Spirit of Australia Gallery
Not unlike the boomerang, when the resident indigenous artists of Spirit of Australia gallery in Surfers Paradise leave to go on walkabout, they always end up coming back.
Admittedly, it took Greek gallery owner and indigenous art dealer Kostas Stathopoulos a while to get used to his artists’ spontaneous departures, which would be matched by an equally spontaneous return.
“I heard stories of walkabout when I first started working with indigenous artists, but I didn’t experience one myself until owning Spirit of Australia,” Kostas says of his artists’ time away from the gallery. “My artists come and go, but that’s so normal.”
Kostas and his wife Mitra have operated Spirit of Australia, the only Aboriginal art gallery in Surfers Paradise, since 2005 when they relocated from Sydney. An indigenous art enthusiast and painter, Kostas spent many years working with indigenous artists of Sydney, forming friendships on the common love for landscapes.
When they first took over Spirit of Australia, Kostas called on his friends to come and exhibit in the Gold Coast. Among them was internationally renowned artist Colin Wightman.
“I called Colin when I first arrived to Surfers Paradise and from then he began creating work for our gallery. He was an amazing guy, we worked side by side for years,” Kostas says.
Quite literally, side by side. Kostas would help Colin mix colours, contribute to artworks and provide inspiration for new pieces, as well as promote his work and personal culture inside the gallery. “Because of my passion for art, I am always involved with my artists,” he says.
The gallery – a bright, high-ceilinged space with a simple glass shopfront on Surfers Paradise Boulevard – combines the intimacy of a regional exhibition with the artistic scope of a national gallery. Over the years, it has exhibited nationally celebrated artists like Gold Coast Indigenous Art and Design Award winner Anthony Walker, Betty Mbitjana, Jeannie Petyarre, Dorothy Napangardi, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Kudditji Kngwarreye and Minnie Pwerle.
One foot inside Spirit of Australia is like stepping into a painted dream. A spectrum of multi-coloured dots and dashes – from rust red to fluorescent pink – leaps out from the walls with almost tangible energy, as if the brushstrokes were breathing. Each canvass depicts an individual story and style, intrinsically linked to the geography of its painter.
As well as indigenous paintings, Spirit of Australia houses the Gold Coast’s largest collection of authentic didgeridoos, traditional oilskin leather hats and jackets, sheepskin footwear and a range of souvenirs, such as hand painted boomerangs and accessories. But these weren’t always part of the mix.
“At the end of 2005, we were still the only indigenous art gallery in the precinct but we were struggling to sell works of art,” explains Kostas, likely because the international tourist market found it difficult to send pieces home.
“The restructure of the gallery to incorporate leather goods and souvenirs has helped us stay in Surfers Paradise, as well as providing small, authentic gifts for visitors.”
A favourite among tourists and an important contribution to the gallery is the work of current resident artist, John Turnbull. A ‘Dreamtime’ painter from Inverell, NSW, John moved up to the Gold Coast in 2006 and began painting almost everyday at Spirit of Australia, sometimes on the footpath.
“John likes to set up a table just outside the gallery and paint in front of people. Tourists love this because they can interact with John and ask him questions about the colours and symbols,” Kostas says.
“It often takes him four hours to paint one piece – three of those are chatting!”
At the time of writing, John had taken a month away from the gallery. “He’s gone walkabout,” Kostas says, with the hint of a smirk.
Although pleased with the gallery’s ability to educate locals and tourists on the significance of indigenous art, Kostas would love to see more funding and public engagement with the cultural practice.
“Local artists would benefit from more indigenous art exhibitions, tours or festivals in Surfers Paradise because this is where the majority of tourists are. It’s clear that they love Aboriginal art, but they need more outlets,” Kostas says.
“It’s also important to keep tourists informed about the cultural value of indigenous artefacts, such as boomerangs and didgeridoos. It’s cheaper to buy an imitation at a large souvenir shop, but the meaning will be lost.”
With Kostas and Mitra’s dedication to one of the world’s oldest and most complex art forms, we can expect that Spirit of Australia gallery will continue to enrich Surfers Paradise’s cultural offering.
And hey, if you put the energy out there, it should only come right back.