Since its inception in 2015, Tarnanthi has rapidly become one of this country’s essential art events. The word, in the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains means “to rise, come forth, spring up or appear,” but a more appropriate verb might be: “to mushroom”. The major attraction of this sprawling festival of indigenous culture is an exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia, but there is also a tightly-curated art fair at the Tandanya institute, and satellite exhibitions spread all over the city. Artistic director, Nici Cumpston, claims there are more than 1,000 artists represented. After a couple of days this felt like an under-estimate.
Having visited Arnhem Land earlier this year I was already primed for one of the highlights of the exhibition, a breathtaking survey of work from Yirrkala on the north-western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. This show-within-a-show goes by the name of Gurrutu, a key concept in Yolngu kinship and cosmology which defies exact translation. One might call it “the order of the universe” or “the regulating principle of life itself”. It’s crystal clear to the Yolngu but a purple haze for the rest of us.
It could be argued that mystery lies at the heart of religion and of art. The God of the Old Testament kept the Israelites guessing when he appeared in the form of a cloud, and Gurrutu gives us only a hint of the complexity of Yolngu beliefs and practises.
There is no mystery about the way audiences are responding to these works. At the foot of the stairs which lead to the main galleries viewers are confronted with Gunybi Ganambarr’s extraordinary triptych, Darra – three large sheets of deep-etched aluminium, covered in patterns that represent the convergence of fresh water and salt water. This is a bigger version of the diptych that won last year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA), just in case we weren’t already impressed.
Gunybi is such a star one always expects him to stand out, but this time he has serious competition among his peers. A sequence of bark paintings by Nongirrna Marawili, coloured with pink toner from used printer cartridges, was also pretty startling.
One absolute highlight was a large installation of minutely painted poles by Wukun Wanambi, offset by an animation featuring hundreds of tiny fish that swam around vewers’ feet. In a darkened room it wasn’t easy to appreciate the quality of Wukun’s painting, but there was no difficulty in hearing people say: “This is amazing! This is awesome!”
Along with these works Tarnanthi is showing 20 major Yolngu barks commissioned by the Kluge-Ruhe collection of Charlottesville, Virginia, which claims to be the only museum outside Australia dedicated solely to indigenous Australian art. At the conclusion of the show in Adelaide these works will commence a tour of the United States, fuelling a growing interest among American institutions and private collectors.
A key figure in the forthcoming tour, and in the current efflorescence of Yolngu art is Djambawa Marawili – elder, artist and statesman. Djambawa took out this year’s top prize at the NATSIAA with an unconventional bark painting showing the Statue of Liberty and an Australian coat of arms. His work in Tarnanthi dates from 1997 but is equally innovative, with relief forms attached to the bark. Djambawa is also the man who has to authorise every new idea that arises in the community, making sure it doesn’t offend against longstanding traditions. In recognition of the crucial role he has played the AGSA asked him to open the exhibition.
Among other significant displays there is an imposing installation of large carved and painted poles from Tiwi artists, and a room of watercolours from Hermannsburg, in which Albert Namatjira’s legacy is continued and revised by a new generation of artists. In Albert’s day it wasn’t conceivable to view the landscape through a mobile phone, or as a backdrop to a fast food package.
A traditional artform being taken to a new dimension is the practice of carving patterns on pearl shells in north-western Australia. These riji, as they are called, are being reinvented by master carver, Garry Sibosado, who has created a wall installation using shells and other materials. Meanwhile, Darrell Sibosado has lifted the riji patterns off the shells and reproduced them as linear wall reliefs made from corten steel.
In this year’s NATSIAA, the Works on Paper Award went to the late Nyaparu William Gardiner, for a figurative painting showing the “old people” in the landscape. One of the revelations of Tarnanthi is a room of Gardiner’s pictures, revealing what a tremendous vein of talent he tapped at the end of his life. Gardiner’s stylised figures are reminiscent of works by Sidney Nolan, although rather more consistent. For me this was the major discovery of the exhibition.
If there were awards for the cleverest, most sophisticated works, one would have to consider Ryan Presley’s large Blood Money watercolours, which put the faces of notable indigenous people on detail-perfect bank notes. Instead of a specific value on each note Presley uses the infinity symbol, suggesting one can’t put a price on the Aboriginal occupation of the land. On the other hand there was a booth at the AGSA where one could exchange finite sums of money for prints of Presley’s work. There was a long queue during the opening.
An artist who can never be ignored is the indefatigable Jonathan Jones, who has a room-sized installation in the AGSA’s colonial galleries, and another at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in the Botanic Gardens. Jones’s work derives from rigorous research, this time looking into indigenous agriculture. His presentations are supplemented with quotations from Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe, the two historians who have done most to change the way we think about Aboriginal people’s relationship with the land.
Jones mimics the style of a Victorian museum presentation with objects in vitrines and a pale blue wallpaper decorated with tiny yellow flowers he has designed for the occasion. At the Santos he has included framed pages from colonial-era newspapers featuring advertisements for farm machinery. Upon these pages he has superimposed the silhouettes of native plants used for food by indigenous people but ignored by the colonists. He has also carved three large grinding stones, which resemble works of minimal, modernist sculpture.
Although there’s arguably too much information to be processed in Jones’s installations he is always conscious that a work of art requires a degree of visual inventiveness if it is to hold the viewer’s attention. It’s tempting to say the same thing about Tarnanthi in general – one comes away with a huge volume of new information about indigenous Australia, but mainly with the feeling that there are deep wells of creativity being tapped all over this wide, brown land.
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide,
18 October, 2019 – 27 January, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October, 2019