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Museum shows First Nations art purchases

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A major new acquisition of Indigenous art from far north Queensland and the Torres Strait is on display at the National Museum in Canberra.

About 100 artists from the region took part in a 2018 project called Belonging, using new materials and techniques to make art about their connection to land and culture.

When the Indigenous Art Centre Alliance approached the museum to display the works, the museum didn’t just want to put them on show, it also arranged to buy them.

“It is really extraordinary work … it’s not just the aesthetic qualities, it’s the stories behind the artworks, the history of people’s attachment to these places,” the museum’s Ian Coates told AAP.

The institution bought the entire collection of 415 artworks for more than $300,000 in 2020, including sculptures, film, digital photography and paintings, with prices set by the 11 community art centres that took part in the program.

It was enough for a series of three exhibitions. The first part of Belonging: Stories from Far North Queensland shows work from 29 artists working in Hope Vale, Yarrabah, Moa Island and Mornington Island.

While Central Desert styles may be better known, recent far north Queensland art is hugely innovative, using glow-in-the-dark paint while also reviving traditions such as ochre paint, according to curator Shona Coyne.

“When the National Museum of Australia acquires a collection like this, we are outright saying, ‘Have a look, pay attention’. North Queensland has really got something to say,” she told AAP.

The arts centre alliance said the exhibition will be a chance for its members to build national profiles.

“Art centres in central, western and the top end of Australia have been known for so long, we are trying to even that up,” Pam Bigelow from the alliance said in a statement.

While Mr Coates acknowledges the long colonial history of museum collecting, he said the institution had worked closely with First Nations communities over the past decade.

“We’ve got a very strong record of working directly with communities, and that’s something I’ve been really proud to be part of,” he said.

Art from seven other centres – Badu, Bana Yirriji, Girringun, Pormpuraaw, Wei’Num, Wik and Kugu, and Yalanji – will be on display over two more exhibitions in 2023 and 2024.

Belonging: Stories from Far North Queensland is on at the National Museum of Australia until February 2023.

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