WORDS: ANDREA BAIRD | IMAGES: TALLULAH BAIRD
Celebrating 20 Years: Alice Springs Beanie Festival 2016
For a relatively small outback centre of 28,000 people, over 1200 km from the nearest sign of civilization, Alice Springs sure knows how to put on a Festival.
From April through to October, Alice Springs plays host to a vast range of Festivals that celebrate everything from hip-hop music to camel racing, and attract both national and international visitors in their thousands. Perhaps one of the most iconic of these is the Alice Springs Beanie Festival, 2016 marking the 20th year of this annual event. The next Beanie Festival will take place in June 2017.
A colourful, riotous celebration of community arts, the event is great fun. Imagine trying on an inexhaustible supply of quirky head warmers and instagramming the results to your friends – as well as a wonderful experience of reconciliation with the indigenous people of Central Australia.
How the festival started
Like a lot of successful ventures in remote Australia, the event grew out of relationships between people living alongside each other. A woman called Adi Dunlop had been teaching literacy and numeracy at Yuendumu, one of the larger remote Aboriginal communities in Central Australia, 293 km northwest of Alice Springs on the Tanami Track. The women of the community saw Adi crocheting in her spare time and they asked her to teach them. When Adi came into Alice Springs she brought the beanies with her, hoping to sell them for the women. Adi and her niece Jo Nixon held a tea party and invited their friends. They hung the beanies from the roof of Witchetty’s Art Space at Araluen Arts Centre. A friend’s band played, and Adi sat in the corner teaching people to crochet. Adi and Jo realised they were on to something and The Beanie Festival was born.
20 Years On…
These days the Festival has grown and takes over the beautiful Araluen Arts Centre for four days in June every year. Each year beanie-making workshops are held in remote indigenous communities in the weeks leading up to the Festival. The finished products are displayed and available for purchase. True to its original inspiration, one of the key aims of The Beanie Festival is to “reduce poverty and dependency by developing artistic and entrepreneurial skills”, as well as producing fine art and promoting reconciliation. Beanies also come from all over Australia and from some overseas countries as well.
During the weekend it was heart warming to see circles of indigenous and non-indigenous people sitting together on the veranda outside the Arts Centre, crafting and yarning. There was also an open fire in a half forty-four gallon drum over which kangaroo tails were being cooked and sold for lunch with damper and a cup of tea. Jo Nixon, who continues to be one of the main organisers of the event, said that her aim over the years has been to run beanie-making workshops in as many remote Aboriginal communities as possible. And to encourage the women to come in to town and feel comfortable and included in the Festival and to have a positive experience.
“To provide the opportunity for tourists and locals to meet a remote indigenous person and share some of their story is what I’m hoping for. There are a lot of people out there who want to see what indigenous women are doing and support them. “
More indigenous women each year are running workshops during the weekend. Visitors can sit alongside women from communities a couple of hundred of miles out in the desert and learn how to needle-felt a beanie.
Opening night of the festival is a fantastic celebration of indigenous talent. Hannah Trindorfer of Yapa Styles showcased indigenous fashion designs and lovingly encouraged her mob of local indigenous young people who were stylin’ up and strutting their stuff for the appreciative crowd. There were live bands and a performance by the young indigenous drumming group Drum Atweme.
Volunteering is welcomed
The festival runs on volunteers and creates a warm, welcoming reception for anyone willing to lend a few hours over the weekend to keep the event running smoothly. There is much camaraderie amongst the volunteers, many travelling from all over Australia each year to be a part of the experience. Friendly volunteers help create the warm atmosphere the Festival is loved for. Whether based in Witchetty’s, the community hall space where upwards of 6000 beanies are on display and available for trying on, or in the more formal exhibition space at the Arts Centre, volunteers interact with the public and encourage everyone to feel welcome. There is a lot of laughter and interaction as people try on one crazy head-piece after another.
This year marked the most successful Beanie Festival so far with 7500 people attending over the four-day event and 4300 beanies sold.
The beanie-fever isn’t over when the festival finishes. There is an ongoing National touring exhibition of a select number of beanies that you can catch at Regional Art Galleries around the country. The Beanie Festival Roadshow sets up at other festivals around Australia to promote the event. A play inspired by experiences at The Beanie Festival called Head Full of Love toured nationally in 2015 and there are plans for a movie as well as a book.
The Alice Springs Beanie Festival is great fun, inspiring creatively, and provides a unique opportunity to weave respect and friendship between two very different worlds – those living remotely, on their country and close to their thousands’ year old culture, and those of us from modern, affluent Australia. As an introduction to Alice Springs, The Beanie Festival is a warm and positive experience of both hospitality and reconciliation and provides a unique reason to visit the majestic ancient landscape of Central Australia.
The Alice Springs Beanie Festival occurs annually in June and has free entry to a lot of events and workshops over the weekend. It is a Gold Coin Donation to visit Witchetty’s and $15 for a weekend pass to the Araluen Arts Centre to see the International Beanie Competition and Exhibition. Workshops range from free to $55.
Images courtesy © Tallulah Baird
Andrea Baird is a freelance writer based in Brisbane. She loves living outdoors. She and her husband and three daughters recently finished a two-year trip around Australia in their bus. From the craggy coastlines of Tasmania up through the majestic ranges in Central Australia and then to the wild waterfalls and creeks of Far North Queensland it was awe inspiring to see how vast and diverse Australia is. As a family they did a lot of volunteering as they went and found it was a great way to step off the tourist track and become a local. You can enjoy Andrea’s travel blog here.