National Aboriginal Art Gallery being built on sacred site divides community as Indigenous leaders call for ‘respect’

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

“We couldn’t just wander all over the place like they do now,” Ms Stuart told the ABC on her homeland, Mparntwe, also known as Alice Springs.

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

With the expansion of white settlement, Ms Stuart, 79, has witnessed the township of Alice Springs grow over Mparntwe — watching on as the cultural boundaries of her country were breached.

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

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

An Apmereke-Artweye bears the responsibility for decision-making — it’s an important role that is respected by younger family members and community.

“That’s where you get all your instincts from that tell you how you look after country and it [country] will always look after you,” Ms Stuart said.

Ms Stuart says the Northern Territory government is ignoring her cultural authority on what should be a cause for celebration in her community — a project being spruiked as a future tourist magnet that will celebrate 65,000 years of culture and stimulate central Australia’s economy: The $130 million National Aboriginal Art Gallery (NAAG).

The issue is not the project itself, but its planned location: the government wants to build it on the town’s football oval precinct, which, critically, overlaps a sacred women’s site.

ANZAC Oval
ANZAC Oval is the Northern Territory government’s preferred site for the gallery, but there is vocal 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 her cultural heritage.

“If you’re there and they’re consulting with you and you say ‘no, end of story’ consultation goes on without you there,” she said.

“The boxes have been ticked.”

Custodians oppose the gallery location

The number-one concern for Ms Stuart is that the gallery will layer other First Nations’ songlines and stories, expressed through the artworks proposed for the gallery, over an Mparntwe sacred women’s area.

“If you put a building up there with stories that don’t belong there, how do you think the ancestors will feel towards that?” she said.

“Where’s the respect? We have our boundaries here.”

Western Arrarnta elder and artist Mervyn Rubuntja has been painting his homeland in vibrant watercolor since he was a teenager. He said he felt uneasy about displaying his artwork on the potential site.

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

“It’s a woman’s site,” he said. “You need to talk to the ladies first if they say yes or no, because it’s important for every non-Indigenous person to listen.”

The gallery battle

The fight over the location goes all the way back to 2017 when a government-funded steering committee, led by Indigenous art experts, said in a report that the gallery should be built out of town. It told the government to further consult with custodians.

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