12 outrageously good Aboriginal art galleries around Cairns
Regrets, I’ve had a few; But then again, too few to mention.
Okay, Frank. There is one I feel I should mention; that striking dot painting from Mina Mina Gallery. I wanted it. Badly. I mean, really, badly. But my fiscally sensible head outsmarted my flippy dippy heart and I paid for a car service instead.
It was an instant decision that has come with 10 years of regrets. And counting.
To me, buying holiday art is almost as important as choosing a holiday activity. Art can capture the mood of a destination and it can recall all the emotions, the sounds and the smells from thousands of kilometres away.
No surprises then that the art in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland gets me every time. Aside from the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), a chart-topping three-day showpiece of Indigenous art from all around the top end of Queensland (held biennially in June or July), the region positively thumps with amazing Indigenous designs.
Here are a few of the best Aboriginal art galleries near Cairns:
Canopy Art Centre, Grafton St Cairns
When most people think of Aboriginal art, they conjure up images of ochre, dots and aerial views. Not so for many of the artists of Cairns and Tropical North Queensland.
These are rainforest people and their art reflects the blues of the reef and greens of the world’s oldest rainforest. Canopy Art Centre is a cool place to see some of the nation’s leading Indigenous artists quietly working away in the studio behind.
I met Glen Mackie, a marshmallow-sweet Torres Strait Islander here and he showed me his stunning black and white print of a warrior. Like many Torres Strait artists, Glen comes from a long lineage of carvers who today use their skills to etch legends onto linoleum and create multiple prints found in lounge rooms around the world.
Tip: Worth a visit to meet the artists working in the studio behind.
UMI Arts, Sheridan St, Cairns
This is the place to go when you can’t afford the glossy galleries. It’s a traditional Queenslander shop on the outskirts of the Cairns CBD that houses the rising stars of Aboriginal art.
Sure, you may have to rifle through stacked prints, but with a bit of patience and help from the friendly staff, you can land an original of the next big thing. I picked up a colourful print of a stingray for just $100 bucks for a friend.
Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the some of the great events run by UMI Arts throughout the year.
KickArts, Abbott St, Cairns
This is one of those galleries you can ‘do’ in 30 minutes but you leave with a lasting impression. It’s free to enter and there’s always an eclectic and electric lineup on show.
You can’t miss the building: look for the giant jelly baby spirit people on the exterior.
Tip: For less than $20 you can buy some practical memories of the local arts; like a Billy Missi tea towel for $20 or some cool Dolly Loogatha wrapping paper for $5.
Janbal Gallery, Mossman
I have four of Binna’s paintings at home, including Yiki, a spirit man who watches me make my daily Nespresso. At that hour of the morning, we also compete for crazy hairstyles.
While I am captivated by Binna’s creations, there is another reason for the multiple purchases. A Kuku Yalanji man, and owner/artiste in residence, Binna is very friendly and loves a chat (ironic that he’s deaf). I talk so much I end up buying a token picture each time.
Tip: Sign up for his art class and make your own, like the dot art keyring I did that looks funky against my Prius.
Ngarru Art Gallery, Macrossan Street, Port Douglas
Don’t let the super schmick shopfront of this wonderland stop you from going in. Like Doongal Aboriginal Art in Cairns, this is the kind of place that leaves you wishing you had a spare 10 Gs. Hang in there.
At the rear of the store there is a wall of stunning miniatures that are perfectly sized for just about everyone’s suitcase and everyone’s budget.
The incredibly stylish gallery owner, Roberta Mazur, lights up when she talks about her art, irrespective of whether it’s a $50,000 masterpiece or a $150 painting.
“Some of the artists are incredibly famous so to be able to buy their paintings as a 300mm x 300mm miniature is incredible,” she says referring to a wall art that ranges between $150 and $350 dollars. “You get something original for a very affordable price that is still meaningful.”
Bana Yirriji Art & Cultural Centre, Wujal Wujal
Only the adventurous who dare the Bloomfield Track make it to this gallery, but I can assure you the friendly artists from the local Wujal Wujal community love a visitor and it’s worth popping by. I purchased a beautiful necklace of natural seed to go with a stunning silk kaftan.
Tip: Roads can be cut in the wet season so it’s worth ringing ahead to check the Centre will be open.
Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre, Laura
Laura is known for two things: a petrol station-come-general store that’s possibly the last stop in Queensland to purchase a Weiss bar ice-cream. And one of UNESCOs top 10 sites for rock art in the world.
You can’t buy art from here (and please don’t steal it), as this is one of the best outdoor galleries in the world with a history that stretches back 30,000 years and showcases giant horses and striking spirit creatures.
Tip: Book a two-hour guided tour (between March and October) to understand a little more than what you can see free.
Other galleries to consider:
- Cairns Regional Art Gallery: Start your Aboriginal art education at this little gem of a gallery in the heart of the city.
- Doongal Aboriginal Art, Cairns: This is one of those sleek shops that screams “hello Double Bay”. It’s big business, big prices, and generally big art. And, it’s also one of the first places I would haunt if I won Gold Lotto. The Gallery represents over 20 local artists specialising in Aboriginal Rainforest Art.
- Yarrabah Arts Precinct: Just a few kilometres from Cairns as the crow flies, The Yarrabah Arts Precinct is a showcase for ceramics, painting, weaving, arts and craft, textiles and of the local community. Requests can be made for a guided tour of the museum and works can be commissioned
- Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park: A one-stop shop to get a deeper understanding of Australia’s rainforest people through theatre and cultural performance, Tjapukai also has a shop full of local crafts.
- Mossman Gorge Centre: Walk in the footsteps of the original rainforest people at Mossman Gorge and then fossick around the art gallery and pick up some art and crafts made by the local people.