Judith Samson with the painting, Rabbit Proof Fence, that she painted with her grannie Dida Samson
Judith Samson with "Rabbit Proof Fence," painted with her grannie Dada Samson

If it is September in central Australia then all roads lead to Alice Springs – and particularly the Araluen Art Centre.

And the car park outside Araluen on the opening day of the annual Desert Mob art show tells a hundred stories of travel along those roads.

Here are scattered the shiny new hire cars of the visitors and collectors that flock to the Alice at this time every year to catch a bargain, spot a new trend, or fill that gap in their collection. They’ve come from around the corner, across the country and from all of the globe’s round corners.

There are the muddy trucks from the thirty or more art centres that have dragged their precious cargo or arts and artists along hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres of rutted and sodden bush tracks to bring their work to hang at Araluen. They’ve come from all points across central Australia to show and sell their work – the ordinary, the weird and wonderful and the exceptional.

Desart's member art centres

Artists and the visitors have each been making this mutual pilgrimage for twenty years and each year Desert Mob casts its net just a little wider as new art centres join up and new artists and new art forms and practices emerge.

Ina Scales, Wawiriya Burton, Jennifer Mintaya & Sally Scales having a laugh
Ina Scales, Wawiriya Burton, Jennifer Mintaya & Sally Scales having a laugh

Desert Mob, in the words of Erica Izett in her essay in the 2010 exhibition catalog, provides just about the only means by which an ‘outsider’ can easily grasp the “vast matrix of cultural activity across the interior”:

Within the rare synopsis of [Desert Mob’s] product…showcases the pick of each desert art centre, offers the rare privilege to tap the pulse of the trendsetters. Who’s still got it and the latest push and directions are the hype of the moment.

Curators and collectors fly to the red zone from all around…speculation and gossip abound. Artists shadowed by minders and adoring fans grace the opening in numbers that exceed any other whitefella initiative in Alice bar rock concerts…it’s a chance to strut the stuff of each desert crew.

My brain hurt after the quick hour I spent in the Desert Mob during the ‘soft’ opening. There was just too much to take in at a single viewing and like many others that will suffer similar sensory overload from their first look at Desert Mob 2010, I will need at least another visit to sort out the wheat from the (not inconsiderable) chaff.

And, contrary to perhaps a popular belief, Desert Mob 2010 shows that art out here is not just about the occasionally bemoaned but rightfully celebrated “dot” paintings. While there is a bewildering variety of the latter there is also a great selection of works across an increasingly broad range of media.

I particularly liked the transformation of found objects – car doors, road signs, stray pieces of metal and wood – that lurk in the corners of Desert Mob 2010 like small welcome surprises.

Jackie Singer, "Old Trucks". Iwantja Arts, Indulkana
Jackie Singer, "Old Trucks". Iwantja Arts, Indulkana

A few weeks ago I was critical of the presentation of the annual Telstra National Aboriginal & Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) show at the NT government’s Museum and Art Gallery at Bullocky Point in Darwin.

There I said that:

The main NT Museum and Gallery space was built in 1982 and, apart from the occasional cosmetic makeover, is sadly in need of some major capital works…it is not just the aging infrastructure that inhibits the NATSIAA awards and the Museum and Gallery from achieving their full potential…the lack of any catalogue for the NATSIAA awards and the minimal on-line presence. And hitting up Telstra for a few more bob shouldn’t be too far down the list as well – for mine they are getting an absolute bargain!

Desert Mob 2010 has a good catalogue that contains some fine essays, good reproductions of a selection of the works on show and a full list of all the work available for purchase. Curiously Kate Podger, Araluen’s senior curator doesn’t get a mention in the catalogue.

But – and this is really only a minor gripe – the 310 works from 34 arts centres are jammed into a warren-like jumble of rooms, foyers and corridors.

Clearly Desert Mob 2010 has outgrown the available space at the Araluen Art Centre.

Amunda Gorey's "Lhere Itereke - By The River"
Amunda Gorey's "Lhere Itereke - By The River"

It is not Araluen’s fault that it Desert Mob’s success stretches it’s capacity to the limits and that the building is looking just a little frayed around the edges and in need of a long-overdue makeover.

As with the Bullocky Point Museum in Darwin Araluen has suffered from the same failure by successive NT governments to make the necessary capital investments that these most valued cultural institutions deserve.

And just maybe it is about time that a major corporate sponsor came forward to put some serious financial backing into Desert Mob.

Josephine Watjari Mick and "Manu Mamangara". Ninuku Arts, Kalka, SA
Josephine Watjari Mick and "Manu Mamangara". Ninuku Arts, Kalka, SA

Anyway – enough of that – for now.

Despite those minor gripes Desert Mob 2010 is a great show that will reward the repeated viewings that you’ll have to make to appreciate the true worth of the work on offer.

You won’t see anything like it anywhere else anytime soon.

Dan Jones, "Utopia Loading Truck". Tangentyerre Artists, Alice Springs
Dan Jones, "Utopia Loading Truck". Tangentyerre Artists, Alice Springs

And for all the apparent success that Desart and the forty art centres that make up its membership are currently enjoying they face some very real structural and practical issues.

This is something that I’ll return to in the near future, but for now I cannot help but agree with Erica Izzett’s comments in her catalogue essay:

Success, especially too much success, always conceals within it dangers. In the case of Desert Mob, for example, its very success hails it as a prime event for the commercial sector to identify the cream of the crop…[which] has made it easier for unscrupulous dealers to profit without due recompense from the enormous work of the art centres to nurture artists.

David Wallace "Crow men" (detail)
David Wallace "Crow men" (detail)

Desert Mob 2010 is part of the Alice Desert Festival and runs from yesterday, 10 September through to 24 October 2010. For more information go to: www.alicedesertfestival.com.au

* Judith Ryan, Desert Mob: ‘The Power of Unsettling Surprise’ Trajectory and scope of Western Desert Art. In Desert Mob 2010 Catalogue.

* Erica Izett, What’s the buzz: Desert Mob. In Desert Mob 2010 Catalogue.