Tarnanthi 2017

November 2, 2017
The Kulata Juta project
The Kulata Juta project

Constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians is another one of those issues the government would prefer not to think about. Its proponents say it’s a matter of basic human rights but this term has been so weirdly politicised in recent years there are people who interpret a call for rights as opening the door to anarchy. It’s part of the ideological narrowing of a nation that once prided itself on its fiercely democratic ethos.

It may have been only a myth, although it would be good to believe the old, tolerant, easy-going Australia is still there, beneath the layers of fear and hatred that have taken control of present-day politics. But if Aboriginal people want to advance their cause, the way forward may be through positivity rather than protest.

Late in 2015 the Art Gallery of South Australia initiated a new festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, called Tarnanthi – a word that means: “to rise, come forth, spring up or appear.” It was a vibrant celebration of contemporary indigenous culture.

The second Tarnanthi was launched a couple of weeks ago with a survey at the AGSA; an indigenous art fair at the National Cultural Institute, Tandanya; and a long list of satellite exhibitions spread throughout Adelaide and surrounds, featuring more than 1,000 artists. I came late to the 2015 show but was present for the opening of this year’s events, a genuine gathering of the clans.

Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, 'Antara' (2017)

Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, ‘Antara’ (2017)

The AGSA put on a gargantuan lunch for some 280 indigenous artists, with food being served by curators and other staff dressed in Tarnanthi T-shirts. It was one of the greatest displays of good will I’ve ever seen in an art museum (places where people tend to insist on the dignity of their offices). The event has also attracted generous sponsorship from BHP, which has agreed to be principal partner for the next five years.

A festival in full swing is infectious, and everybody was in high spirits at the opening. If such momentum could be channeled into the political arena there would be less anxiety at the idea of indigenous people demanding their rights. It comes down to a choice of emphasis between two distinct modes of indigenous art: work made in remote communities that deals with an age-old relationship with country; and a militant, largely urban-based art that dwells on political and historical injustice.

To represent the full spectrum of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art it’s necessary to include both of these strands. Where Tarnanthi differs from another recent survey – Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia – is that the emphasis is overwhelmingly up-beat, the sense of accusation lessened.

Vincent Namatjira, 'Trump and Obama' (2017)

Vincent Namatjira, ‘Trump and Obama’ (2017)

In the long run there is probably more to be gained by seeking inclusiveness rather than playing on white guilt. Although the shows contained some of the same artists, and even – in Reko Rennie’s case – the same work, the curatorial approaches were poles apart. Defying Empire was couched as an act of resistance against that entity sixties radicals dubbed “the Establishment”, while Tarnanthi rolls out the welcome mat, asking us to enjoy the good things indigenous culture has to offer.

It’s the same spirit that motivates the National Museum of Australia’s current exhibition, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters. Instead of putting up barriers between interest groups these museums are presenting indigenous history as a legacy to be shared by all Australians.

AGSA Curator, Nici Cumpston, and her colleagues have scoured the continent looking for the most original and striking works of art, but without any preconceived agenda. The plan was simply to provide a venue where the voices of individual creators might be heard.

As well as paintings and sculptures of exceptional quality and variety, Tarnanthi features weavings, photography, video, performance, textiles, ceramics and installation work. Regardless of the medium, most of this selection has obvious ties with tradition. This reflects an indigenous sense of time, not as a chronological progression but as an eternal present in which the past is always imminent.

Vessel by Shirley Macnamara

Vessel by Shirley Macnamara


The masterpiece of the show is the latest version of the Kulata Juta project. The title means “many spears”, and that’s precisely what the work involves, only this time the spears are arranged into a massive, spikey facsmile of a mushroom cloud suspended from the ceiling. The spears have been produced by men, young and old, from the APY Lands of Central Australia.

The APY Lands take their name from three major language groups: Anangu, Pitjantatjara, Yankunytjatjara. Those lands encompass the site of the Maralinga atomic tests of the 1950s, one of the most shameful episodes of modern Australian history. Making the cloud out of spears generates a complex metaphor, pointing to Aboriginal ownership of the land and the hostile nature of the tests.

It’s a landmark work to stand alongside the 200 burial poles of the NGA’s Aboriginal Memorial (1987). Like all good memorials it has an instant visual impact that makes us want to know more about the actual event and its consequences.

The APY Lands also dominate in terms of painting, with artists such as Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, Yaritji Young and Barbara Mbitjana Moore showing works in the trademark styles that are swiftly putting them at the forefront of emerging indigenous painters. Other talented artists such as Gladdy Kemarre and Shane Pickett have already passed away, but their pictures live on.

Kwementyay (Gladdy) Kemarre's 'Sorry Mob' (2106)

Kwementyay (Gladdy) Kemarre’s ‘Sorry Mob’ (2106)

As is always the case with these big surveys there’s far too much that deserves sustained attention, so I can only pick out a few highlights, such as Shirley Macnamara’s tightly woven grass vessels, which bear little resemblance to anything else I’ve seen in this medium. It’s also hard to go past Vincent Namatjira’s tongue-in-cheek double portraits – one of Donald Trump and Barrack Obama, another of the artist himself and Gina Rinehart.

One work that neatly represents the fusion between tradition and the present is Namorrorddo by husband and wife, Bob Burrawal and Lena Yarinkura. In a darkened room, under a starry sky, the artists have placed two groups of sculptures showing evil spirits cooking their prey. The spindly characters come from the dim, distant past, but the setting is pure Hollywood. It could be the beginning of a whole new movement: Arnhem Land Gothic.

Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander Art,
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide,
13 October, 2017 – 28 January, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November, 2017