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Place, emotion and connection

Tim Ellis describes an Indigenous cultural tourism enterprise that is a must-do for visitors to the Port Douglas and Daintree region….

As a new addition to the prolific tourism marketplace of Port Douglas and the Daintree, the Mossman Gorge Visitors Centre was a long term dream of Roy Gibson, a Mossman Kuku Yalanji Elder (from the Daintree Valley & Mossman River), whose vision to protect the country and provide employment for the people, while sharing their Aboriginal culture with a wider community, was realised in 2012. Built on the site of a cane farm, the centre is now experienced by a quarter of a million visitors each year who travel to Mossman Gorge in tropical Far North Queensland.

Where previously visitors were able to visit the Gorge independently, to walk through the rainforest and swim in the river, there was no opportunity to learn about the culture of the Yalanji people and engage with the traditional owners on a first hand basis. The concerns of the Indigenous community about the number of vehicles polluting the rainforest ran deep. It was felt that a way to bring the visitors and the Indigenous people together for a mutually beneficial relationship was needed. There was a task ahead to offer visitors the freedom enter the Gorge, while at the same time preserving it.
Designed to fit in with the natural landscape and employing more than 60 people, the centre is an inspiring addition to the local community and the region. Visitors can take guided walks with Yalanji traditional owners; learning about the rainforest, its animals, food, stories and history. The centre also houses the Mayi Cafe serving a fresh menu with a rainforest flavour, an Indigenous training centre, and an Art Gallery which showcases the works of Mossman Yalanji artists and crafts people.
The mission of the Art Gallery is to showcase the artworks and crafts of the Kuku Yalanji community of the Mossman area, to promote and develop these artists and provide a professional platform for their work and creative development.   The gallery supports artists by buying their art pieces and displaying them for sale. We offer mentoring support for new artists who are starting their creative journey, giving them the experience of working in a professional gallery space and learning the gallery processes and commercial art business practice. Established artists are given ongoing support with exhibitions, promotion and sales.
Within the Mossman community is an organisation called Bamanga Bubu Ngadimunku Inc which employs Indigenous art workers to work creatively in paint, print, ceramics, wood and metal crafts, jewelry, fashion and textiles. Workshops, training and lecturing are accessible to Indigenous artists who wish to develop their talents.
The art scene around Mossman has a large number of creative Indigenous people, young and old, whose work differs from the more traditional ‘dot painting’ forms of Aboriginal art belonging to the central desert regions and Northern Territories. The Mossman artists’ inspiration comes from the surrounding country; capturing the spirit of the rain forest, the wisdom of the rivers, the harvest from the ocean and the cherished cultural stories.
The gallery has a revolving program of exhibitions, showcasing new work in all mediums. Printmaking is predominant, and this works extremely well in the gallery as visitors can pick up affordable limited edition prints. Especially exciting are the ceramics and textiles being produced. Jewellery and crafts made from local timbers, seeds and shells are popular, as are artefacts such a boomerangs, clap sticks and bullroarers (painted and unpainted). We have also developed retail lines of clothing and gifts designed by local artists, who benefit from the royalties earned from this merchandise.
As the art coordinator, I am pushing the aesthetic of the work we present to appeal to the discerning art audience who travel from many parts of the world, including America, Europe and Japan, looking at arts and crafts; therefore it is essential that the work made by the artists we exhibit be relevant in the market place of contemporary art and design. This commercial approach benefits the local artistic community, sustaining further art practice, as well at contributing to the business success of the centre as a whole.
The reaction from the visitors to the gallery (and the centre) is always one of surprise and delight, as they see locally made art and artifacts and can take these home with them as gifts, souvenirs or cultural investments. I realise that people need to feel a connection to the art and find our biggest selling works are very personal pieces that resonate with the viewer. It seems the stronger the emotion in the work, the deeper the audience connects to it. This insight crosses language barriers and lands in universal feelings of empathy and connection.
The centre has developed (since opening in 2012) in its professional levels of appearance and service. The retail areas have found what products are popular, and cater for the more general market, while the art gallery has found its focus by presenting art forms that speaks of place, emotion and connection to country while effectively connecting with a discerning contemporary art market.

Tim Ellis is the Art Coordinator of the Mossman Gorge Centre. He is an artist himself, with exhibitions held recently at the Cairns Regional Gallery, Tanks Arts Centre and Reef Casino. He is originally from London, where he worked in Film and Television Art Direction before relocating in Australia in 2005.





Feature photo: Interior of Mossman Gorge Culture Centre Art Gallery, photo courtesy of Tim Ellis