Review: The breathtaking Parrtjima Festival lights up the red centre until October 1st

Touching down on the Alice Springs tarmac I know I’m in a special part of Australia. A town of over 25,000 people, the second largest town after Darwin in the Northern Territory and one largely influenced by its Indigenous culture. Straddling the usually dry Todd River and the Eastern and Western MacDonell Ranges, the town is often acknowledged as the red centre of Australia and it’s easy to see why.

Tonight is the start of the second annual Parrtjima Festival (pronounced Par-CHee-ma), which runs for ten nights starting on Friday 22nd September until Sunday 1st October from 6.30pm to 10.30pm every night. Parrtjima takes place at the Alice Springs Desert Park and entry is free! The festival suits any age and there is plenty for the kids to enjoy, it really does appeal from young adults to octogenarians and beyond.

I caught the free shuttle from town, which is a 17 minute ride to the festival. I arrive as the sun sets over the Western MacDonnell Ranges then the heat of a 38C day dies down to a mild 28C and darkness slowly ascends. A cool subtle breeze lingers in the air as I walk to the Festival Hub to grab a bite to eat, and as I walk in its direction I follow the gorgeous yellow lanterns lightening my way and enter the hub where the trees are illuminated in eery but stunning colours. I can smell the tantalising food. Curry, corn on the cob, fresh donuts, fish and chips and more. There are plenty of seats so I grab one, fill the stomach and then head in to experience the festival.

Parrtjima, meaning the shedding of both light and understanding on a subject, starts and under the great southern sky, the haunting chorale of singers from the Central Australian Aboriginal woman’s choir sing, and there is silence from the hundreds present as we all witness the beautiful sounds from the choir. A slight pause (Territorian time?!) and into the speeches by Northern Territory Major Events, Company Managing Director, Andrew Hopper thanking the choir and everyone involved.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner MLA said “We’re pleased to officially open Parrtjima 2017 and connect thousands of visitors from around the Territory and the world with a truly unique experience of Aboriginal art from the Red Centre”.
Parrtjima curator and renowned First Nations director Rhoda Roberts said “We are thrilled to deepen the experience for visitors through the Festival Knowledge program which offers visitors the chance to meet the artists, hear their stories and learn about their art making.”
Arrente artist and Parrtjima Festival Reference Group advisor Aunty Patricia Ansell Dodds said “Parrtjima helps us. It shows our art. It shows our culture. It shows that it is beautiful, and helps open people’s eyes.”

After some further speeches from senior Arrente elder Peter Wallace (in his sparkling jacket) where he talks about connecting story and song to the land I then witness the first showing of the Grounded Installation showcasing the talented artwork by Ikuntji Artists, Arrernte Artists and Barkly Regional Arts, by projecting the art onto the desert sands via a powerful digital projection in a vast area. There are a multitude of pieces selected for us to gaze at whilst listening to the atmospheric soundscape and recordings of stories told by the artists. I then witness a first performance by local aboriginal dancers with singing and clap sticks.

A great opening to Parrtjima and then we all turn to the Western MacDonnell ranges to witness one of our oldest cultures on earth intertwined with the latest technology, across a 300 million canvas. The light display projected onto the ranges is set to music and its jaw dropping. Over two kilometres of the ranges are lit up, perfectly synced music with vocals by Elder Peter Wallace and I’m captivated. The light show is on a twenty minute cycle and I’m sure I watched it half a dozen times, it’s that awesome. The kaleidoscope of colour, patterns and movement is a result of consultation with the Arrernte people. The elements of earth, fire, wind and water are all presented on the fifty metre high canvas.

The presentation is around five minutes in length and you’ll find yourself compelled to watch the lightening spectacular not once, but many times. It’s like time stands still and your head will automatically turn towards the ranges when the music starts, to take it in each time feeling like you’re experiencing something new.
When you are ready to watch the illuminated light display on the ranges, make sure you head to the grandstands and take a seat where you can. For those with ailing legs or feet, make sure you get there very early to grab a seat as they disappear quick. Once I’ve watched the magnificent light show its time to check out the numerous light installations that are spread out around the grounds for us;

Expression Space by Bindi Mwerre Anthurre Artists. These luminous artworks reflect lamp shades, made by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, portraying the essence, beauty and humour of Central Australia and each piece is a reflection of the region surrounded and loved by the artist. This was my favourite installation as I always feel at home looking at photos of animals. The black cockatoos with the orange background was a personal favourite.

Wave Space: between the light show on the ranges you have the chance to sit in the conductors seat and experience the controls whilst you change the light to add colour, patterns and light to the ranges. This is especially popular for the young ones.

Honouring Space: drawing inspiration from the historical Hermannsburg Church in collaboration with Iltja/Many Hands Arts Centre where water colours paintings are drawn in the tradition of their grandfather and relative Albert Namatjira. His ongoing legacy continues and the paintings tonight are represented in the style of large scale windows. I found this art installation mesmerising, as a fan of Namatjira’s art, I can see the amazing similarities still going strong in his generations that have followed.

Medicine Space: Using state of the art LED luminaries, this installation sees a series of art work by Alice Springs artists, projected onto hanging semi-transparent fabric, suspended and moving freely in the breeze. What a beautiful eye catching installation. The layered textures of fabric give off a prodigious aura, and after speaking with some people there, they too felt the pull of Medicine Space.

You won’t be disappointed by this festival. It’s extraordinary it’s inspiring and it’s a showcase of one of the oldest cultures on earth. I spent three hours wandering around taking it all in. You could experience the festival in under that time of course, but if there is no rush, soak up the atmosphere, be part of something different and cultural and perhaps you’ll take away with you knowledge of our Indigenous friends.

Download the Parrtjima app on your phone or head to www.parrtjimaaustralia.com.au for more details. It is recommended you register on the website to attend the event at the time you prefer because the festival organisers need to ensure your safety and comfort. The event continues to 1st October.

All Photography except Expression Space by James Horan Photography for Tourisn NT www.jameshoranshootspeople.com – Expression Space photos by Lyn Harder. The author travelled to the event as a guest of the festival.