Centre of controversy

Contours of cultural recognition in a desert town

ALICE SPRINGS TOWN centre is surrounded by three prominent hills, each of them sacred to Central Arrernte people, the traditional owners of the area known as Mparntwe. All three hills have a place in this story. If you have visited Alice Springs, you have likely climbed or driven to the top of Atnelkentyarliweke (alternatively Untyeyetwelye) – known in English as Anzac Hill for its war memorial. From there you can see in every direction, across the rooftops of the town to the valleys and ranges beyond. The view is especially beautiful to the west, into the broad Larapinta Valley and up to the ranges that rise towards a peak known as Alhekulyele (Mount Gillen in English). It too is sacred, embodying the ancestral wild dog. It too has a place in this story about cultural recognition, aspired to but frequently foundering on ignorance and short-sightedness.

Let us start at the foot of one of the three hills, Akeyulerre (Billy Goat Hill in English). Its Arrernte name has become more widely known in town following its adoption by a unique organisation operating out of a small house there. It is a gathering and healing place for Arrernte families from in and around town. Activities are as simple as coming together for dinner. Large cauldrons of curry and spaghetti bolognese are cooked up in the tiny kitchen; kangaroo tails are roasted over hot coals out in the yard, which soon fills with dozens of family members, from the elderly to infants, and notably including teenage youths kicking a footy. More logistically challenging are the trips to country, on weekends and in school holidays, during which language and culture, including ecological knowledge, are passed on to young people. Some trips are dedicated to gathering plants that are used in traditional remedies. A small but enduring social enterprise generates income from the preparation and sale of this bush medicine. Senior women also earn fees for conducting smoking ceremonies for institutions like the hospital, for events like rallies remembering the stolen generations or protesting against domestic violence, and for private individuals – for instance, the occupants of a house where a death has occurred.

For years, Akeyulerre operated on the energy and goodwill of those involved, both Aboriginal and other Australians. In recent times it has patched together funding from government (mainly) and philanthropic sources, but as for many an Aboriginal organisation this is highly unstable. Independence is their long-term goal and they have taken steps towards this, securing a capital grant to buy both the property they have occupied from the start and the dilapidated house next door. From there they hope to operate a Living Culture Centre, where visitors, locals and tourists alike can, for a fee, learn about Arrernte culture and language from people for whom it is part of everyday life. At the time of writing, the organisation’s appeal for government support for the culture centre, including a submission to the Aboriginals Benefit Account, was languishing in Canberra, as it had been for many months.

The Akeyulerre properties are well situated for their proposed venture: they are surrounded by established tourist attractions such as the Reptile Centre and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and the sacred hill rising behind them provides a great starting point for communicating with visitors about Arrernte values held in the land. This fact points to something that is both painful and consoling: against the odds, many features of the Arrernte landscape have survived the incursion of the built town. The sites may be hemmed in, damaged, disrespected, the landscape’s wholeness disrupted and obscured, its ability to physically nourish its people largely broken, but it is still there.

This survival is partially recognised by the broader community, in that sacred sites are protected by legislation. Beyond compliance though, recognition is mostly grudging. If Arrernte ways of seeing the land were better understood, then Akeyulerre’s culture centre would have a better chance of getting off the ground. And if it did, Arrernte values held in the land would be better understood and have more chance of being respected. And so the circle goes.


ACROSS THE RIVER from Akeyulerre and a little to the south is the hill known as Tharrarltneme (Annie Meyer Hill). Apart from its protection by sacred sites legislation, the hill mostly falls within land reserved for the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. The foot of its western slope however is outside of this boundary, and it recently fell victim to the ignorance and arrogance of both the Northern Territory Government and the Alice Springs Town Council in their push to develop recreational infrastructure. Concrete walking and cycling paths were being constructed on both sides of the river, leading from the town’s south to the Telegraph Station Historical Reserve in the north. Sacred sites clearance was obtained for the path construction to continue around Tharrarltneme, under strict protective conditions, but when damage occurred in the winter of 2005 it came to a halt. The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) took the construction company (sadly, an Arrernte-owned entity) to court, with custodians giving evidence of their distress over the damage. They won the case and withdrew their consent for the construction to go ahead. So the path came to an abrupt end. Some continued to walk or cycle from the path along a goat track worn into the side of the hill, while others simply crossed the river causeway and continued on the other side.

Unfortunately for custodians, a footbridge across the drain north of Tharrarltneme was already in place. It became known as The Bridge to Nowhere, a laughing matter for some but a sore point for authorities. It could have been dismantled and used elsewhere easily enough, but the authorities were determined not to be stymied in their plans. A decade after the court case, they got the right kind of impetus from former chief minister Adam Giles, who put $825,000 on the table for construction of a boardwalk around the hill. While the surviving custodians who had given evidence to the court remained adamantly opposed to any further construction, others were found who gave their consent. How could this be? The distressed custodians say that these days the ‘right person’ to speak for country is the one who ticks the box. They say the structures created by the Native Title Act have provided a way around traditional laws and custodians’ rights and responsibilities. Native title, instead of ‘the laws of kin and skin’, is being used to provide a pool of people to talk to and to facilitate those outcomes government wants. To their anguish, other Aboriginal people are allowing themselves to be part of the divide-and-rule strategy.

Within half a year, the boardwalk was under construction. Previously, you could stand just north of Tharrarltneme and, looking along the river towards the gap in the ranges, the urban environment was all but invisible beyond the screen of sacred red river gums that grow in the mostly dry riverbed and on its banks. Now a gleaming boardwalk protrudes into the river, resting on scores of squat concrete pylons and sporting feature-balustrade panels in orange and yellow, supposedly relating to the colour of local wildflowers. (Yellow yes, but orange is a rare colour in the central Australian bush.)

‘I’m in mourning for my country,’ says Doris Kngwarraye Stuart, a senior custodian or, as she prefers, apmereke-artweye, for the site. It is a drawn-out grief. Another of Giles’s schemes was already in the early planning stages, a ‘festival of light’ involving the company responsible for Vivid Sydney. In the Centre the light projections would be onto the ancient storied landscape. The people from Vivid (AGB Events) were guided early to Doris Stuart, and from the beginning she expressed her firm opposition to any projection onto the ranges. She also put them right on the main stories of the Mparntwe landscape, with the ancestral caterpillars associated mostly with sites east of the river and the ancestral wild dog associated with much of the west side, including the peak of Alhekulyele. The original concept proposed multiple sites for projections, but in the end just one was chosen: the ranges rising above the Desert Park, close to Alhekulyele.

When it became clear that her best advice would be ignored, Stuart was publicly critical and the inaugural event was tainted by the resulting controversy. In an attempt to play catch-up, organisers opened the festival’s glossy program brochure with the sentence, ‘This is dog story country.’ Yet the projections onto the range depicted caterpillars, as did some of the installations on the ground. Although the festival claimed to ‘shed light’ in terms of understanding as well as in the physical sense – as suggested by its Arrernte name, Parrtjima – the cultural representation was a mishmash.

Stuart’s alienation does not mean that the organisers went forward without any Aboriginal input. Some well-respected artists of neighbouring Arrernte groups were involved and, according to the organisers, advice was taken from a number of Aboriginal organisations and individuals. For its second iteration, the festival appointed prominent Aboriginal curator Rhoda Roberts AO (Bundjalung people) and invested months of lead-in time working with a reference group including other apmereke-artweye. The resulting creative program paid greater attention to the Arrernte cultural order, world view and language.

In a recording, apmereke-artweye Benedict Kngwarraye Stevens welcomed audiences to the lightshow, first in Arrernte then in English: ‘This country always was and always will be part of the Arrernte people and we will always be part of it. It is living country, alive with songlines, kinship, language and law.’ A specially commissioned song, ‘Apmere Ahelhe Itethe’, meaning ‘all country is alive’, provided a compelling soundtrack for the projection, making it more convincingly a celebration of Arrernte culture on Arrernte country. The message of the song was the indivisibility of the two. Arrernte artists from Mparntwe and surrounding estates, Antulye and Irlpme, were commissioned to provide some of the ground installations, and artists from other homelands, ‘their paintings and their stories’, were explicitly welcomed by Stevens. There was also an accompanying ‘Knowledge Program’, a series of talks and question-and-answer sessions featuring a number of respected Arrernte individuals.

All this helped overcome to a degree Parrtjima’s character as a cultural import dressed up in local clothing, although the issue is not settled and may never be for the life of the festival (AGB Events are contracted to stage it annually until 2019). Doris Stuart remains implacably and outspokenly opposed: ‘It’s a sacred hill! We’re not allowed to climb up there! Who gives the people the right to shine a light on it when we can’t climb up there, just out of respect, for fear of what might happen to our generations afterwards?’

What is the answer from other apmereke-artweye when she says it is wrong to shine lights on the hill? ‘It’s just lights, hey, lighting up our country,’ says Stevens.

‘Sharing culture,’ says Felicity Hayes.


STUART THINKS SHARING can be done in a quiet way. Over the last nine years, for instance, she has hosted tours of Mparntwe’s sacred sites, in collaboration with and mainly for artists, and on more than one occasion has co-curated exhibitions developed out of this process whose foundation is respect. She sees the lightshow as profoundly disrespectful of the site. Stevens and Hayes come back with more flagrant examples of disrespect, such as the burning of sacred trees – rife in 2017 – and cannot see that the lights are doing any damage: ‘They’re just showing people about culture… People from around the world may be coming to see it, what Aboriginal people’s country is all about,’ says Hayes.

In 2017, the lightshow avoided explicit references to traditional stories, evoking elements of country and seasonal changes and general cultural strength, but in the accompanying Knowledge Program the range was frequently referred to as totemic caterpillar country. What do the other apmereke-artweye say about the dog story that Stuart insists is for the range? ‘That’s the end of it,’ says Stevens, referring to the peak of Alhekulyele. ‘We don’t talk about that. The lights weren’t shining towards the dog. [The lights were] in the middle. Us Elders have granted that permission. But not the dog end. She’s got different views.’

They would like Stuart to support the festival, and not just for the sake of unity. Hayes sees Parrtjima as a powerful antidote to prejudice and misunderstanding: ‘There are a lot of people who don’t know anything about Aboriginal people, they just come in and see us as [she searches for the words] bad people, drinkers, you know, bludgers, whatnot. That’s what we get labelled all the time, but we want to show what’s in us, what we are really as Aboriginal people. We don’t want people to see us as negative all the time. We want to show them that we got culture. We want to share it with the people.’


WILL THIS EMBRACE of a new packaging of their culture extend to another government-initiated project, a National Indigenous Art Gallery to be located in Alice Springs? A project mooted over many years, it is now the centrepiece of the territory government’s plans for Alice Springs, with a $50 million budget allocation promised for 2020–21. A steering committee was appointed in 2017, headed up by co-chairs Hetti Perkins and Philip Watkins. Both have family roots in central Australian Aboriginal communities and long-established careers in the visual arts. Perkins was the senior curator for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for thirteen years, and has been calling for a major standalone national Indigenous art space since her resignation from that position in 2011. Watkins is CEO of Desart, the support and advocacy body for central Australian Aboriginal art centres. He was formerly artistic and cultural director of Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.

The committee’s job was to hold initial consultations on a governance structure, the possible leveraging of private and government funding for the project (beyond the government’s pledge), possible locations, and to develop plans for future community consultations. After six months of deliberations, in late October 2017 they handed their draft report to government.

In a more-than-strange process, a committee member, the CEO of the NT Department of Tourism and Culture (not the co-chairs, not the minister), then announced public consultation on two possible locations for the gallery: one at the base of Atnelkentyarliweke, which would involve the relocation of a sports oval and stadium; the other at the Desert Park, at the foot of the ranges rising to Alhekulyele. The chief minister’s release that followed was noteworthy for making no mention of the cultural considerations regarding the possible sites, indeed no mention, other than the project’s name, of the cultures the gallery is intended to celebrate, or of Aboriginal people at all. Given Alice Springs’ declining population and stagnant economy, the gallery was now entirely framed as an economic and urban revitalisation project: the government’s vision was ‘to bring Alice Springs to life’; the gallery would ‘create hundreds of local construction and ongoing jobs and attract more visitors’. On its cultural purpose, at the time of writing, there had not been so much as a public information session or discussion paper to make possible any kind of informed comment. There was just this single sentence to go on: ‘The iconic National Indigenous Art Gallery will hold a globally significant Australia-wide art collection from the world’s oldest continuous culture under one roof in Alice Springs.’ Such a collection does not yet exist as property of the NT Government nor at its disposal, even if the government does have some foundational components, such as its collection of early Papunya boards, the largest and most important in the world, presently housed in Darwin.

Consulting the public on a possible site thus seems to be a preposterous case of cart before the horse in an ambitious and complex project, and it is hard to see how the results could count for much in the long run. Critically, while the steering committee has met with key local Aboriginal groups and individuals, formal consultations with Arrernte custodians about hosting such an institution on their country at the time of writing have not taken place. Having Arrernte people on board will be fundamental to the integrity of the project.

Doris Stuart, for one, is opposed to having it located anywhere on Mparntwe (where both of the proposed sites are): ‘You can’t scramble us all up as eggs, with everybody else’s paintings from everywhere else.’ For her, the line is drawn at the gap in the ranges, known as Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap). If the gallery goes ahead, it would have to be south of the gap ‘out of Mparntwe territory’, which is her job to protect.

In 2006, when she was one of the custodians giving evidence in court over the damage done to Tharrarltneme, she explained her position: You may think that what I’m saying means I’m against development or change, but I’m not. As a custodian of Mparntwe, along with my family, I have consulted with AAPA for many years to help manage the development of Alice Springs in the right way. That’s my responsibility to the present, to everyone and everything in Mparntwe today.

‘But it’s unfortunate that the town of Alice Springs sits right in the middle of Mparntwe. It makes it so difficult because we don’t have anywhere else to go. This is it for us. All that makes us who we are is in this country right here, not any other country. And so I have to take that responsibility very seriously, to make sure I’ve done the right thing by those people before me and by those people who come after me.’

No doubt Stuart’s message would be the same for the co-existing push, led by prominent local Aboriginal men Harold Furber and Owen Cole, for a national Aboriginal cultural centre in Alice Springs. The government is supporting this project with a $20 million pledge (again for 2020–21), and is funding the work of its steering committee, including visits to indigenous cultural centres overseas. It is considering the possibility of co-locating the centre with the gallery, although there was no reference to this during the public consultation about possible sites. Furber and Cole are insisting on Aboriginal leadership and control of the cultural centre and say the two projects should work together or in parallel. However, there seems little likelihood of the government handing over control to them or of them ceding control to the government.


MEANWHILE, THE SURVIVING anciently inscribed Arrernte cultural landscape is an Aboriginal cultural centre like no other. If Alice Springs and its elected representatives seriously want to make the case for national Indigenous cultural institutions to be located here, they could look to, in the immediate term, the care and protection of Mparntwe. It goes without saying that this involves working with its people, their language and culture, for all the delicacy and difficulty that may entail.


21 February 2018



Since the time of writing, the Northern Territory Government (Labor) has announced its preferred location for the National Indigenous Art Gallery in Alice Springs – at the foot of Atnelkentyarliweke or Anzac Hill. This site was not supported by the steering committee who proposed rather a location within the Desert Park, where the Parrtjima light show has been staged, at the foot of the Mount Gillen range.

The committee’s report was leaked to The Australian shortly before the government’s announcement, prompting the co-chairs of the committee, Hetti Perkins and Philip Watkins, to speak on the record for the first time, to me at the Alice Springs News Online.

In this interview they were restrained but frank in their criticism of the government’s process: for withholding the committee’s report from the public; and for the superficiality of its consultation, its exclusion of many Aboriginal people, its pitch to low expectations, and its emphasis on location at the expense of what they saw as greater priorities for this early stage. These were: further comprehensive consultation, above all with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, including obviously the Arrernte custodians of Alice Springs; and the development of a governance model with Indigenous people in the lead.

Later that week the government made its announcement and finally released the full report. They have remained embarrassingly silent on the inadequacies of the consultation, the conflict between the committee’s recommendation and their own choice, and the rebuff to the committee, including its Aboriginal co-chairs Perkins and Watkins. The project is now without Indigenous leadership, although the government is looking to recruit ‘highly experienced Aboriginal people’ to fill the roles of Project Director and Curator.

Meanwhile, the new South Australian Premier (Liberal) has made an election campaign promise to build a national Indigenous art gallery in Adelaide. This was met by ridiculous posturing from the NT Government, suggesting that SA wanted to ‘steal the project’.

Perkins is unfazed by the southern push: Indigenous arts, past and present, have the depth to sustain multiple institutions around the country, she says, and this has long been her view. However, since the government’s announcement of the Anzac Hill precinct site, she has told The Australian that her dream of the gallery in Alice Springs has ‘gone up in flames’ and she’ll be having ‘no further part in the process’.

Through all this the parallel national Indigenous cultural centre project has managed to maintain its community focus and recently held its first information sessions open to the Alice Springs public, reporting on the progress of earlier meetings and workshops involving Indigenous people, both local and from around the country.

The centre will tell ‘the national story from the beginning’, from an Indigenous perspective. The coming year will be devoted to building a national consensus for the project amongst Indigenous cultural organisations. A model of particular interest to the cultural centre’s committee, chaired by Harold Furber, is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Centre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, for the way its changing schedule of exhibits and events rotates amongst the different Pueblos. There is no such comparable institution in Australia, according to Furber, and we need one, especially for being able to talk truthfully about our history.

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