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DAAFF Yarns… with Franchesca Cubillo

Dec 14, 2020

Today is a very special day in our DAAFF Yarns series. We chat to our esteemed Foundation Chair Franchesca Cubillo, who balances this vital role with her day job as Senior Curator Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia. 

A Larrakia, Bardi, Wardaman and Yanuwa woman from the Top End of the Northern Territory, Franchesca has worked in the museum and art gallery sector for the past three decades, in both state and national institutions throughout Australia.

The major aim of our DAAFF Yarns is to strengthen the arts sector and help light the path forward for the industry through knowledge sharing and understand – something that Franchesca lives and breathes every day!

Words | Interview by Camilla Wagstaff with Franchesca Cubillo

Tell us about a day in the life of the DAAFF chair?

 For me, a day in the life of being the chair is really quite exciting, but also quite complex. I have a full-time day job at the National Gallery of Australia as Senior Curator, which is really the kind of role you live and breathe. So, my role as chair is a passion that I squeeze in wherever I can!

Taking on this role for me was about providing a really supportive and culturally appropriate environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their respective Art Centres to create art – about driving a healthy, sustainable, ethically driven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts industry. 

A day in the life means regularly checking in with our Executive Director Claire Summers, making sure we have a clear direction in terms of where we’re heading both in the short and long term. 

Our Foundation is staffed by a very small team – our vision is big but our resources are limited. So, my role and the role of the Foundation Board is to think big picture whilst also ensuring we’re equipped and focused on our immediate needs; that we’re keeping pace with the sector whilst also finding innovative and exciting ways to support new and existing initiatives. It’s about noticing the slight nuanced changes and adjusting to make sure the projects we’re engaging with are setting best-standard practices more broadly.

Having a Foundation that recognises the complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture, that supports artists and Art Centres economically, ethically and culturally, means we can also play a role in terms of advocacy and leadership. 

A big part of DAAFF’s mission is to contribute to the cultural aspirations of Art Centres. Can you explain what these entail?

Healthy, productive, sustainable Art Centres are essential to a thriving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art industry. They are a place where emerging and established artists are supported to make art. They provide a culturally safe environment to engage with the art market and with an industry that’s very different to Indigenous culture. And they fulfill a community role outside of art as well. They are very active and very dynamic. The Foundation needs to find ways to support these wonderful small businesses that are often the economic and cultural hub of the community. It’s also about finding like-minded supporters, sponsors, philanthropists, state and federal agencies that can work with us to facilitate and realise the aspirations of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Artists and their Art Centres.

Claire Summers, The Honourable Lauren Moss MLA and Franchesca Cubillo at the DAAF 2019 Opening Ceremony. Photo by Dylan Buckee.

Healthy, productive, sustainable Art Centres are essential to a thriving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art industry. They are a place where emerging and established artists are supported to make art. They provide a culturally safe environment… often the economic and cultural hub of the community.

What kinds of initiatives is DAAFF working on to support artists and Art Centres?

When the Foundation was started, we had a really clear initial objective: We need to deliver a great Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art fair that supports our Membership – Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Centres. It needs to be national. All profits go directly back to the Indigenous owned Art Centres. And we need to secure funds to facilitate and deliver this event. 

Then, of course, we were very mindful that the sector was always changing, for example that Art Centres were starting to engage with textiles in a really interesting way. This wasn’t anything new per se – places like Bima Wear were producing remarkable textiles from the very beginning – but interest in high-end fashion and the home décor/design industry was growing and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and Art Centres were starting to gain opportunities with boutique, bespoke and major commercial companies. 

We wanted to ensure that our artists and Art Centres were not being taken advantage of through these situations. That they were totally informed about what their rights were in regard to engaging with small and large organisations within the area of design. As this area developed, we went beyond providing advice to create a unique fashion platform, From Country to Couture. This was about recognising the needs of our artists and Art Centres and providing further professional development and networking opportunities for Indigenous artists, Art Centre staff and designers in the broader Indigenous fashion and design sector. 

Next, we noticed that while we have many remarkable artists, we have very few curators working in the sector who understand the complexities of Art Centres in remote regions. Likewise, there are many Art Centre workers who don’t have very strong long-term relationships with curators or institutions. We wanted to make sure there was a platform for these relationships to thrive, to provide professional development, career mobility and personal relationship building opportunities. 

This was the main motivation for our Cultural Keepers Program. We’ve run this program with support from the Tim Fairfax Foundation for the past four years. We call for expressions of interest from Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Centre workers, curators and community arts workers. We provide subsidies for participants coming to Darwin for the three-day program that coincides with the Fair. 

The first day is a closed symposium where we have participants speak to some of the projects they are working on and engage in discussions around critical and pertinent issues in the sector. The second day, we match a participant with three Art Centres participating at the Fair. There’s a lot of pre-research and communication on behalf of the participants, so they already have sound knowledge of the Art Centres, Artists and staff they’re working with. They help the Art Centres bump into the fair – putting on high-vis clothing, unpacking cars and troopies, unloading and unpacking lots of boxes, moving artwork all over the place, it’s really intense and hands-on! 

The third day is totally different again. All of the participants have to work with their Art Centres in selling the work to the public – talking to everyone from seasoned collectors to someone visiting an art fair for the first time. The program gives participants incredible insights into how Art Centres operate within an Art Fair context and also identifies what artists and Art Centre staff deal with when promoting and selling works of art directly to the public. There are so many lightbulb moments for all who participate! 

Curators Program Day 1 during DAAF 2020, Courtesy of DAAFF.

Another DAAFF value is a commitment to supporting and promoting Indigenous agency. Why is Indigenous agency important?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture sits really quite separately from western art and culture. To truly comprehend its uniqueness and its place within broader society, you need to understand it from an Indigenous perspective. 

Indigenous agency is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having their own voice and leading and representing themselves and their art and culture, be it through language, dance, art or other means. I think that’s why our Art Fair is so amazing. It’s about Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander artists and Art Centre staff saying: ‘This is who we are. This is what we value and why. This is our art, this is our history and this is our story.’ 

This is tangibly how Indigenous agency happens – through Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people being empowered and having an appropriate platform to talk to people directly, it is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people representing themselves, being respected and valued and listened to. Because their story is different. Their art is different. Their history is different. That’s why it’s so important. 

What does 2021 hold for you?

We’re so excited about 2021! What we’ve discovered in responding to the global pandemic this year is that there is a whole audience out there who are coming to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art for the first time. They’re online, they’re technically savvy, and they’re a whole new demographic. Our experience showed us how there is a real potential for economic return and engagement with this broader demographic, and that could be really beneficial for our Art Centres.

We’re mindful that we need to ensure our Art Centres are supported in this new online world, and that involves quite a lot of education in things like protection of imagery and cyber safety and security. Equally we are so excited to be able to run the event face-to-face (depending on the status of the Covid-19 pandemic). So, hopefully we’re doing both!

It’s a huge undertaking. We are currently exploring what it means to do both – we will probably have a case where some Art Centres will choose to be online and some will choose to do the face to face. We have reached our maximum capacity at the face-to-face fair – we couldn’t possibly do more than 80 Art Centre stalls without risking total overload. Likewise, we’ve had Art Centres who have said they’re going to pace themselves in terms of their capacity to deliver across the various art fairs around the country.

At this stage, we are consolidating our learnings from this year and strategising what August 2021 might look like. That means looking at what our priorities are, our strategies in terms of deliverables and also the capacity of our small, amazing little organisation as well as our numerous small and amazing Indigenous Art Centres.

Indigenous agency is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having their own voice and leading and representing themselves and their art and culture, be it through language, dance, art or other means. I think that’s why our Art Fair is so amazing. It’s about Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander artists and Art Centre staff saying: ‘This is who we are. This is what we value and why. This is our art, this is our history and this is our story…

DAAFF Chair, Franchesca Cubillo speaking at the 2019 DAAF Opening Ceremony. Photo by Dylan Buckee.

MORE TO COME

Thank you to our Chair Franchesca Cubillo for sharing her knowledge as part of the ‘DAAFF Yarns’ series.  

You can see more on the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation and our Board of Directors HERE.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to subscribe as the series continues, and if you haven’t already, catch up on our last posts with Art Centre manager Joann Russo, First Nations curator Jessica Clark, and artist Lisa Waup.