Construction of National Gallery of Indigenous Art on sacred site divides community as Indigenous leaders call for ‘respect’

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As a child, Doris Stuart Kngwarreye was taught to respect the boundaries of various First Nations groups and to avoid walking on sacred sites.

“We couldn’t walk around everywhere like they do now,” Ms Stuart told the ABC of her homeland, Mparntwe, also known as Alice Springs.

“We knew where we could go and where we couldn’t because of the sanctity around us.”

With the expansion of the white settlement, Ms Stuart, 79, witnessed the growth of Alice Springs township above Mparntwe, observing the violation of her country’s cultural boundaries.

Doris overlooking Mparntwe, also known as Alice Springs.(ABC News: Kirstie Wellauer)

Through her father’s line, the Arrernte woman inherited the obligation to speak on behalf of her traditional land and was chosen at a young age to be Apmereke-Artweye, or senior guardian, for Mparntwe.

An Apmereke-Artweye bears decision-making responsibility – this is an important role that is respected by younger family members and the community.

“That’s where you get all your instincts that tell you how you take care of the country and it [country] will always take care of you,” Ms Stuart said.

Ms Stuart says the Northern Territory Government is ignoring her cultural authority over what should be a cause for celebration in her community – a project launched as a future tourist magnet that will celebrate 65,000 years of culture and boost the economy of the Central Australia: The $130 million National Gallery of Aboriginal Art (NAAG).

The problem is not the project itself, but its intended location: the government wants to build it on the grounds of the city’s football oval, which, critically, overlaps with a site sacred to women.

ANZAC Oval
ANZAC Oval is the Northern Territory Government’s preferred site for the gallery, but there is strong opposition.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

Ms Stuart described the five-year consultation process for the project as a “complete joke” and said she would continue to fight to protect its cultural heritage.

“If you’re there and they consult you and you say ‘no, end of story’, the consultation continues without you there,” she said.

“The boxes have been checked.”

Wardens object to gallery location

Ms. Stuart’s main concern is that the gallery will overlay songs and stories from other First Nations, expressed through the artwork submitted for the gallery, onto an area sacred to the women of Mparntwe.

“If you build a building up there with stories that don’t belong there, how do you think the ancestors will feel about it?” she says.

“Where is the respect? We have our limits here.”

Mervyn Rubuntja, an elder and artist from Western Arrarnta, has been painting his homeland in vibrant watercolors since he was a teenager. He said he felt uncomfortable displaying his works on the potential site.

mervin
Arrernte artist Mervyn Rubuntja comes to Alice Springs to paint.

“It’s a women’s site,” he said. “You have to talk to the ladies first whether they say yes or no, because it’s important that every non-Indigenous person listens.”

The Battle of the Galleries

The fight over the location dates back to 2017 when a government-funded steering committee, led by Indigenous art experts, said in a report that the gallery should be built outside the city. He told the government to consult more with the guards.

Mparntwe guardians, including the Stuart family, met in 2019 with former arts minister Lauren Moss to protest the oval location in person.

In a letter seen by the ABC, the minister acknowledged the group’s opposition to the site and said the Northern Territories government would “examine whether there are viable alternative locations”.

Still, he continued his efforts to forcibly acquire the football oval from the Alice Springs City Council.

The City Council opposed the purchase, taking the case to the Northern Territories Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) in 2021. It recommended that the Northern Territories government take greater account of custodians’ concerns before going ahead with the project.

In 2020, Labor MP Chansey Paech took over the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio for the Northern Territory.

Earlier this month, he told the ABC that the government had received “sacred sites permission to continue building on the site”.

The permit, issued by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA), recognizes the sacred rock outcrops, cork oaks and vegetation within the Anzac Oval compound as part of a sacred site and obliges developers to protect these areas during construction or risky lawsuits.

Paesh
Mr Paech said the government had consulted widely on the project.(ABC News)

Mr Paech, a man from Arrernte, said Ms Stuart and her family had been invited to the consultations “at every stage”.

Despite a petition from 1,200 people delivered to the territorial government opposing the project – and continued concerns from traditional owners – the government is pushing ahead with its plans.

He is now in the process of forcibly acquiring the Anzac Oval compound from Alice Springs City Council, after the City Council dropped legal proceedings to stop the acquisition.

“Traditional purchases from the owner”

Warramungu Luritja businessman Owen Cole supports Ms Stuart’s cultural authority and has campaigned against the location of the CBD.

He wants the art gallery to be built next to a cultural center in the Desert Knowledge Precinct just outside of town, which he says was more “culturally appropriate”.

“It is neutral ground where many tribal groups came to settle here before being welcomed into Arrernte country by the elders,” he said.

Owen Cole
A petition by Owen Cole garnered over 1,200 signatures from the community, opposing the oval site.(ABC News)

The NT government has been accused of ignoring cultural hierarchy and protocols in the process by approaching other individual custodians and organizations who do not hold authority over Anzac Oval lands.

Mr Cole said the project had divided the community.

“The Government of the Northern Territory intended to [Traditional Owner] shopping, then look around to try to convince various [Traditional Owners] and guardians to change their minds and support [its] choice of ANZAC Oval,” he said.

“Instead of unifying families, we are tearing apart the guardian families,” he said.

Mr. Paech denied the claims.

“I think there was a huge range of consultation that was undertaken by my former arts ministers in the Northern Territory, [and] that the consultation has continued and is continuing,” he said.

A Divided Community

A 2019 report by Ernst & Young suggested the NAAG could bring an additional 53,000 visitors a year to Alice Springs and the project is supported by Tourism Central Australia and other trade organisations.

For Craig Jervis, chief operating officer of Lasseters, which oversees the casino and several pubs and hotels in Alice Springs, this is an exciting project that will give the town “a boost”.

Craig Jervis
Craig Jervis said the town needed an injection of tourism.

“We have closed businesses [with] roller shutters in our main mall street,” he said.

If NAAG goes ahead with the Anzac Oval compound, Mr Jervis’ company will invest $150 million in tourism infrastructure to accommodate an additional 150 visitors a day.

“I think Alice Springs can have her signature thing [with the NAAG],” he said.

The Government of the Northern Territories is consulting the community on the design of the building and this consultation process is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, but there is no specific timetable for the start of the building.

In the meantime, he has engaged Marisa Maher, a West Arrente woman, to advise her on First Nations art collections and Sera Bray, an Arrente woman, as Senior Director of First Nations.

A woman on earth
Ms Stuart said she had no confidence in the consultation process. (ABC News: Carly Williams)

Doris Stuart Kngwarreye simply wants the site to remain a community-used football oval – a move the local club vocally supports.

Ms Stuart is disappointed the government is going ahead with the project, but said she would continue to defend the country regardless of the outcome.

“All I want is respect for all this land,” she said.

“Not for me, for the land I speak for, on my father’s country.”

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