10 May 2023

From clay to canvas: Cape York artist celebrates culture with traditional painting methods

| Samuel Davis
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Aurukun artist Heather Koowootha’s work is featured at NorthSite Contemporary Arts gallery in Cairns as part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.

TURNING rare earth into a breathtaking palette of colours is a process Aurukun artist Heather Koowootha has been refining for decades.

“I used to be a sticky beak as a kid,” she said, pointing to the vibrant hues in her paintings.

“When people ask me how I make these colours, I just think back to what the old people taught me.

“The blue comes from the ashes of a fireplace. You mix it with white ochre and it turns into that shade. You can get colours from the soil too and the yellow and black (mixed together) turns into green.”

Ms Koowootha is one of dozens of Cape York creatives who exhibited their works at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair last week, sharing their stories and culture with art lovers from across the country.

The theme of this year’s fair, Masters of Country, celebrated Queensland’s First Peoples’ innate connection with Indigenous plants and trees.

Lockhart River’s award-winning Kiwadji Wiimpa dance group served as the curtain closer to Cairns Indigenous Art Fair’s opening night at the Cairns Convention Centre.

But Ms Koowootha said her work also plays an important role in preserving her community’s culture.

“It’s part of our teaching for knowledge and wisdom,” she said. “It’s a need so we don’t lose everything. We have to protect it or we’ll lose it.

“We try to show everybody these things still exist and are not to be forgotten.”

Artists like Ms Koowootha are keeping culture strong in western Cape York, Aurukun mayor Keri Tamwoy said.

“Because we are visual people, this is how we tell our stories,” Cr Tamwoy said.

“It’s good that it’s showcased through art because then Australia and the rest of the world can understand more about our culture, our people and who we are.

“They’re telling our stories and I connect with them because it’s also my story that’s being told.

“Whether it’s the collecting of bush dyes, the weaving of the pandanus, the gathering of clay that we use for body paint – that’s what we’ve learned since childhood.

“The artist becomes the storykeeper and the storyteller, passing on this knowledge to the world and our next generation coming up.

“Art is an important form of expression and … and if we keep doing it we’re looking at brighter futures.”

Lockhart River’s Kiwadji Wiimpa dancers dazzled as mayor Wayne Butcher led the group through a series of traditional dancers before dignitaries and guests at Cairns Indigenous Art Fair’s opening night.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the CIAF’s five-day program provided an opportunity for guests to explore North Queensland’s rich artistic legacy.

“CIAF helps showcase the longest continuous living culture in the world, and it has been a privilege to see the art fair evolve over the past 13 years,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“From starting out as Australia’s first arts market featuring works of the First Nations peoples of Queensland, to navigating the pandemic online, and now resuming a comprehensive program of performing arts and children’s programs.

CIAF Chair, Tom Mosby said the 2022 program brings together artistic, social, and cultural experiences, while also creating vital economic opportunities for Queensland artists.

“CIAF is able to present the arts and cultures from some of the most isolated communities of Cape York and the Torres Strait in one setting,” Mr Mosby said.

The fair runs from July 6-10.

See next week’s Cape York Weeklyfor all the CIAF opening coverage.

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