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The fine art of travelling the Red Centre

A journey on the arts trail in and around the Red Centre is a window into a world of spirituality, connections to country and the Dreamtime.

There are more than 100 community art galleries, museums and keeping places across the Northern Territory that are home to incredible examples of indigenous art and craft and none more prolific than the Red Centre. In fact, it would be safe to say that Alice Springs hasn’t traditionally been considered a Mecca for culture vultures, yet at the heart of any Alice Springs adventure is a tapestry of artistic talent that enriches the travelling experience.

The contemporary Aboriginal art movement originated in Papunya Tula in 1971, but the works were always sold through Alice Springs. Albert Namatjira (a ground-breaking indigenous artist and possibly Australia’s most famous) began painting his water colours in Hermannsburg – 130km from Alice Springs – in 1934. The authenticity of his interpretations of the flame coloured MacDonnell Ranges that border the town are unquestionable.

Here, nature and art vie for equal attention. It’s a spot where contemporary Aboriginal art is a thriving industry, yet the form is one of the oldest living art traditions in the world and a bucket-list item for any proud Aussie.

So, whether you’re a culture vulture or just looking for a special souvenir from your Central Australian holiday, we’ve handpicked a swag of galleries, experiences and events to help you add a little artistic flair to your Red Centre road trip.

Araluen Cultural Precinct, Alice Springs

From sub culture to pop culture, the Araluen Cultural Precinct is home to art and craft galleries and museums which help illustrate the development of modern day Alice Springs, as well as local indigenous dreaming stories.

  • Look out for: The centre recently acquired an iconic Central Australian landscape artwork by Sir Sidney Nolan – undoubtedly one of Australia’s leading artists of the 20th Century. Nolan visited Central Australia during his travels throughout Australia and while the exact site that inspired Central Australia No.2 is unknown, its layered composition clearly evokes the majesty of the MacDonnell Ranges in Nolan’s inimitable style.
  • Local flavour - The Ngurratjuta/Pmara Ntjarra Aboriginal Corporation purchased Albert Namatjira's Mount Hermannsburg in 1989, before lending it to the Araluen Arts Centre. The work has since been donated to help raise money for life-saving dialysis treatment for Aboriginal people living in remote desert communities… so it’s well worth checking out.

Explore the Alice Springs art scene

Alice Springs might be small in stature, but this outback town has a big reputation when it comes to indigenous art. A splattering of colourful privately owned art galleries and collectives – Mbantua Fine Art Gallery, Papunya Tula Artists, Yuba Napa Gallery and Studio, Ironwood Arts – in and around the town’s Todd Street Mall proudly display the works of some of Australia’s most successful and prominent Aboriginal artists.

Whether you’re browsing or buying, it’s so easy to while away the hours in this artsy-fartsy part of town.

  • Look out for: Venture further afield in and around Alice Springs to see artists at work and to meet the people behind the paintings. Tjanpi Desert Weavers, the Tangentyere Artists and the Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre are located a stone’s throw from town and worth a visit.
  • Local flavour: Stay at Vatu Sanctuary apartments, a speciality lodging just 2km from the CBD, which showcases the artworks of Gallery Gondwana. Four individually decorated apartments are custom designed to inspire, nurture and deepen your appreciation of being in the heart of Australia.

Desert Mob, Alice Springs

As Thomas Merton famously said, “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”; so if art is your weakness, time your Red Centre visit to coincide with Desert Mob in September. Not only will you see the cream of the crop when it comes to indigenous art, but you’ll see works from more than 31 Aboriginal art centres across Central Australia and be able to buy arts and crafts directly from the source.

  • Look out for: The Desert Mob Marketplace is a vibrant art market held on the Saturday of the Desert Mob weekend. If you’ve an eye for talent, you can pick up high quality art works for under $500 – it’s well worth the investment.
  • Local flavour: The town of Alice well and truly throws their arty weight behind Desert Mob, so keep an eye out of exhibitions or symposiums or even Desert Mob dancing – all of which feed off the main event and add a distinct local flavour.

Alice Springs Beanie Festival

When you think of the Red Centre you think red rocks, blue skies and warm days… so it might come as a bit of a shock to the system to learn there’s a festival totally dedicated to the humble beanie (and to keeping your noggin warm on a cool outback night).

The Alice Springs Beanie Festival is that sort of one-of-a-kind experience that you carry with you on your travels and tell others about. How could you not? Beanie Central, is a feast for the senses with thousands of knitted hats to try and the smoked kangaroo tail on the open fire is sure to get your taste buds twitching.

  • Look out for: Workshops that show you how to weave your own bewitching beanie… it also guarantees you’ll take a little piece of Central Australia with you on future travels.
  • Local flavour: Why not mingle with the locals and volunteer during the festival? You’ll join a team that produces the planet’s finest beanie celebration or if you’ve a touch of the craft about you, why not become a beanie maker and sell your fabulous headwear to the highest bidder.

Kathleen Buzzcott Art Studio in the West MacDonnell Ranges

You'll find the working studio of artist Kathleen Buzzcott nestled away on Arrernte Land in the scenic West MacDonnell Ranges, just 20km west of Alice Springs. Kathleen, a Pitajantjatjara woman of Scotish and English heritage, was born in Alice Springs. Her fine central desert dot painting style celebrates her connection to her indigenous heritage, and retells traditional song lines and her own personal stories of growing up and raising her family in the Central Australian desert.

  • Look out for: During the Royal visit to Uluru in 2014, Princess Kate (now the Duchess of Cambridge) was gifted one of Kathleen's unique Allegra-designed jewellery sets. Why not follow suit and indulge yourself with a royally well-deserved piece from Kathleen’s collections? They’re perfectly sized to pop in your travel bag.
  • Local flavour: Jump aboard one of Kathleen’s guided tours of her Simpson’s Gap property – they feature the sites of some of her most iconic pieces and give great context to the art.

Hermannsburg Historic Precinct

The Aboriginal settlement of Hermannsburg is an easy 90-minute drive from Alice Springs in the heart of Western Aranda country. This tiny town is a National Trust-listed historic precinct and is perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of acclaimed Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira. Namatjira created incredibly intense landscape watercolour paintings using Alice Springs and surrounds as his muse. Keep an eye out, you’ll recognise many of his landscapes on the Hermannsburg loop.

  • Look out for: The white washed buildings of the restored historic town and the popular Namatjira Gallery - featuring original artwork by the man himself and more recent watercolour landscape paintings that have been inspired by him – are must-dos in these parts.
  • Local flavour: Forget tea for two, pick yourself up a hand-made terracotta pot by the famous Hermannsburg Potters. You’ll find them on sale at the Kata Anga Tea Rooms in town alongside some of the best strudels you’ll find this side of the black stump.

The Ikuntji Art Commune of Haasts Bluff

Cradled between two desert mountain ranges, just four hours from Alice Springs, a trip to Haasts Bluff offers the chance to meet the indigenous Ikuntji artists who live, breathe and paint their surrounds from the comfort of their small not-for-profit studio and art gallery. The studio is the cultural hub of this small outback community and its artists draw inspiration from their ancestral stories and the beauty of the surrounding landscape, including the nearby MacDonnell Ranges.

  • Look out for: This community initially made waves in the art world with their printed T-shirts, before producing acrylic paintings on linen and handmade paper, so keep an eye out for these.
  • Local flavour: Ikuntji art is featured in major collections world-wide. In fact, their artists are known for their use of vibrant colours, so be sure to pick up a piece or two as a bold reminder of your trip to Australia’s heartland.

Maruku Arts at Uluru-Kata Tjuta Culture Centre

A visit to Uluru is just not complete without a side visit to the Maruku Arts Gallery and the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park Culture Centre. The sole purpose of this collective is to keep Aboriginal culture strong, and to make it accessible to visitors. The centre celebrates the art and culture from the Traditional Owners of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Lands of Central Australia and from more than 20 remote communities. When you buy handcrafted art from Maruku, you know that all proceeds are being returned to the thousand or so highly talented craftspeople that contribute to the gallery from the Central Desert Lands. It is pretty empowering knowing that you, in turn, are giving back to this incredible desert community by investing in ethical Aboriginal art.

  • Look out for: Walkatjara, also at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Culture Centre, displays Anangu culture through the paintings of the artists of Mutitjulu. You’ll see artists at work as they share their Tjukurpa stories through their creations.
  • Local flavour: Join one of the Aboriginal Cultural Workshops on offer at the Culture Centre and learn the art of organic dot painting with a local (and an assisting interpreter). It’s pretty crafty stuff.

Curtin Springs Paper Making Workshop

Nature is quite literally transformed in this part of the world… native grasses are cut, pulped and then they’re pressed to create a beautiful momento of Central Australia for folks passing through. Staff at historical Curtain Springs Station will step you through every process of the paper making process from cutting to ‘pulling’ paper so you can get a feel for how it’s done. They also run multi-day workshops – for those with time on their side and all are designed to help you create your own personalised souvenir of your trip.

  • Look out for: They’ve just launched their Artist-in-Residence program, so keep an eye out for a steady stream of talented maestros onsite.
  • Local flavour: When it comes to handmade paper, each piece an individual, distinctive and beautiful souvenir of Central Australia Showcasing the diversity of the desert landscape.
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