Since 2016 when it kicked off, the light festival Parrtjima has become a cultural icon in Mbantwa, where so much else seems uncultured. “Every year it builds upon its own excitement”, claims says Paul Ah Chee, an Arrernte TO and director of NT Major Events which organises the festival. Ah Chee works with other Traditional Owners and curator Rhoda Roberts to ensure the free, 10-night festival is culturally appropriate, assisted by creative producers AGB Events.

Ever since its inception, it has been a First Nations-led festival – essential because of its siting on heavily storied sites outside Alice Springs. And that is more important than ever this year, as we move towards a referendum for the Voice to Parliament. To mark that moment, this year’s theme is ‘Listening with Heart’, taking its cue from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, embodying the Makarrata concept of coming together to celebrate, reflect and heal.

Ah Chee explains: “We have the perfect storm of high interest rates, inflation and antisocial issues being highlighted in Central Australia; it is a very interesting period of time, but I believe that Australians are ready for something like the Voice. Parrtjima proves it is possible”.

Ah Chee describes Parrtjima as a celebration, adding that the 2023 program of large-scale light installations, music, talks and workshops is “going to be really powerful”.

As a musician, he joins the program himself this year with the release of a new song, Morning Star, not unrelated to the festival’s Easter holidays timing. Ah Chee adds: “The song is about a big crater, Gosses Bluff, which was created when a meteorite hit the earth. In Aboriginal mythology, the women were dancing up on the Milky Way and put their coolamon and baby on the edge. But the baby fell to Earth, bringing life”.

Performing under the big, open, starry skies of the Central Desert, Ah Chee joins other musical artists (in alphabetical order): Andrew Gurruwiwi Band, Docker River Band, Eastern Reggae Band, Emily Wurramara, JK-47, KAIIT, Karnage n Darknis, Radical Son, Richard J Frankland, Rowdy Birds and The Merindas.

At the heart of this year’s event, Maruku artist Rene Kulitja is working with other artists from Mutitjulu to turn her artwork which surrounds the original Statement from the Heart – ‘Uluru-Ku Tjukurrpa (The Uluru Story)’ – into a large-scale light and sound installation. Along with the famous Tjoritja/MacDonnell Ranges lightshow, which uses the Ranges as a natural canvas, and ‘Grounded’, which transforms Aboriginal artworks into an animated sequence projected on to the red sand of Alice Springs Desert Park, the Statement from the Heart installation will immerse visitors in light, art and the storytelling spirit.

And for those who have read about the social issues in Alice Springs in the media recently, Ah Chee has this message: “There are measures in place. It was at a peak at the time, which has now settled. If anyone is thinking of coming, they should know that it is as safe as anywhere. Actually, it is a great family event”.

Parrtjima opens with the ‘Calling Country’ ceremony on Friday 7 April – a traditional Arrernte welcome. Songmen, local youths and elders join esteemed guests to call Country and open Parrtjima—A Festival in Light for its eighth year.