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Dubai-based Indigenous art gallery a ‘brick in the bridge’ of storytelling

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From the red dust of the Northern Territory, to the sands of Dubai, Rikki Dank is representing mob and sharing culture in the Middle East.

A Gundanji and Wakaja woman, Dank is the owner and director of Dubai-based Aboriginal art gallery, Lajarri.

Although living and working in Dubai, Dank was raised on Australian soil, having a strong connection to her Country.

“My Mum is from Borroloola and Barkly Tablelands and my Dad is from the Gold Coast. I am Gudanji/Wakaja person. We grew up out bush in Borroloola … I was so lucky to grow up out on Country with my grannies,” she said.

“We’d go down to the Gold Coast and my grandfather would take us surfing, so my siblings and I had a bizarre upbringing. We’d go out bush … and then driving down to the Gold Coast to go surfing—totally different extremes.

“I’ve always had one foot out bush and one foot on the beach.”

Dank moved with her partner and child to Dubai in 2019, a move which fractured her physical connection to Country.

“I find it very difficult, because I was always out bush. There’s sand and trees here, but it isn’t the same!” she laughed.

“It is difficult in terms of that community that I’ve always grown up with and had around me, they aren’t here. You have to find your own community.”

Rikki Dank and her child. Photo supplied.

A very unique place, Dank was impressed with the cultural pride and diversity that thrives in Dubai.

“It’s this melting pot of cultures which is lovely. Racism exists everywhere, but to be an Indigenous Australian person and come here, and not have the pressures of being Indigenous in Australia. You don’t feel that,” she said.

“I feel like back home, you’re labelled … but you rock up here, tell people you’re Indigenous Australian and that’s it. There are no labels.”

Though separated from home by sea, Dank still wanted to maintain connect to culture and community. She began making plans for the gallery in 2015, and named it Lajarri, meaning ‘fire’ in Gudanji.

“People see art here as a good thing, it’s celebrated here and embraced. It’s part of culture. There is a strong market and there seems to be a lot of support for local artists.”

Lajarri will make history as the first Australian gallery participating in the World Dubai Art Fair between October 8 and 10.

With strong roots in community, Dank ensures the art Lajarri exhibits is sourced ethically, and that artists’ integrity and intellectual property are respected. Dank works with community art centres, which she consulted with prior to leaving Australia.

“I suppose being from Borroloola, I am lucky. I have a lot of support with community,” she said.

“I’ve always grown up with that mindset, you need to do X, Y, Z before you move forward. That is why I can do what I do here … Because I’ve grown up this way, it’s part of me, it’s part of who I am, it’s my culture.

“It is easy for me in that sense because I know what the protocols are and I naturally click into that.”

Dank highlights the importance of the stories the art in her gallery tell.

“I find the story is as important as the painting, if you’re going to sell the painting you need to attach that story with that painting,” she said.

“I find that is probably one of the bigger cultural protocols that you absolutely cannot miss, along with where it comes from and who painted it. Some of these paintings, we don’t know how old they are. If they’re Creation Stories some of these can be 65,000-year-old stories.”

Lajarri allows Dank to stay connected to culture and community. Photo supplied.

Lajarri provides a pathway for Dank to stay connected to her culture, but it also offers a platform for global education and awareness of the Indigenous Australian community.

“When I came here and started to speak to people, some didn’t even realise there was an Indigenous Australia,” she said.

“Just to be here and make people realise there is an Indigenous Australia, and we’ve been here for such a long time and these are some of our stories … this is some of what we can offer the rest of the world.”

Sharing the stories of mob at an international level is an immense responsibility, one that Dank doesn’t take lightly. She remains humble, grounded and guided by her family and community back home.

Everything I have learnt I’ve learnt from my grannies and I’m so incredibly blessed to have a whole heap of grannies. My whole life and education have been from my grandparents,” she said.

“No one ever does anything by themselves, you always have someone else pushing you along. To be a brick in the bridge of sharing stories is something special.”

By Rachael Knowles

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