DAAF 2017 Q&A with Executive Director, Claire Summers


The annual Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) was recently on again during 11-13th August. With a reputation for cultural integrity, providing platforms for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and for generally showcasing the latest and greatest in the Aboriginal art industry, DAAF is arguably the country’s most popularly anticipated Aboriginal Art Fair by artists and visitors alike. Desert River Sea sat down with Claire Summers, Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation Executive Director, for a behind the scenes chat:


DRS: Firstly, congratulations to you and the DAAFF team for another fantastic event this year! DAAF is internationally respected as one of the most prestigious national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art fairs, I’ve heard it’s even been referred to as the “Art Basel of Australian Indigenous art”, what do you think sets DAAF apart from other art fairs?   

CS: Thank you so much Geri! We are proud of DAAF, and the exciting new repertoire of events that our Foundation is presenting. What sets us apart from other art fairs is that we provide a genuine opportunity for arts industry buyers and art and design aficionados, to purchase art directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owned and incorporated Art Centres. It is unique in that the public have a genuine opportunity to connect directly with artists and art workers on a personal level, whether it be at an exhibition booth, an artist workshop, a dance performance, or even on the catwalk! DAAF also celebrates the National Indigenous Music Awards and the Garma Festival which are also held over the same week. Together, these prestigious events mark the most significant national festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts in the world.

DRS: For those who didn’t attend, give us a wrap up of this year’s event ‘in a nutshell’?

CS: For this the 11th DAAF, the Foundation was delighted that the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Mr Gerard Vaughan, officially opened the event at our VIP Opening Ceremony, along with an insightful Larrakia Welcome to Country from Dorrie-Anne Raymond, and a spectacular traditional dance performance from One Mob Different Country.  In addition to the visual spectacular of the participating Art Centres’ exhibition booths, we presented an incredible public program; visitors partook in twelve artist workshops, four traditional dance performances, and a children’s activity station which included a screening of the popular cartoon ‘Little J and Big Cuz’, starring Deborah Mailman and Miranda Tapsell. A stunning display of the skirts from Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre (that was part of the 2016 ‘Parrtjima - A Festival in Light’ in Alice Springs) lit up the exhibition halls. DAAFF was honoured to exhibit the ‘Uluru Statement – From the Heart’ and invited visitors, artists and arts workers alike to show their support. In response to popular demand, the 2017 DAAF included a fashion show and panel discussion which discussed the 1967 Referendum, and how art has played a role in Indigenous politics. DAAFF was also proud to present the Northern Territory launch of ‘Namatjira Project’ in partnership with BIGhART at a film gala evening and it was an honour to host a discussion after the film with Lenie and Kevin Namatjira, the grandchildren of Albert Namatjira.

DRS: I understand you’ve been involved since the very first Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair back in 2007. How did DAAF first come about?

CS: You are quite right Geri! I have been with the fair since day dot when Maningrida Arts & Culture, in Arnhem Land, managed the event’s first two years. The idea of the DAAF event was originally conceived by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory’s Foundation Board. It was designed to complement the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (Telstra NATSIAA) to bridge the tyranny of distance, and connect the Indigenous art industry with artists and arts workers who live in some of the most remote regions of the country.

DRS: And in 2012, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation Limited was officially established. What’s the significance of this?  

CS: On the 2nd March 2012, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation Limited was officially established, meaning that the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair was owned and operated by a membership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Centres. The mission of the Foundation is to encourage the production of Aboriginal arts and assist with its promotion in an ethical business environment. It is committed to professional development opportunities for artists and arts workers, and to continually contribute to the cultural aspirations of the Art Centres.

DRS: A great aspect of DAAF is the way it encourages and supports the promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, cultivating it in an ethical (and fun!) environment. The fair certainly seems to be a pretty successful model and going from strength to strength, last year DAAF saw over 10,000 visitors through the doors – how did the 2017 event compare in terms of audience attendance?

CS: DAAFF’s events help visitors, artists, arts workers and buyers to truly connect and learn from each other. By using vibrant and exciting art forms as a conduit, these innovative platforms are where both ancient and contemporary stories can be exchanged, and shared with the world. This year DAAF saw almost 11,000 people attend its five events which is a record number of visitors! What we are noticing is that people are returning year after year, knowing that we consistently offer something different, whether it be a new event, emerging artists, an installation, and even after 11 years, a new participating Art Centre! The DAAF Foundation also realises its responsibility to draw new audiences to the event each year, which is why we offer such an amazing and interactive public program – so that visitors who are new to Indigenous art can truly engage and connect with artists and arts workers.

DRS: The stats are impressive, according to your website; DAAF has generated more than $7.5million in sales for Art Centres over the past 5 years. How much of the profit goes back to the Art Centres?

CS: This in one of the statistics that we are most proud of: 100% of sales go back to the Art Centres’ communities. The DAAF Foundation does not take any commission on the sales made at our event. In 2016, approximately $2.038 million was generated by DAAF for the sector. We are expecting the 2017 sales figures to reach more than $2.5 million! It was a fantastic year for Art Centre sales, and this can be attributed to a growing number of major Australian and international galleries and private collectors who attend the event.

DRS: Seven Kimberley Art Centres were at the fair this year, however, it is truly a national fair, how many Art Centres from around Australia were represented at the 2017 fair in total?

CS: Every year there is overwhelming interest from Art Centres, with participation figures limited only by the Foundation’s financial capacity to provide a venue to accommodate enough exhibition booths! To think that our event started in 2007 hosting 16 Art Centres. It is truly a national event now, representing 67 Art Centres from right across Australia!

DRS: And via those Art Centres, how many artists would you realistically estimate are given a platform to present their art at the fair?

CS: Our Art Centre survey suggests that over 2,000 artists are represented at the fair each year. DAAF is well known for showcasing quality art and design. The Fair showcases the work of emerging and established artists, and provides a space for visitors to meet them and learn from the variety of different cultural groups across Australia.

DRS: With that many artists represented from so many places around the country it goes without saying that the diversity of art on offer at the DAAF is pretty remarkable. How do the Art Centres use the opportunity to showcase their artists at DAAF?

CS: The quality and diversity of art that is brought to DAAF each year is really what makes the event so breathtaking. There is a range of styles, mediums and products available including: paintings on canvas, bark paintings, works on paper including limited edition prints, sculpture, didgeridoos, fibre art, cultural regalia, homewares and with the rise of Indigenous textile design, fashions also feature at the event. Along with presenting the very best from their Art Centres, DAAF has become a key platform to launch the work of new and emerging artists with Art Centres presenting new mediums and promoting new initiatives at the event.

DRS: Yes, there’s definitely always a sense of excitement over what’s new, particularly on the opening day when serious collectors literally clamour to be first through the doors.

CS: (Laughs) The anticipation of the buyers is always what gives the event such a high energy and buzz – that and the nervous anticipation of the Art Centres who have worked for months in preparation, and traveled huge distances to attend the fair! The Art Centres have certainly learnt that it is important to provide audiences with new and exciting works by both senior and emerging artists. For many serious buyers, DAAF provides a fantastic way to connect with over 60 Art Centres in the one space – no wonder why people flood through the doors!

DRS: DAAF is already well renowned for the diversity and quality of art on show, however, there’s an extensive public programme that audiences have also come to expect and enjoy about the fair which seems to be getting bigger each year – why do you think introducing new activities to the program is so important?

CS: Our foundation exists to provide vibrant and exciting promotion platforms for our Art Centre members. When we are asked why new events and activities are introduced to the program, the answer is always a simple one: to ensure that all people have an opportunity to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, their communities, and their culture. Whether it be visual art, textile and fashion design, public discourses, film, dance or music – these universal tools of communication ensure that everyone can interpret the message of reconciliation. The arts create a middle ground – a fundamental standpoint where we can say “we understand each other”. DAAFF hopes that its remarkable art fair continues to help audiences, art centre artists and staff, buyers and collectors, curators and industry stakeholder unite and truly engage with each other.

DRS: I noticed a fair few curators from Australia’s leading cultural institutions working alongside Art Centres this year; I hear that DAAF piloted an Indigenous Curators program? How did that come about and what was the outcome?

CS: For the first time, the DAAF Foundation ran a program called ‘From Dirt Roads to Gallery Walls’ which involved over 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators from Australia’s key public institutions. They traveled to Darwin, bringing with them their expertise and creativity to pass on to each other and the Art Centres. The program provided a platform for discussions, around the future direction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and how it is exhibited. The program allowed a two-way learning process whereby artists, arts workers and Art Centre managers were able to share stories about their art work, life in remote Indigenous communities, and the challenges that are faced on a day to day basis. This was such an incredible artistic and cultural exchange! Powerful connections and networks were discovered and celebrated between Art Centres (arts workers, artists and staff), and Australia’s senior and emerging Indigenous curators, as they worked together to curate the fair’s exhibition booths. The initiative was made possible by the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, with additional support from the Australia Council for the Arts to host an Indigenous Curators Symposium.

DRS: What were the stand out workshops, demonstrations and cultural performances this year?

CS: Once again, artists from 12 different Art Centres presented incredible artist workshops. The workshop area was constantly crammed with both adults and children. It became a meeting place, where artistic techniques were shared along with personal and spiritual stories. The weaving with fibre and clay workshop by Kaiela Arts from Shepparton, Victoria was a crowd favourite! This was Kaiela Arts first DAAF experience, and it was truly inspiration to see how their artists were connecting with audiences through their workshop.

DRS: Last year DAAFF presented its inaugural fashion show: ‘From Country to Couture’, which showcased the textile talents of twelve Indigenous art making communities and was a huge success. Due to popular demand the fashion show was held again this year, and if social media is anything to go by it was another triumph! Tell us about it?

CS: The ‘From Country to Couture – DAAFF 2017 Fashion Show’ was a sell-out event, involving textile and jewellery designs from 14 different Art Centres including Marnin Studio from Fitzroy Crossing! The hype and excitement about our fashion show was incredible this year and we were absolutely thrilled that it was a sellout event. Next year, we are planning to have two shows! It was a pleasure to work with, and present the collections of 14 Art Centres on this project. The show was quite spectacular, and we loved having the charismatic and renowned Indigenous hip hop DJ, ‘Jimblah’ provide the soundtrack to the evening. The models were just stunning and worked incredibly hard, some of them had even flown from Perth, Sydney and Cairns to participate! The wonderful Grace Lillian Lee did a beautiful job as the Creative Director of the show. Of note was the finale of the show, where she integrated the collections with traditional adornment, as well as wearable art, and captured the essence of our message – marrying high end fashion with contemporary fine art. The ‘Sista Gals Inc’ who were supported by Tiwi Designs, stole the show, as they joined the models walking down the catwalk. It was so moving to see the gals walking proud in the collection they had created – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. What particularly moved me this year was the sense of empowerment that fashion is giving artists. In preparation for the fashion show, Marnin Studio sent me through photos of their stunning collaboration with the Melbourne fashion boutique ‘The Ark’. I remember opening the email, quietly beholding each image, and then sitting back in my chair thinking: “This is why we do this… This is why we must continue creating opportunities for Indigenous artists to be inspired by their Country, embrace their artistry and find new ways to express and share it.”

(Click here for a video clip of the Kimberley’s Marnin Studio collection at the DAAF fashion show ‘From Country to Couture’.)

DRS: I hear it was quite the feeding frenzy sales-wise after the show when the garments were made available to the public!

CS: It sure was! The audience bee lined for the catwalk where each collection was presented after the event for sales opportunities. It was wonderful to see such a positive response to the show.

DRS: 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum (granting Indigenous peoples the right to be counted as Australians for the first time) and the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Mabo High Court judgment. DAAF acknowledged these two significant anniversaries by holding a panel discussion with the topic ‘What impact have these two defining moments had, on contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art?’ Tell us about it?

CS: With panelists including Franchesca Cubillo (DAAFF Chair and the Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art for the National Gallery of Australia) as moderator, Gail Mabo (a dancer, actor and visual artist, and the 3rd daughter of celebrated land rights activist Eddie Mabo), Djon Mundine OAM (member of the Bandjalung people of northern New South Wales, a celebrated curator, writer, artist and activist) and anthropologist and geographer Marcia Langton AM, the discussion was always expected to be intense and thought provoking. The panel discussion certainly offered an insight into how art has played a role in shaping Australia’s Indigenous political history. I must say that it left us with the sombre thought that so very little has changed since these landmark decisions were made.

DRS: And you also brought back the film festival which you launched last year during the DAAF ten year anniversary?

CS: Absolutely! We presented ‘Namatjira Project’ at the 2017 DAAFF Film Gala in partnership with Darwin’s Deckchair Cinema and BIGhART. A panel discussion with Lenie and Kevin Namatjira, the grandchildren of Albert Namatjira, followed the film and audiences also enjoyed and participated in a watercolour artist workshop with three generations of the Namatjira Family!

DRS: What have you been told is the highlight of the three day event from an artist or Art Centre perspective?

CS: When we ask artists and art workers what their highlight it is at the fair, that answer is always the same – “I just loved meeting other Art Centres!” The networking process that happens at DAAF can often be one of the most overlooked outcomes. Artists and art workers love meeting people from different communities, seeing different mediums of art, and learn about how it is made. It such a powerful and inspirational exchange!

DRS: From the perspective of DAAFF’s Executive Director, what is your favourite part of the fair?

CS: My favourite part of the fair is the moment when all the artists, art workers, managers, staff, and this year, the curators, congregate together for a light breakfast and briefing before the bump-in commences. There is always a quiet murmur and an air of nervous excitement. For me, this moment culminates an entire year of work, and it is where I look across the Darwin Convention Centre foyer at everyone’s smiling faces, and feel a huge sense of community and common purpose. DAAFF Chair, Franchesca Cubillo, said it perfectly this year: “We are a family”. 

DRS: Some people may not know that the work at DAAFF continues after the fair, you recently did a road trip through the Kimberley and stopped in at a few art centres on the way – tell us about that?

CS: Both Mandy Tripcony (DAAFF Arts Administrator) and I spent three incredible days traveling through the Kimberley and visiting eight Art Centres! So much of our time is spent behind a computer screen that I feel it is imperative to visit Art Centres whenever it is possible. This allows us to stay connected, and have a deeper understanding about each individual Art Centre’s needs, struggles, and aspirations! DAAFF is constantly listening to its Art Centre members to ensure that it is they who shape the innovative ways that DAAFF reaches out to audiences.

DRS: Thanks for chatting with DRS Claire, enjoy a well-earned break before planning for the 2018 DAAF begins! We’re all already looking forward to it.

CS: Thank you Geri – it’s always a pleasure!


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