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The Desert Illuminated

Parrtjima - A Festival in Light returns to Mparntwe/Alice Springs this month. With a host of new interactive elements and an artist line-up that shines brightly, the First Nations-led festival illuminates the desert in its ninth iteration.

By Betty Sweetlove

Translating to ‘lighting up’ in Arrernte language, Parrtjima transforms Alice Springs Desert Park into an immersive world of light and colour, highlighting culture, language and landscape through cutting-edge technology. Over 10 nights, Parrtjima illuminates stories of significant creation ancestors of Mparntwe/Alice Springs through installations of light and sound. Accompanying the spectacular site-specific experience is a performance program that sparkles with nationally and internationally acclaimed First Nations artists. 

Paul Ah Chee is Northern Territory Major Events Company’s (NTMEC) cultural consultant. He says this year’s theme, Interconnectedness, shines a light on the interwoven connections between people and place. 

“It’s all about that interconnectedness of people to land, land to people, the different native flora and fauna, and that connectedness between one another.” 

Curated by Rhoda Roberts since 2017, in consultation with the Parrtjima Reference Group, the festival theme ignites inspiration for new installations each year.

Brand-new works this year include Honouring, a tribute to late Arrernte Elder, interpreter, artist and author, Dr MK Turner OAM. Quirky pop-art car installation The Arrernte celebrates the Eastern, Western and Central Arrernte peoples and traditional language groups. Visitors can also meet Arelhe Urrpele, a six-metre high roving puppet, as she moves through the festival sharing stories and language.

“It’s really a celebration of Aboriginal culture through the spectacular vision of lights, which are dynamic and light up the MacDonnell Ranges, the Yeperenye, accompanied with some really great soundtracks,” says Ah Chee.

A spotlight also shines on the festival’s music line-up, with something for all ages and a powerful mix of legendary entertainers and rising stars. Performers taking to the open-air stage include Dr Shellie Morris AO, Miiesha, DJ Koolmatries, and Casii Williams.

Headlining opening night is Jeremy Whiskey, a renowned Anangu musician from Indulkana/Iwantja in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Growing up surrounded by influences including The Shadows and The Doors, Whiskey is a virtuoso guitarist involved in Mparntwe’s heavy metal scene. He says playing Parrtjima is something he’s always wanted to do.

“A lot of bands are performing there, and I’ve always wanted to perform there … I’ve seen heaps of bands touring the desert area, and I thought that was amazing, performing there with the lights,” he says.

His instrumental set is sure to get the crowd dancing, as he shares his talents across different styles and genres.

“It’s gonna be an amazing ride. I’m gonna start off with rock, slow it down with reggae, probably going to get on the bass, play a little bit of funky music as well. It’s gonna be a mix, a mix of songs and styles.”

The festival isn’t just a feast for the senses – it’s a platform for First Nations artists to share their work with the world. Whiskey says Parrtjima’s unique focus on Aboriginal culture is what he’s most excited about being a part of.

“I think it’s very important to us because we are the oldest living culture in the world and we’ve got a lot to give, a lot to show. I think it’ll be a good experience for people coming in, seeing a side of the desert, of Australia, and learning that we still continue to practice our culture and speak our languages, and are so proud of that.”

Chart-topping Gumbaynggirr/Bundjalung entertainer Troy Cassar-Daley’s also on the bill, and says performing at Parrtjima is something he’s excited about.

“I’m looking forward to the feeling I get when I touch down out there, it’s a feeling of connection with that Country – which I first visited in 1990 with Brian Young – and the old friendships that are still there,” he says.

Buzzing with connection and culture, visitors can buy directly from Aboriginal businesses at the new Buy Blak Market, and hear from speakers such as Dr Josie Douglas from the Central Land Council, screenwriter Aaron Fa'aoso and art historian Professor Gregory Lehman.

Marvel at the wonder that is Parrtjima, with 10 mesmerising nights of light installations, First Nations culture and incredible entertainment. It’s an enlightening, bucket list experience, that will always stay with you.

Parrtjima - A Festival in Light

Photos: Northern Territory Major Events Company

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