The comeback capital: Darwin city’s transformation

Long overlooked as a gateway to the Northern Territory’s incredible parks, this tropical Top End city is going places, fast.

Scenic spot at Darwin Waterfront Wharf, Kitchener Bay
  • Chloe Cann
  • April 2019

Almost entirely rebuilt four times, Darwin is no stranger to transformation. Neither air raids nor cyclones have managed to quash the spirit of this northern outpost, or those who call it home. The botanical gardens, decimated by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 (the most damaging cyclone to ever hit Australia), are today in full bloom, with a further facelift worth nearly $10 million in the works. Stokes Hill Wharf, shredded during the Bombing of Darwin in 1942 (the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia), now houses a shiny, new, state-of-the-art museum and copious alfresco eateries. So it should come as no surprise that this small city is a master in the art of reinvention.

“It’s a fairly resilient town,” says Alex James, a Darwinite who opened burger bar Good Thanks with his brother Eddie in 2017. “The exciting thing about Darwin is that it goes through several iterations of itself. It’s quite an eclectic, artsy place.”

Conjuring art from nothing

Reimagining existing spaces – whether tumbledown stone buildings, or forgotten corners of car parks – is one of Darwin’s biggest strengths. The city’s Town Hall Ruins serve not only as a stark reminder of the destruction of Tracy, but also as an atmospheric backdrop for productions of Shakespeare and wedding ceremonies come the dry season. Browns Mart Theatre – a heritage building that dates back to 1885, and formerly housed a mining exchange, a bank, the police, and even the armed forces during WWII – is now the home of a progressive theatre. And an empty laneway – once lined with nothing but air conditioning ducts and garbage bins – has been refashioned into The Lane Art Space, which hosts multimedia events once a month and a rotating display of local, contemporary artworks.

Thanks to a new festival, the entire city centre is now one sprawling, outdoor gallery. The Darwin Street Art Festival brought together local and interstate artists, tasked with reviving the stark and sombre exteriors of 11 city facades, and bringing a new lease of life to a struggling CBD.

“The issue with Darwin has been that it’s really difficult to get people into the city,” explains long-time resident Alison Edwards, as we stroll through the capital’s arcades and laneways. Her ‘art-walk-eat’ tours offer insight into the changing face of the city, such as the vibrantly painted murals, commissioned for the festival. “Locals go to the big air-conditioned shopping centres outside the city, and visitors come in and go straight out again [to the national parks].”

A new lease of life

The Darwin Street Art Festival was created to entice people back into the city’s perimeters once again, as part of the local government’s wider ‘Revitalising Darwin CBD’ project. And the ‘walls that talk’ seem to have had the intended effect.

“It’s the best thing that’s happened to Darwin,” says Paul Arnold, a local landscape photographer from his eponymous gallery in downtown Darwin; he’s one of a handful of artists and curators I chat to one-on- one as part of the tour.

Catching glimpses of these vivid pops of colour first-hand I can understand Paul’s positivity. On the wall of an otherwise mundane backstreet car park, the Top End’s most iconic features (fat banyan trees, termite mounds, water towers) are clearly rendered. The work, fittingly titled Darwin, is in a strikingly minimalist palette of black, white and red. Another, named Poppies for the People, explodes with reds, greens and blues on a brick canvas several storeys high. Beside detailed green leaves – evocative of Darwin’s soupy climes – a painting of poppies offers a subtle nod to the RSL next door, and Australia’s fallen soldiers. There are plenty more, lurking around corners and above eye lines – from gargantuan, rainbow-coloured Gouldian finches to abstract depictions of saltwater creatures.

Indigenous showcase

But Alison’s tour is not just limited to city streets and photography studios. This entire region is steeped in a rich Aboriginal art culture. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is arguably Darwin’s flagship art hub, but many local studios and galleries showcase contemporary and traditional pieces from across the NT. Alison’s prime pick is Mbantua Fine Art Gallery, which specialises in paintings from the Arrente people of Utopia, Central Australia. “Lots of art dealers are unscrupulous,” notes Alison. “But Mbantua is well known for being the most ethical.”

The gallery’s curator walks us through abstract dot paintings and canvases full with geometric patterns. While each sports wildly different colour palettes, designs and levels of detail, there are recurring subjects, such as mulga berries or rattail cactus. Indigenous artists can only paint the totems they have been inherited from their fathers, Alison explains. To draw other things, they need to seek out special permission.

The new Darwin dining

One scene where Darwin is moving away from tradition is food and drink. Slowly the culinary landscape is changing – no longer are dining options polarised as standard pub grub or expensive formal fare. And attitudes are changing too. “There was a ‘near enough is good enough’ philosophy,” explains Good Thanks’ Alex of the local offerings. He and his brother spent the past couple of years working ski seasons abroad, but came home spurred on by the promise of opportunity. “The reason we came back was that we could see a glaring gap in the market; there’s nothing really like Good Thanks in Darwin. It’s a good time for the younger crowd to come through, and that’s the exciting thing – it’s an opportunity town at the moment.”

The shift has been tangible, Alex says of the inventive new restaurants now surfacing throughout the CBD. At Little Miss Korea, in Woolworths’ old loading bay, the menu is packed with creative Korean food whipped up by owner Chung Jae Lee. The industrial innards of the space have been retained, providing a more gritty interior than is the norm for these parts. While Korean barbecue is popular, you’d be a fool to forgo the crisp rounds of deep-fried lotus root, or the more delicate Moreton Bay bug tail wonton.

Then there’s PM Eat and Drink, a smart, small-plates eatery, inspired by the Mediterranean; Six Tanks Brew Co, a buzzing, colourful hub and the first craft brewpub in the Northern Territory; Stone House Wine Bar, sporting peeling paint walls and international drops, housed in an old Chinese merchant’s house; and Skin, a coffee shop-cum-boutique clothes store in the Country Women’s Association building.

Darwin’s eclectic – and constantly evolving – art and food scene is no overnight, in-your-face success story, though the city is quickly gaining momentum. “It’s on the edge of becoming a really cool city, and it has every damn right to be,” says Alex. “It’s ripe for the picking.”

Jetstar has great low fares to Darwin from across the network.