December 6, 2021

Aboriginal light festival

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Australia’s Aboriginal light festival illuminates a 300 million-year-old canvas


One canvas, two kilometres (1.2 miles) long, 300 million years old.

The first Aboriginal light festival of its kind in the world, Parrtjima, is back for another year. It’s an annual, free, ten-night festival celebrating Arrernte (Central Australian) art and culture, held in Mparntwe (Alice Springs, Australia) from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1.

Numerous large-scale light works are being switched on every night, including a highly ambitious illumination of the epic MacDonnell Ranges.

The work, titled, The Heartbeat of Elements of Country (Apmere Ahelhe Itethe [All Country is Alive]), takes over two kilometres of the 300-million-year-old range with a six minute theatrical light display and original audio featuring voice recordings of senior Arrernte people.

Parrtjima curator and First Nations creative director Rhoda Roberts OA worked closely with Aboriginal artists across the desert region, art centres, and a network of respected Arrernte persons to collate the final program.

“Parrtjima shows people that the country is alive, so that visitors and all the non-Arrernte people who live here can have deeper respect for it, and start to see how much it means to us,” says significant traditional owner (Apmereke-artweye of Mparntwe) and festival participant Benedict Kngwarraye Stevens.

“We want people to understand that it has always been a part of us. Parrtjima helps our young people stand tall in front of the world to say, ‘This is our country, this is our art, and this is our culture — and it is good’.”

The event name Parrtjima (pronounced Par-CHEE-ma) comes from the Arrernte group of languages. In Central and Eastern Arrernte, apateme means “to have trouble understanding something” and pwarrtyeme means “to shine” — so together, the event name means both the shedding light and the act of understanding something.

Right in front of the Ranges lies the rest of the festival, in the Alice Springs Desert Park. There’s a returning showcase called Grounded (Apmere Melangke [There’s No Place Like Home]), featuring giant ground projections from Ikuntji artists Eunice Napanangka Jack and Gordon Butcher, and Arrernte artists Patricia Ansell Dodds, Carol Turner and Greg McAdam, and Lindy Brodie from Barkly Regional Arts.

There’s also a new project called Medicine Space (Awelya-akerte Apmere [Medicine Country]), a light and sound installation featuring the work of the Artists of Ampilatwatja group: Michelle Pula Holmes, Julieanne Ngwarraye Morton and Kathleen Nanima Rambler.

Festivals like Parrtjima are more important than ever in countries like Australia, where a connection to country has a complicated history.

“The most important thing for us is to keep passing on our culture to the coming generations. Parrtjima helps us show the world that this is Arrernte country and how beautiful it is,” says Kngwarraye Stevens.

Parrtjima runs Sept. 22 to Oct. 1 in Alice Springs, Australia.


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