In recent decades we have seen an emergence of centralised Indigenous art fairs and festivals as well as a critique of colonialisation and consequently, identity – an extension of self, recontextualised through contemporary art making.

The ‘TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art’ invites leading Indigenous artists to share personal narratives and shed new light on their practice. Its culmination is a survey exhibition of the same name at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). Curated by Nici Cumpston, ‘TARNANTHI’ presents over 40 commissioned pieces by artists and art centre collectives; inhabiting multiple spaces in the gallery, giving insight into the richly diverse practices from as far-east as the Torres Strait to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands northwest of South Australia and beyond.

Nawurapu Wunungmurra, Yolngu people, Northern Territory, born 1952, Gurrumuru, Northern Territory, Mokuy, 2017, Yirrkala, northeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, natural pigments on Stringybark, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre

In the lower gallery visitors enter into an immersive field of black and white larrakitj (memorial poles), part of the installation, Wanupini, by Nawurapu Wunugmurra from northeast Arnhem Land. The body of works include Mokuy (2017), spirit sculptures displayed along a partially illuminated wall, casting ghostly shadows. Their otherworldly presence offers protection for their people and a warning to others who venture too near.

In the Atrium, Ghost Nets of the Ocean (2017), woven marine life sculptures by Erub Arts Collective from Erub (Darnley) Island in the Torres Strait connects the exhibition which occupies two levels of the institution. By using fishing nets to fashion coral, fish, turtles, sharks and jellyfish, the installation is a poignant reminder of (western) man’s irreparable impact on nature.

Reko Rennie, Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi people, New South Wales, born 1974, Melbourne, OA_RR, 2016–17, Walgett, New South Wales and Melbourne, 4K three channel digital video, PAL, stereo sound, 7 minutes, 47 seconds; Acquisition through TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art supported by BHP 2017, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Courtesy the artist and blackartprojects, Melbourne. Photograph: Justin McManus

Projected across a 12-metre expanse in the central gallery downstairs, Reko Rennie’s OA_RR (2017), retraces history through Kamilaroi Country where his grandmother was born, behind the wheel of a 1973 Rolls-Royce Corniche that is resprayed with the artist’s distinctive bold print. With the automobile as his brush, Rennie skids through the landscape and leaves his mark in the red earth (symbolic of Kamilaroi ceremonial engravings). Almost like a Hollywood still, a shot of the sun setting is synchronised to a familiar score – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – as the viewer looks on at one with the large-scale screen composition and its message of cultural displacement and familial connection.

In the upper galleries the monumental Kulata Tjuta (Many Spears), an installation incorporating 55 kulata (spears) made by a cross-generational body of men from each of the art centres across the APY Lands is contained in a separate room. These shafts suspend from the ceiling in a cloud formation referencing the British atomic bomb testing carried out at Maralinga in Queensland’s far northwest, between 1953 and 1963. The skewered mass levitates over hand-carved piti (wooden bowls) made by Anangu women depicting the nuclear experiments on their Ancestral lands and expressing the shared, personal experiences of its ramifications. The dimly lit room memorialises their loss while light accentuates the glimmer of hope found in the passing on of traditional knowledge and craft making via a contemporary art vernacular.

Short film, Never Stop Riding, featuring left to right: Patuway Mungkuri, Johnny Doolan, Peter Mungkuri, Vincent Namatjira, Michael Drover, and Kunmanara Andy. Courtesy the artsits and Iwantja Arts. Photograph: Jackson Lee

The works in the exhibition take on many forms, including landscape and documentary photography, unique paintings on Perspex and metal, bark paintings, a selection of Cicada Press prints, contemporary jewellery and objects using traditional techniques incorporating found and locally sourced natural materials, finely crafted shields, boomerangs and clubs and tightly woven grass vessels, embroidered soft sculptures, short experimental films, repurposed mail bags, an Indulkana Spaghetti Western, and sheemu (a hybrid representation of one’s self) connecting the past and the present to imagine a new future.

Mumu Mike Williams, Pitjantjatjara people, South Australia, born 1952, between Kenmore Park and Pukatja (Ernabella), South Australia, Willy Muntjantji Martin, Pitjantjatjara people, South Australia, born 1950, Pukatja (Ernabella), South Australia, Tjukurpa Kunpu (Strong Law and Culture), 2017, Mimili, South Australia, synthetic polymer paint and ink on paper mounted on aluminum. Courtesy the artists and Mimili Maku Arts. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton

‘TARNANTHI’ celebrates and provides insight to an evolving culture still rooted in visual narrative, history and tradition within a new contemporary aesthetic. Pitjantjatjara artist Mumu Mike Williams best recapitulates this in reference to his painted maps and mail bags (collaborations with Willy Muntjantji Martin and Sammy Dodd): ‘I’m making these paintings and writing in Pitjantjatjara so people can see, and they can know; our Tjukurpa (Law and Culture) and our manta (land) are still strong, nganampa wangka (our language) is still alive.’

Art Gallery of South Australia
Until 28 January, 2018
South Australia