On 28th July the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair hosted a magical breakfast in honour of Thancoupie, the beloved elder artist from Cape York who had passed away in 2011. As inaugural patron of CIAF alongside the Governor of Queensland, in that role she had represented the remote communities of the Cape as well as the Traditional Communities of Queensland. Thancoupie was to hold that prestigious position until her death.

This role has been amended this year – the Governor, the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC, now holds this position of Patron alone as he wished, but in the spirit of true grit, the gently spoken but formidably erudite Yidinji Traditional Owner, Henrietta Marrie (nee Fourmille) now takes the stage for all Welcome to Country moments at all events, including the Thancoupie Bursary breakfast. She praised Thancoupie’s art, her vision for young people, her spiritual nature and through her community reconciliation work, her generous understanding of the human frailties we all share.

When Thancoupie’s public sculpture commission for Cairns’ Port Garden, now called The Green, was first discussed between Arts Queensland, Kick Arts Cairns and Thancoupie, Henrietta revealed that prior to accepting the commission, Thancoupie went to the leaders of the Yidinji people and courteously asked, May I put my sculpture on your land? – she had been the only artist to ever have done that. It was traditional courtesy and law – and they had agreed. Henrietta spoke of Thancoupie’s indelible presence in the far north especially in Cairns, and at the time of CIAF.

As Thancoupie’s Bursary Patron, Leneen Forde AC, awarded the inaugural art bursary in her name to Paul Bong, a Yidinji artist from Babinda, south of Cairns. He will continue his exploration of art printing with master printer Theo Tremblay in the Canopy Art Centre in Cairns, and will also travel to his exhibitions elsewhere to widen his understanding of the wider art community and the expectations of galleries and public institutions.

Thancoupie had a long history of mentoring Paul Bong during her time in Cairns, encouraging him to learn about Yidinji law and imagery from his uncle Stewart Bong, and combining with them on public art works for the Brisbane international airport in the mid 1990s.

The Bursary event was held in the open, near the sculpture and as rain lifted miraculously and those magical Cairns clouds let the early morning sunlight shafts into the garden, all the VIPs present and all the hopeful artists were touched. It seemed a totally good omen for CIAF’s coming events.

Having been advised of budgetary cuts this year it was astounding that a festival of joy and depth seemed so effortlessly achieved.

At first it might have seemed as though only the dedicated pros were aware of the significance and fun that can be had in Cairns at CIAF. Curators abounded: Judith Ryan respected veteran curator and writer from NGV, Avril Quaill, former Director of CIAF, Francesca Cubillo, NGA Senior Curator. Djon Mundine’s stellar touring exploration of Bungaree, developed through Mosman Art Gallery in Sydney, was set up in the appropriately moody Tanks space (the former site of the whole fair and similar to its mounting on Mosman’s Middle Head) and proved a major achievement for this veteran Art or rather uber curator.

CIAF offers wonderful TSI cultural moments as well as Aboriginal – through dance and art from the island communities that was both high-end and market stall inexpensive. It is a chance to just holiday too amongst friends. Although the commercial dealers were not too readily seen, Beverly Knight of Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery was supporting the event as well as Simon Chan of Art Atrium in Bondi Junction, Sydney – both on the group tour arranged by Hetti Perkins, this year’s guest curator of the CIAF art Exhibition (with Artistic Director, Janina Harding).

The Official opening concert boasted a full lineup of performers and a huge crowd was packed onto the lawns of the park. Many were seated, others stood to cheer, dance, and generally move with their emotions as dance groups took their positions at the front. Huge screens on either side gave all a good view.

The front bench- that turned up augers well for future funds -the Queensland Governor himself, and the Premier and Arts Minister, Annastacia Palaszczuk, George Brandis, controversial Federal government Arts Minister, and a number of other officials including the Cairns Mayor, whose Council’s support this year had been crucial. And of course, the man I was waiting for – Archie Roach, singing better (if possible) than ever before – drew an ovation.

Those hanging on the words of our leaders in straightened times heard the Premier’s promise of 4-year funding, and the Federal Arts Minister’s praise for remote Community Arts Centres as the best story in Australian art.

The CIAF Exhibition, held in Cairns Port Wharf 2, was called, Wabu Minjann (Coming Together to Share). And the emphasis this year had shifted from dealers to artists and art centres. The curators selected and invited a number of solo artists to exhibit – most self-managing, and including the omni-present Arone Meeks, Clinton Nain (with excellent abstract paintings, much softer than his past works for Gene Shermann’s in Sydney), Jack Jans and others. Works also came from remote Indigenous art centres Hopevale, Lockhart River, Aurukun, Yarrabah, Badu, Girringun, Pormpuraaw, Mornington Island and Erub. These combined displays concentrating on the best or most interesting work.

Canopy Arts, included as an art centre, showed an outstanding group of prints by Paul Bong, along with TSI artists who have a flair for printmaking. In fact it is good to see strong print work made possible in Cairns given the print workshop associated with Kick Arts has closed. Elsewhere a delicate basketry of pastel hues stood out, a surprising gentle craft presence, and new fabrics and ceramics were abundant. Some visitors were overheard as saying there might be a little too much “undisciplined splash” amongst the paintings, but after all that’s North Queensland “ exuberant and colour-filled.

Whatever transpires, it is clear Cairns people love this show and the present management deserves huge praise for pulling it off. The artistic director Janina Harding , sister of both renowned Melbourne artist, Destiny Deacon and CIAF exhibiting artist, Clinton Nain, held the reins but also let the festival have its head and rip. This TSI and Aboriginal family from Melbourne was actually based in Cairns originally, and no doubt after this, some will be returning.

At the end of the concert Archie sang ‘Took the Children Away’. Hearts stopped dead with the emotions raised by his deep water-velvety resonance – an extraordinary singer who melts crowds as Gurrumul can. With Christine Anu taking partnership in this familiar and much-loved duet, it was a moving climax – the fireworks came later.

Url: http://ciaf.com.au/