COVID-19 restrictions have pared back some acts from the opening weekend of Darwin Festival but there are still plenty of amazing Indigenous artists to catch at the event.

Festival Artistic Director Felix Preval said he hopes the festival will shine a light on the strength of talent in First Nations artists across Australia.

“Despite COVID-19, culture is thriving in Australia and some of our most exciting artists are First Nations artists,” he said.

“Darwin Festival is an opportunity to hear those artists first-hand and experience whatever incredible contribution those First Nations artists want to make to the conversation of the world.”

The Festival is opening with a Smoking Ceremony at festival park on Friday August 6 led by Aunty Bilawara Lee and the Lee family.

Aunty Bilawara’s Welcome to Country acknowledges the Ancestral Spirits, Traditional Custodians and Elders of the Larrakia people upon whose land Darwin Festival takes place.

While the National Indigenous Music Awards have been postponed with no replacement date yet chosen, the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards ceremony and the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair have moved online and will still run over the opening weekend.

Art lovers can view and purchase works by emerging Aboriginal artists online through the art fair, which will be open to the public from 10am on Friday August 6 through to 5pm on Wednesday August 11.

Over the opening weekend, festival-goers will be able to view other in-person exhibitions of works by artists including Patsy Mudgedell, whose richly textured paintings encourage respect for Country.

“An artwork is a good way of showing respect. It’s alive like we are alive,” she said.

“Growing up in those tribal places I’ve learned that the land is special in the sense that it is not what it seems. There’s a lot to it, the land can talk to you. The land can have a relationship with you. It takes care of humans and humans can take care of the land. It’s an active thing.

“This is why people have a duty of care to their areas. They have a responsibility and with that comes authenticity.”

Also showing over the opening weekend are Yirrinkirripwoja Jilamara, an exhibition by artists from Jilamara Arts (Milikapiti) and Munupi Arts (Pirlangimpi) in the Tiwi Islands, and Spinifex Arts Project artist Timo Hogan’s Pantutjara exhibition.

An exhibition of painted and stitched works by Yarrenyty Arltere Artists called WALTJA TJUTA: FAMILY is showing from Thursday at the Tactile Arts Gallery and Studios in Fannie Bay.

The Santos Opening Night concert, a production of Buŋgul, has also been postponed with the use of the Darwin Amphitheatre as a venue at this year’s festival off the table due to border restrictions.

Darwin theatre-goers will likely have to wait until Darwin Festival 2022 to catch the performance, which has been replaced with cabaret act Club Briefs.

Fashion lovers, however, will still be able to catch the best of Indigenous designers with the National Indigenous Fashion Awards and the Country to Couture textiles and fashion design showcase, which are still slated for August 3 and 4 respectively.

Country to Couture 2020. Photo by George F Photography.

Dancer Joel Bray’s meditation on the intersection of colonialism, queerness, sugar and daddy issues will wow audiences as it gets them up close and personal in the action.

The proud Wiradjuri man is known for his groundbreaking dance performances and the hour-long show, Daddy, is running from Friday evening through to Sunday.

Superstar and proud Pitjantjatjara and Torres Strait Islander woman Miiesha is bringing RnB, gospel and soul to the INPEX Sunset Stage in Festival Park on Friday August 6.

Preval highlighted a performance by a supergroup of Mparntwe/Alice Springs performers as the show he’s particularly interested in seeing come to life on opening weekend.

“I’m really, really excited about Red Desert, Endless Sky: Songs From The Centre, which is a gorgeous showcase work that we’ve helped bring to life that celebrates musical artists from Alice Springs and features amongst that lineup, Cassie Williams, a really incredible singer-songwriter,” he said.

Preval said despite the changes forced by the pandemic, he can’t wait to see the festival kick off this week.

“Obviously, it’s been a really trying time dealing with all of the changes to the program brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak in New South Wales in particular. I’m just really praying that we get through this incredible 18-day program and all of the artists who can make it, make it and find the audience they deserve in Darwin.”

By Sarah Smit