Background Image

Sharpened business focus drives ambitious future for Yalanji Arts

Nestled in the rainforest just north of Cairns, Yalanji Arts art centre is forging a stronger future for its artists by building on its artistic traditions to develop high-end giftware that targets the Far North’s tourist market.

 In March this year, the art centre opened the doors of its newly refurbished working space with big ambitions.

Art Centre Manager Sheryl Burchill said the standard approach of Indigenous art centres across the country has been to focus on sales through capital city art galleries and art fairs.

“However changes to superannuation rules and a national oversupply of Indigenous artwork has reduced income for artists and highlighted the need for art centres to diversify their business models,” Sheryl said

“We have over 2.2 million visitors to this region each year and they spend around $1 billion – we don’t have to go to the market, the market comes to us.

“The key is creating works that tourists want to buy.

“Retailers from luxury hotels to our own Dreamtime Tours, which operate from the Mossman Gorge Centre, are telling us that visitors want culturally authentic, ethically-produced mementos of their visit.”

Initially the merchandise will be sold through partner organisation, the Mossman Gorge Centre, but talks are also underway to open a shopfront in the lobby of a Port Douglas resort.

Mossman Gorge Gateway Steering Group member John McIntyre is leading the commercial push.

“The biggest international market at the moment is the Chinese and Chinese tourists in particular really want to take home high-end, authentic Indigenous merchandise and keepsakes from their visit,” John said

“This is a perfect opportunity for us to create a sustainable, complementary arts and business model.”

Yalanji has a successful history creating high-end merchandise. At the inaugural Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) in 2009, the art centre created a series of striking black and white silk scarves in partnership with fashion designer Linda Jackson which then Governor of Queensland and CIAF Patron Penelope Wensley AC purchased to gift to visiting dignitaries. Subsequent textile collections presented at CIAF that featured scarves, bags and clothing have also sold out.

 “Textiles are still a main focus of Yalanji Arts production, but we have expanded into wood work and ceramics, as well maintaining a strong painting tradition,” Sheryl said.

“In the new business plan community artists will be engaged to produce images that will be made into merchandise and going forward our aim is to produce lengths of hand-printed fabric for exhibition and sale locally and interstate.

“We will also continue to design and produce garments for exhibition at the CIAF Fashion Show.

“We were recently involved in the Virgin Melbourne Fashion Festival with the CIAF BirrimbiDulguBajal performance.”

Four artists are currently working out of the art centre, but Sheryl is working on strengthening these numbers following the refurbishment.

“The improvements have made an enormous difference to the working space, it is a much more open and practical space with added storage and a dark room,” she said.

“Now that we don't have to deal with the weather and occasional unwanted creepy crawly visitors, such as snakes, we are hoping to bring back community artists to create an art hub for the Mossman Gorge community and attract a cross-section of older and younger workers.”

Yalanji Arts is one of the 14 art centres across Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait supported by Arts Queensland’s Backing Indigenous Arts initiative. This initiative aims to build sustainable and ethical Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts industries by: supporting traditional and contemporary practice across all art forms; ensuring a vibrant network of Indigenous Arts Centres; increasing professional, business and employment opportunities for Indigenous artists and arts workers; and, supporting cultural retention activity keeping culture strong. 

The art centre refurbishment was supported by the Queensland Government’s Cape York Welfare Program and the Australian Government’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The project was overseen by the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships.

Pottery from Yalanji Arts

New pottery works from Yalanji Arts. Photo courtesy Yalanji Arts