling on Mithika Country and making pathways connecting the river systems. The Dust sculpture in Bedourie represents the dust storm and whirly winds (a way that the spirits travelled), while Sandhills in Birdsville reimagines the serpent as the Diamantina and Georgina Rivers with the sandhills in between.