After dark in the central Australian desert, pillars of light pierce the black sky. You can see Alice Springs Desert Park from miles around as hundreds of people assemble to reconnect with the land. People lie in the dirt and take selfies. Kids pick up fistfuls of red sand in their palms and let it run through their fingers back to the ground, as their parents stand agape at the MacDonnell Ranges.
Everything here is bathed in vivid projections: traditional Arrernte art has been translated into state-of-the-art light installations. This is Parrtjima, a 10-day festival held annually in Alice Springs. It’s a red dirt Vivid. It’s also an event that couldn’t happen in a big city. Billed as a “festival in light”, it’s about connecting people to the ancient stories of the traditional owners of the land, the Arrernte people.
When I visited the festival last year, I was given access to a culture that often seems mysterious to outsiders. “Our stories have layers,” read a sign in the park’s gathering space. “Public layers and layers you can only know if you are the right person.”
“The culture is so invitational,” says Rhoda Roberts, the festival’s creative curator. “Arrernte people want outsiders to have these experiences, and to see how they think and feel about country.
“I think people are becoming more aware of that,” she says. “How important land is.”
Not too long ago, artwork was made straight onto the ground using pulped wildflowers as a medium. Paint and canvas might be a 20th-century innovation for Indigenous artists, but the subjects remain the same.
This year’s festival, which will take place between April 5 and 14, is themed around language and communication. The light installations are the spectacular centrepiece, but there’s also a program of music (headlined by Baker Boy) and art, and a “knowledge program” run by local knowledge holders, including workshops, films and discussions. The town becomes a hub of learning and art. Over the few days I was there, I sat down for lunch with elders, met artists and learned (pretty unsuccessfully) how to weave baskets.
I was struck by the level of community engagement. That’s thanks in large part to Roberts, who has been involved with the festival for three years. Roberts is a Bundjalung woman from northern New South Wales, so she isn’t from around here – in Aboriginal terms, it’s several countries away – but she’s spent years working with the community to develop ways of sharing Arrernte knowledge with outsiders.
“When you’re working in the Aboriginal sector, if you don’t come from that particular country it can be hard,” she tells me. “It’s taken a while, because you have to gain people’s trust. Not everything can be shared with the public. For them to share that and give us their blessings, and to be involved in the making of the work as well, it’s pretty significant.”
Traditionally, there’s no shortcut to understanding Arrernte culture. Roberts tells me there’s no word for “visitor” in Arrernte. There’s no direct translation for “goodbye” either – only “kele”, which is more like “see you later”. Short interviews and Q&A sessions are anathema here, as is offering short explanations. Many artists are clearly resistant to public speaking, and Roberts respects that, but she also brings the best out of everyone.
This year she’s excited that the community is getting even more engaged. For example, members of the Arrernte community have written a script explaining Country and the kinship system to accompany this year’s projection onto a two-kilometre stretch of the MacDonnell Ranges.
Seven Indigenous artists from central Australia have also created a seamless canvas of light to be projected onto the red sands of the Desert Park, and men of the neighbouring Titjikala community have been creating a series of huge horse sculptures, reflecting the regional history of Indigenous stockmen. Roberts is particularly excited about this one.
“It’s been amazing,” she says. “There’s not a lot of employment out there, and the men have been lining up at eight in the morning to work on these sculptures. That’s truly what this festival is about.”
The Desert Park is where it all comes together. This year, visitors can catch sets from Baker Boy, Mojo Juju and Frank Yamma while local mob cruise around in golf buggies and kids explore an inflatable maze designed by Nyrippi artist Valerie Morris Napurrula.
“Most of the old people say that every Australian should know this stuff,” says Roberts. “If we lived in the old ways, we would. If you were born on country, then that’s your dreaming. But it didn’t happen like that. So now’s our time to get an entry into this world. It’s your world as well.”
It’s well worth travelling and getting your hands in the dirt.
Parrtjima runs from April 5 to 14 in Alice Springs.