Catherine Keenan meets the indigenous curator helping put the final touches to the NGA’s new galleries.

The woman overseeing the opening of the largest permanent collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world is surprisingly calm.

As senior curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Australia, Franchesca Cubillo has worked with director Ron Radford and curator Tina Baum to parse the 7000-piece collection for the 600-odd items that will go on display in the new indigenous galleries in an 1100-square-metre extension to the NGA. She has commissioned new pieces and, in the background, is preparing for next year’s Second National Indigenous Art Triennial.

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The opening of the galleries is but weeks away when we meet, yet Cubillo acts as if she had all the time in the world. It’s hard to ruffle the feathers of someone who went through Cyclone Tracy when she was 10 (her family lost everything, and her mother relocated her four girls to Adelaide), and was curator of Australian ethnology at the South Australian Museum when it employed the two warring sides in the Hindmarsh affair.

There are few indigenous curators in Australia – about 16, including part-timers and those on contract – and like many of the senior ones, Cubillo, 46, didn’t come up through the art world. She started out with a degree in Aboriginal affairs administration, then travelled around Katherine, in the Northern Territory, teaching book-keeping skills. This exposure to remote communities, and the anthropology she did in her honours year, sharpened her interest in her cultural heritage. ”It was just amazing to see this depth of sophistication within indigenous culture that I hadn’t been exposed to previously,” she says.



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