This October, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, ‘Tarnanthi’ will launch its sixth iteration of the festival that celebrates contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art from across the country.
Led by Artistic Director, Barkandji artist and curator Nici Cumpston OAM, who has been working on ‘Tarnanthi’ since its conception in 2014, the festival pushes innovative art practices while supporting artists consistently over the past six years. For Cumpston, working with the same art centres and artists during this time has been enlightening, realising the awareness that is growing in Australia for First Nations art. ‘[I’ve found] more people are becoming aware of Aboriginal artists and are interested in their practice,’ says Cumpston. ‘That’s helped build this momentum of activity within art centres and artists’ studios, and for the artists themselves.’
‘Tarnanthi’ helps to nurture these practices, share important stories, and build appreciation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art among new audiences. Many of these artists have been making for a long time, but due to lack of exposure, audiences are only discovering these artists now. ‘The most exciting thing is the fact that we had this opportunity and that we were given support to be able to engage and provide a platform for artists,’ says Cumpston. ‘It was something that right from the very beginning; my focus was to lead with the artists’ voice and create an opportunity for them to be ambitious.’
Having the platform of a state gallery allowed for the artists to push their ideas and boundaries, the reinforcement transcending the usual limitations from emotional to financial support. One example, Cumpston shares, is Karen Mills, included in ‘Tarnanthi 2015’ – whose work was seen by Blair French from the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and was then shown in ‘The National 2017: New Australian Art’. ‘This year, we’re featuring Karen again with a larger and a unique body of work that she’s created for ‘Tarnanthi’,’ says the artistic director. ‘Her painting practice has evolved and shifted; she’s really come into her own as an artist over these years.’
Mills will be presenting asymmetrical diptych paintings that explore fractured memories of her life. Through the application of hand ground pigments, she narrates her stories of loss and gain across the surface of the work. ‘Tarnanthi 2021’ will also feature a work by Kaylene Whiskey that sees the artist paint over a road sign for Iwantja Arts and Crafts in her distinctive bright and colourful patterns and textures – featuring iconic women like Wonder Woman and Dolly Parton. The artwork co-opts the ‘closed’ sign that was put up during COVID and instead reconceptualises it as ‘close’ as Whiskey aims to bring her community to the rest of Australia during lockdown.
The exhibition includes several strong paintings, such as the work of Gwenneth Blitner, from the community of Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, who celebrates Country and the wildflowers in bright, vivid works of art. Likewise, Yaritji Young, from Tjala Arts in Amata, in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, South Australia, presents her ink-like colourful paintings that are free-flowing and immersive that take you into the creation story of the honey ant – Tjala Tjukurpa.
Cumpston shares, ‘You have to dig almost as deep as you are tall to get down into those tracks where those honey ants are busily working away. And so, in these paintings, you can see all these converging lines, circles, and it’s sharing with us that, that hard work that you need to undertake to get down to these beautiful, sweet-tasting honey sacks on the backs of these busy ants.’
Outside of painting, ‘Tarnanthi’ has several moving images and sculptures, including the energetic ‘Bush Cars’ in a project titled Mutaka by Minyma Kutjara Arts Project. ‘In the bush, the vehicle is so important… if you don’t have a vehicle, you’re stuck. But there’s a lot of dead cars too because those roads are so rough,’ says Cumpston. ‘So, the artists have gone to the dump and sourced found materials to make bush cars, and they’re painting them up. You can see all the people inside in each car – male figures, female figures, children, and dogs. There’ll be a series of these cars along with a mudmap that’s been drawn onto the actual bonnet of a car, and the artists have also created a moving image component to go along with it.’
The exhibition and accompanying state-wide festival are full of stories like these from around Australia as Cumpston herself travels across Country, having conversations and visiting exhibitions. ‘Tarnanthi’ is an exhibition led by the artists and provides a platform for them to connect and tell their contemporary and ancestral stories. As Cumpston concludes, ‘showcasing Indigenous knowledge is really at the forefront of what we’re trying to do.’
Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based arts writer.
Art Gallery of South Australia
15 October 2021 to 30 January 2022