An Australian Aboriginal elder opposes plans to create an indigenous art gallery in the Outback, saying it would disturb ancient spirits

A football oval in the Australian town of Alice Springs might seem like an unlikely site for a raging cultural controversy. But plans to build a 150 million Australian dollar ($111 million) Indigenous art gallery on Anzac Oval have brought out the fighting spirit of a First Nations woman who thinks the development would be “a desecration”.

Doris Stuart Kngwarreye rejects the recent announcement by Northern Territory (NT) Arts Minister Chansey Paech that the proposed National Aboriginal Art Gallery (NAAG) will be “the crown jewel of Mparntwe” (Mparntwe is the name of the Arrernte Aboriginal people for Alice Springs). In March, the NT Government awarded a multi-million dollar design tender for the project to BVN Architecture and Susan Dugdale & Associates.

Doris Stuart Kngwarreye calls proposed development a ‘profanation’ Photo: William C. Thomson

Stuart Kngwarreye maintains his longstanding opposition to the gallery. She says its foundations would disrupt sacred rocks crossed by song lines – the ancient traces of ancestral spirits that are an integral part of Aboriginal culture – and interfere with other important sites nearby. “It’s covered in sacred sites here,” she says The arts journal. It is culturally wrong to overlay Mparntwe culture with stories from other Australian skin groups, she adds.

[The land] owns us. We don’t own it. You don’t put a price on something as valuable as this

Doris Stuart Kngwarreye

Stuart Kngwarreye is a senior apmereke-artweye (traditional owner or decision maker) of Mparntwe. His duty, passed down from his father, is to protect the sacred sites and stories on the lands of his people. As she told the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal last year, the land “belongs to us. We don’t own it. You don’t put a price on something as valuable as that.”

The court last year ruled on the Northwest Territories government’s proposed forced acquisition of the Anzac Oval site to make way for the gallery after negotiations with indigenous peoples failed. The lead solicitor acting for Alice Springs City Council told the court that the land deal would have “deleterious effects on matters of profound cultural significance” and that there was evidence the government had not not consulted all the wardens concerned. The arts journal understands that the gallery project has been extremely divisive in Alice Springs, with more of an Indigenous perspective.

In September, the court recommended that the government of the Northern Territories undertake more consultations with indigenous peoples. Paech says it happened. The government’s acquisition of the oval is now in its final stages, as the city council decided earlier this year that further legal opposition would be too costly. The city’s new mayor, Matt Paterson, called the gallery a “game changer.”

But Stuart Kngwarreye says government contact with her came late and she never heard back after asking everything in writing. She is not giving up the fight and hopes to take her case to the national level while Australian politicians are in electoral mode for a federal ballot on May 21.

“They can’t build [the gallery] without federal money,” says Stuart Kngwarreye. According to spokespersons, neither the centre-right Liberal-National Federal Government nor the centre-left Labor opposition have decided whether or not to fund the project in Alice Springs. The Northern Territories government says it will pay A$50 million ($37 million) to build the gallery and raise the A$100 million ($74 million) itself if federal money is refused.

Meanwhile, the development in Adelaide of 200 million Australian dollars (149 million dollars) of an arts center dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures is jointly funded with federal funds (85 million Australian dollars) and from the State of South Australia (115 million Australian dollars). Tarrkarri—Centre for First Nations Cultures, which began in December and is expected to open in 2025, is designed by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the practice of Adelaide Woods Bagot. Tarrkarri (“future” in the indigenous Kaurna language) will present collections in reserve and will focus on contemporary artists and new technologies.

When asked if Tarrkarri would tie up with NAAG, the center’s deputy director, Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, said, “We are excited to forge a range of partnerships locally, nationally and internationally.”

William E. Bennett