Tarnanthi 2020: Open Hands
Art Gallery of South Australia
The big surprise with the 2020 Tarnanthi catalogue from the Art Gallery of South Australia is its cover. Its rich mix of blues is not what would be expected by people associating Aboriginal art with either the ochres of Arnhem Land and The Kimberley or the wild acrylics of the deserts. But it’s perfectly logical that the Ngugi saltwater people of Minjerribah – North Stradbrook Island, off Brisbane – would colour their stories in sea-blue hues.
The Carmichael family’s cerulean cyanotype canvas featured on the cover is the end result of a process that starts with museum research, and then involves the collection of natural materials like shells and grasses to weave into baskets and bags to transport the goodies that women gatherers have contributed to family life and ceremony over the aeons.
The 2020 Tarnanthi exhibition was all about women – 23 of them. It’s title, ‘Open Hands’ turns up time after time translated into the local Kaurna – Turlirrninthi; Pitjantjatjara – Mara Ala; and Yolngu – Gong nhangu. Also appearing throughout are the humble dilly bags that are the widely distributed product of those female hands. Their weaving process is known as ‘thinking through making’.
In a rich description from Milingimbi in central Arnhem Land, we learn of the multifarious roles that dilly bags play in establishing clan relations, in linking grandchildren to grandparents, in reminding young people through accompanying song of the founding spirit and first weaver, Dhanbul, and, of course, underlining the importance of women’s hands.
Who could fail to note the iconic role of the dilly bag in the recent film, High Ground, where one is ceremonially worn by the tribal elder Dharrpa in a battle of wills with Jack Thompson’s police chief? It could have been made by the women of Milingimbi. Or flown south to appear in Trudy Inkamala’s tribute portraits of the old women who taught her so much – all carrying dilly bags.
‘I was really happy walking in the bush with Old Laddie and our dilly bags,’ Inkamala tells us in a first person commentary. All artists contribute to the catalogue. Sad that, for the first time, they weren’t able to travel to Adelaide for the show – as were many visitors denied by border closures during its run. Hard to lay the blame on Premier Steven Marshall – also Arts and Indigenous Minister – who wisely writes in the catalogue, ‘The medium is art, but the message is knowledge and understanding.’
And we certainly can’t criticise the generous funders of all five ‘Tarnanthis’ – BHP – when the Big Australian’s Laura Tyler can implicitly make the post-Juukan Gorge case that ‘First Nations artists must be respected to remain in control of their projects at all times.’
Back with the artists, Cape York’s Naomi Hobson reframes the ethnographic tendency in photography by wittily empowering her young subjects to be their natural, often silly selves. Then again, the more traditional Nurapaya Kaika Burton from the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands can reclaim archival photos with her own Pitjantjatjara commentary written across them. Just down the road at Mutijulu, star-of-the-show, 75 year old Niningka Lewis emblazons her Anangu life story from pre-contact, via the missions and Maralinga to an independent life today, across five metres of board that is burnt with a pyropen and then delicately dot-painted to add topography, seasons, food sources, windmills and water.
The exhibition may have passed, but the catalogue remains; and, glory be, it has an index!
Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.