Art by the Coral Sea

John Ford — 2 April 2020
This world-class art centre at this ocean-side village is only an hour's drive from Cairns

The road to Cairns is a well-worn annual pilgrimage as thousands of winter-worn southerners head north for a warmer and more laid-back lifestyle. Hunkered in their winter hideaways, a bucket list of adventures and local destinations awaits, but many may be missing out on a little-known gem only an hour out of town.

The small Aboriginal community of Yarrabah is a 60km drive south-east of Cairns over the imposing Murray Prior Range. Snuggled up to Mission Bay on Cape Grafton, the village is a magical tropical hideaway between rainforest and the Coral Sea. With a long sandy beach fringed with coconut trees, it’s an ideal setting with yesteryear tranquillity.   

Although the road trip is 60km, Yarrabah is only 12km from Cairns as the sea eagle flies, but it is so far removed from the tourist pace of the city, it feels much more isolated. Yarrabah is part of the traditional country of the Gunggandji people, whose first contact with Europeans was the sighting of James Cook’s ship anchored offshore in 1770. Rock paintings of the Endeavour record the event, but there are no records in his diaries of Cook coming ashore. 

European influence on the traditional lifestyle culminated in the establishment of an Anglican Mission in 1892 when the church and various governments forcibly relocated Aboriginals from outlying areas as far away as Fraser Island and the Torres Strait to the mission.

After years of controversial stewardship, the church abandoned the mission in 1960 and a period of state control followed. Self-government came with the return of 15,609 hectares in a Deed of Grant and the establishment of Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council in 1986. 

Boasting a coastline 60km long, the shire runs in a narrow strip of coastal land between False Cape and Palmer Point, and while Yarrabah is the main settlement, there are smaller villages scattered along the coast.

Yarrabah hit the world stage a few years ago when the Wiggles recorded their lullaby 'Rock-a-bye your Bear' in the Gunggandji language accompanied by children from the school and local elder Daniel Murgha. The song became part of the Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle! series, shown in 190 countries.

The journey to Yarrabah along Trinity Inlet is a treat in itself, so take some extra time to stop along the way. The road winds close to the shore with several picnic spots and photo opportunities, especially at sunset. Crossing the coastal range affords views over the ocean, and there's a lookout with views looking down into Yarrabah.

A local population of around 3000 live in the vibrant community of schools, a small supermarket, two takeaway stores and a coffee shop, with dominant buildings being the shire council chambers, a library and the original Anglican church.


The Art and Cultural Precinct combines the Art Centre and the Menmuny Museum, where displays of artefacts and photos depict the history from pre-settlement and through the stages of mission life. As a view on the impact of Christianity on the traditional way of life told by members of the community, the collection is nationally significant. A guided tour of the Museum and walk along the rainforest boardwalk, featuring the beautiful Cairns Fan palm, can be arranged.


In an interview with ABC radio, renowned basket weaver Philomena Yeatman outlined how the craft dates back to early mission days when Torres Strait Islander women taught the locals how to weave, and it has continued ever since. 

Prior to the Art Centre’s establishment, Yarrabah Pottery was set up in 1973 as part of a government initiative, and it was so successful it was taken over by the community and operated as Guyala pottery for many years. Artists from the time are exhibited in the National Gallery in Canberra, and there is keen interest from collectors on sites like eBay. 

The Cultural Precinct was established in 2002 and flourishes as an internationally acknowledged meeting place for contemporary Indigenous art. International and local patrons alike are amazed at the quality of works available, and many pieces have been shipped overseas.

Mediums as diverse as painting on canvas and natural material, basket weaving, screen printed fabrics, ceramics, lino prints and even custom clothing show a wide range of talents, with many artists achieving worldwide recognition.

Philomena Yeatman began her art career in Yarrabah, and mixes dyed natural fibres from pandanus and cabbage palm with modern products, including fishing line, to weave intricate patterns in her mats and baskets. Her works appear in many collections, including at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Elverina Johnson’s bespoke silk scarves, infused with nature motifs, have found high profile owners that include Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and Joan Templeman, wife of Richard Branson. Elverina won recognition for her works as 2017 NAIDOC artist of the year.

Michelle Yeatman’s love of pottery began 40 years ago when she started making ashtrays for family and friends. These days, her unique Jigi coil pots are keenly sought for the intricate shapes and decorations inspired by seagrass patterns.


When we visited, artist Eric Orcher was helping a group of trainees as part of the Yari Arts Program. Eric moved to Yarrabah 10 years ago and quickly established a reputation for the diversity of his work through mediums including painting, sculpture, ceramics, linocuts and screen-printing. Taking inspiration from both desert and marine motifs, he has recently reproduced his designs via screen-printing onto fabric for unique dresses.  

Emerging artist Wayne Connolly was head down working on his first solo exhibition and described his painting as the Dreamtime story of why the emu can't fly after being tricked by a brolga. 


A recent initiative of the community has been the Paint for Pride program, where young residents have been encouraged to decorate town buildings with murals and signs. The first project saw a group of 30 students complete a large boomerang on the PCYC building, followed by some new stylised welcome signs.  


As well as the art centre being open Monday to Friday, there are several other opportunities during the year to enjoy Yarrabah culture. A music and cultural festival will showcase Indigenous talent from across Australia on Saturday 10th October. It will be a full day of live music, food and culture, with special activities for the young ones. 


In July 2020 Cairns will celebrate the 11th anniversary of an art fair that brings together visual and performance artists from Indigenous communities across North Queensland and Torres Strait. Last year thousands of visitors attended, and the Yarrabah community is pivotal to the event, with many artists on display. With workshops, fair and cultural performances, it has become a significant event for the region.


The Queensland government has declared 2020 the Year of Indigenous tourism, and across the state communities are opening their doors to visitors. So what better way to experience this rich culture than a visit to an Aboriginal Art Centre? And Yarrabah is one of the most diverse and exciting of them all.


LOCATION Museum Road, off back Beach Rd Yarrabah Qld 4870 

PHONE 07 4056 9154

OPEN Mon–Fri 9am–4pm, Sat 9am–1pm

ACCESS Sealed road access along Pine Creek- Yarrabah Rd from Gordonvale or Wrights Creek. 

WHEN TO VISIT all year round

CONTACT Art Manager 07 4056 9154


Destination Cairns Queensland Yarrabah Art Centre Indigenous art


John Ford