Glowing artworks in the desert are certainly the drawcard of the 10-night festival Parrtjima (pronounced “par-chee-ma”, meaning “lighting up”). Its backdrop is the spectacular 300-million-year-old Yeperenye (MacDonnell Ranges), which are illuminated by a two-kilometre stretch of light installations. But the evolving sideshows of music, film and food are becoming an equivalent beacon for visitors.

“Dan Sultan, BARKAA, King Stingray – to name a few – are some of the artists we’re going to be celebrating,” says curator Rhoda Roberts. “You can attend a concert, do a workshop, see a film – it’s more than just a light festival.”

It’s the fifth year Roberts has been involved in the festival, which this year includes workshops by social enterprise House of Darwin and fashion and textiles powerhouse Nina Fitzgerald.

“I think the workshops show an almost groundswell, a renaissance, occurring among our younger generation,” says Roberts. “The House of Darwin do so many projects across communities, but they’re also showing a new way of expressing culture.”

House of Darwin’s founder Shaun Edwards, a former AFL player and Larrakia man, leads the screen-printing workshops with Kakadu, Torres Strait Islander and Wuthathi woman Fitzgerald. Another workshop is earring painting with Zoe Fitzpatrick, a Yanyuwa and Garrawa woman from Borroloola and Alice Springs. “Every second person I see is wearing those earrings,” says Roberts, laughing.

Everything is free to attend but, as the curator tells us, the workshops are popular and can book out in advance. Others include pottery, healing through digital storytelling and a beats-making workshop with rapper, drummer and music composer Dobby.

There’s also a food demonstration by Rayleen Brown, a Ngangiwumirr and Eastern Arrernte woman and founder of Kungkas Can Cook. She’ll be sharing bush food knowledge derived from thousands of years of sustainability experience. “Aunty Rayleen Brown would have to be one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met about the continuance of foods, particularly superfoods, where they grow and how you can process them.

“She focuses on foods that are significant to central Australia … not just seeds, but birdlife and mussels. She’ll demonstrate how you harvest them, then there’ll be tasting plates so people can get a feel for the flavour and textures.”

An intimate talks program includes discussions with well-known artists about their community work, not just the music or screen careers we might know them for.

“A lot of people might not realise, but Dan [Sultan] is very involved with the International Ranger Federation through The Thin Green Line,” says Roberts. “He recently went to Africa with a number of Aboriginal rangers who met with the Maasai rangers to see how they’re rejuvenating Country.”

And a retrospective of filmmaker Warwick Thornton includes screenings of We Don’t Need a Map (2018) and The Darkside (2013), but also his documentaries and cinematography work.

“It’s extraordinary when you look at the number of films that Warwick Thornton has undertaken, whether as a cinematographer, director, writer or producer, right across the wealth of genres from documentaries to feature films,” she says. “But Warwick comes from an incredible dynasty, and we really wanted to celebrate that as well. His mother, Freda Glynn, was one of the co-founders of CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association in Alice Springs, where people like Rachel Perkins cut their teeth making stories and journalism.”

Thornton’s daughter, Rona Glynn-McDonald, is the CEO of not-for-profit Common Ground and she’ll be at Parrtjima to talk about her series of sleep stories by First Nations storytellers, along with Dakota Feirer and transdisciplinary artist Carmen Glynn-Braun (also related to Thornton). “This dynasty that’s created stories relevant to all Australians needs to be celebrated,” Roberts says.

The nightly light installations, which run till 10.15pm, are accompanied by an audio soundscape. The theme, Sky Country, takes you through songlines relating to the way people survived in the desert for decades, one of which is about the Aboriginal connections to the budgerigar.

“Most Australians think of a budgerigar in a cage, but for Aboriginal people the budgerigar is an incredible Dreaming story, as they are seen as water-finders. When there’s been a drought and the rains start to come, you’ll see an extraordinary flock of budgerigars go to a tree that doesn’t have many leaves on it – all of a sudden it’s like the tree’s grown green because of the blue and green of the budgerigar. They’re indicating there’s water near those trees.

“We wanted to show, through the installations, that the story is really about reading the sky, so if you’re stuck you know how to find water. They’re an essential part of that story of place,” explains Roberts. “The uniqueness of it is that it’s in the middle of the desert, the heart of Australia. It’s quite extraordinary to actually shine a light on the continuance and transmission of art and culture that’s so relevant to the stories of Mparntwe and that Country.”

Parrtjima runs from April 8 to 17 in Alice Springs. It’s free to attend.