‘It’s going to be inspiring’: the Ghan’s transformation into a moving painting

Steph Harmon
·3 min read

When painter Chantelle Mulladad saw her artwork Crossroads scaled up and wrapped in vibrant colour around three carriages of a world-famous train, she says she was “shaking”.

Mulladad is an Arrernte woman from the remote Indigenous community of Ltyentye Apurte, where she works with the Keringke Art Centre that her mother co-founded.

When she met the Ghan at Alice Springs station on Thursday morning, the train had just finished broadcasting her art across a 2,973km stretch of Australia, from Adelaide to Darwin, before its first official commuter expedition of the season: half that length again, from the Top End back down to the red centre.

Mulladad was surrounded by a gaggle of media as she locked eyes on her piece for the first time.

“My heart was beating so fast,” she told Guardian Australia. “I felt real nervous.”

Crossroads was commissioned for Parrtjima festival, a 10-night Indigenous arts festival which opens on 9 April. Curated by Rhoda Roberts, the program involves talks, workshops and live music but centres around light. Immersive illuminated sculptures will be dappled through Alice Springs Desert Park, and a nightly light and sound show – that has not been without controversy – projected on to the immense backdrop of Yeperenye, or the MacDonnell Ranges.

Related: The Ghan expedition – exploring Australia's great 'in-between'

The festival was cancelled last year due to the pandemic. In 2020, the Northern Territory lost more than $1.6bn in visitor expenditure, and further year-on-year declines are anticipated until the end of March 2021.

But now borders are opening back up, the Northern Territory Major Events Company believes 80% of visitors to Parrtjima will come from interstate, a significant increase from 2019.

Mulladad’s piece – a lively collection of circles within circles, in greens, purples, pinks and blues that pop against the red earth and clear blue sky of the desert – will be part of the Merging Kulcha installation at the festival: a train of five illuminated camels, each over three metres high, built in a mosaic of coloured glass lit from above.

But her arkwork was commissioned a second time, as a pattern to wrap the first three carriages of the Ghan, with an accompanying installation inside another carriage.

The train – which snakes almost a kilometre long – has been taking passengers between Adelaide and Alice Springs since 1929, and between Adelaide and Darwin, with excursions along the way, since 2004. A three nights and four-day trip starts at $2,700 during the off-season.

Mulladad’s work is fitting for a great rail route: it tells a story about journeys.

“Crossroads was based on my teenage years,” she says. “I had to choose which path to go on, and I chose the right path to make something of myself and be an artist.”

The other path? “You know, wild young teenage life,” she laughs.

To have her artwork travel from the top to the bottom of Australia “means a lot to me right now”, she says. The print will be wrapped around the Ghan for as long as it lasts – an estimated two weeks, although the adhesives were already beginning to peel off in Thursday’s heat.

While it is not the first time the Ghan has been wrapped, Mulladad’s work is the largest display ever featured on the train.

“I think it’s going to be inspiring for the young ones as well, you know? If they see my painting on a train, they might want to decide to be an artist like me – and choose the path too.”

• Mulladad’s original design, Crossroads, is part of Parrtjima festival, which opens on 9 April in Alice Springs

Guardian Australia travelled to Alice Springs on the Ghan as a guest of Tourism NT