Cairns: Art of the north

Sep 30, 2008


For all varieties of traveller, Cairns provides a base from which to explore the twin attractions of reef and rainforest. When the excursions are over, you have a choice of excellent hotels and restaurants, a casino and vibrant nightlife. This city of 130,000 people manages to draw more than two million tourists every year.

Even in Tropical North Queensland, no city is complete without an art scene. The bare essentials are a range of exhibition venues, a community of artists – both established and emerging – and some form of art that relates strongly to the local environment. These are the building blocks of a distinctive culture and identity. They require an initial commitment from government and community, but it soon becomes impossible to imagine life without that creative component.

In recent years Cairns has embraced the arts and the benefits are beginning to show. The Cairns Regional Gallery (CRG), which celebrated its 10th birthday in 2005, has been more recently joined by KickArts – a gallery and performing arts centre with a contemporary emphasis.

The CRG began to put together its permanent collection in the early 1990s, with an emphasis on works that relate to Tropical North Queensland, either by local or visiting artists who were inspired by the lush tropical environment. The collection now boasts more than 300 works, with the three most significant artists being Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), Donald Friend (1915-1989) and Ray Crooke (1922-), who all lived in or near Cairns for long periods.

Cairns is the gateway to the Australian art scene for Indigenous artists from the Torres Strait Islands and Cape York. The CRG has an ongoing commitment to the work that emerges from these communities. Rosella Namok, the most acclaimed young painter from the Lockhart River area, has recently relocated to Cairns.

If one distinctive form of art is associated with Cairns, it must be works by sculptors and printmakers from the Torres Strait Islands. These works are being sought with increasing eagerness by public galleries and private collectors. Of the printmakers, the best known are Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti, whose detailed linocuts retell traditional stories. Nona is an innovator who has begun to work on a large and ambitious scale. His linoprints and etchings are among the most striking works being made in these mediums by any Australian printmaker.

In 1984 the Cairns College of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) set up formal art courses for Indigenous students. Reborn as Tropical North Queensland TAFE, the college offers certificates and diplomas to Indigenous students who come to work under the guidance of printmaker Theo Tremblay. The students, from many communities and language groups, are encouraged to work with their own stories and imagery. At the end of their courses many students continue to study or practise. Nona started here before going on to study in Canberra and Brisbane.

The contemporary arts centre KickArts is also in the process of setting up a printmaking studio. The centre is committed to showing the works of local artists. This includes Arone Raymond Meeks and New Zealand-born Geoff Dixon, who has created a room-sized painting called Sentinel for an upstairs gallery. The Upholstery Group is a confederation of young artists including Sophie Cadman, Deanna Maich and Samuel Tupou. Tupou is of Tongan descent, but raised in Queensland. His works combine pop and traditional culture – brightly coloured palm trees, coconuts and crocodiles – a blend of sophistication and folkiness perfectly in tune with the evolving personality of this tropical town.

Where to buy

Cairns Regional Gallery
Cnr Abbott & Shields Streets,
+61 7 4046 4800.

The gallery shop focuses on the art and craft of Tropical North Queensland. The gallery also stocks original publications and limited-edition prints, including linoprints by Arone Meeks and T-shirts designed by Samuel Tupou.
10am-5pm Mon-Sat; 1pm-5pm Sun and public holidays.

96 Abbott Street,
+61 7 4050 9494.

The shop contains a range of books, catalogues and contemporary arts and crafts.
10am-5pm Tue-Sat (excluding public holidays).

Michel Sourgnes Fine Art
16 Stevenson Street,
+61 7 3868 2454.
For works by Dennis Nona.

Andrew Baker Fine Art
26 Brookes St, Bowen Hills.
+61 7 3252 2292.

Port Douglas Oceanic Art
Shop 4/21 Warner Street,
Port Douglas.
+61 7 4099 4494.

Source: Qantas The Australian Way February 2006
Updated: September 2008

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