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Rare Dance Showcases Indigenous Art Festival in Australia

Warrmarn-Kija Aborigines perform the Gurrir Gurrir ceremony to open the 'Art and Soul' exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, 1 Oct 2010
Warrmarn-Kija Aborigines perform the Gurrir Gurrir ceremony to open the 'Art and Soul' exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, 1 Oct 2010

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Phil Mercer

A rare performance by renowned Aboriginal dancers marked the start of one of Australia's most important festivals of indigenous art. The unique dance of the Gurrir Gurrir people depicts events associated with a devastating tropical cyclone in 1974. The catastrophic event helped create one of Australia's most highly regarded indigenous art movements.

The ceremony performed by the Gurrir Gurrir people remembers events surrounding Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin in northern Australia. Aborigines saw the 1974 disaster as a warning from ancient spirits that their culture must not be allowed to wither and die in the face of European colonization.

The spirits were said to have imparted new songs and dances aimed at maintaining the diversity of indigenous culture and the Warmun artistic tradition was born.

It is based in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, home of the Gurrir Gurrir. Its artists are renowned for their use of natural ochre and pigments on canvas.  

For the first time, Warmun rituals have been performed in eastern Australia, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The gallery over the next few days is hosting special events to showcase Aboriginal traditions.

Hetty Perkins, a senior curator at the gallery, says the benefits of the Warmum art tradition have been immense.

"You know, we suffer from some of the worst health statistics, for instance, in any developed nation in the world and art is for many of our people the only form of income that's possible, particularly in remote area communities," said Perkins.  "It is really the only form - aside from welfare - that is coming into those communities, so it is absolutely a vital part of community life. But more than that, it is vital to the spiritual sustenance and well-being of our people."  

More than 200 years after European colonization began, Aborigines make up less than 2 percent of Australia's population, but suffer disproportionately high rates of ill-health, unemployment and imprisonment.

Most Aborigines live in urban areas, where the effects of drugs and alcohol have devastated families and communities.


The government has spent millions of dollars addressing the chronic problems, yet still indigenous communities languish at the bottom of society. Although for some art has reignited cultural pride and provided economic independence.

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