In the wake of a failed referendum, Tarnanthi 2023 delivers a resounding reminder of the vitality of Aboriginal culture. It was obvious for weeks that the ‘Yes’ vote had Buckley’s chance, so let’s accept the result and get on with the job. I know Albo was honouring an election promise, but in hindsight it might have been wiser to think of legislation first and leave the referendum on hold.
Among the many artists gathered in Adelaide for the biennial Tarnanthi survey at the Art Gallery of South Australia, the accompanying art fair and satellite exhibitions, the Voice did not seem to be a big issue. People from the so-called ‘remote communities’ lead self-contained lives. They are focused on history and heritage, on family, on taking each day as it comes. They know that things go wrong and need to be fixed, but politics barely features their worldview.
If Aboriginal people have been treated poorly by generations of politicians it’s partly because they have been so undemanding, so willing to settle for less. Anybody who believes that billions of dollars are being squandered on ‘privileged’ Indigenous recipients, should visit a desert community and check out those luxury lifestyles.
The tragedy of the Voice is not that people voted ‘No’, it’s that we had to have such a referendum in the first place. Between those who have ignored the claims of Indigenous Australians, and those eager to speak on their behalf, there has been a pitiful lack of clarity about how to deal with fundamental problems of health and education. Forget about special advisory committees, those in charge of Aboriginal affairs need to learn how to look and listen.
In this, they could do worse than follow the lead of Nici Cumpston, the AGSA’s curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, who has been Artistic Director of Tarnanthi since its inception in 2015. Most curators go into a project with fixed ideas, but Cumpston’s strength is her ability to keep an open mind. She is uniquely responsive and sympathetic to what artists are doing, which may be the reason Tarnanthi has been a hit. Second only to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin (NATSIAA), the show has become a magnet for artists, dealers, collectors, and fans.
Earlier this year in the Pilbara, I watched as Bugai Whyoulter’s contributions to Tarnanthi were laid out on the floor at Martumili Arts. By this stage, Cumpston had already earmarked these canvases for the exhibition. Dense masses of pale brushmarks, representing the dry, sandy landscape of Bugai’s homeland – these are powerful works made by a great, underrated artist.
The display at the AGSA gives full value to Bugai’s achievements. Exhibited on black walls, the subtle, purposeful rhythms in these paintings are sustained from one canvas to the next, creating a flow that extends around the gallery. She gives more than a visual impression of this country – one can feel it in a deep way, or rather, feel the painter’s close connections to country. A detail from one of these pictures is wrapped around the cover of the catalogue, without a single distracting word on front or back.
The adjacent gallery contains three large paintings by Denise Brady, another artist who has been gathering admirers over the past couple of years. Although she uses the traditional dot method, Brady says she loves “true stories”, such as floods and bushfires, or even (in this year’s Hadley’s Art Prize), the damaging role of sugar in the local diet. Whatever the topic, her pictures have an amazing sense of drama, with forms collaescing amid storms of tiny dots.
It’s impossible to discuss all the work in Tarnanthi, but I can’t pass over the eye-catching paintings of Paddy Motorbike Ngal, who depicts stockmen mustering cattle and camels as little red figures on horses and motorbikes, set against a stark white background.
Among the most appealing works in the show are Nyangulya Katie Nalgood’s tiny, colourful paintings of birds, which have been spread out across a vast blue wall. Taken individually these are very modest works, but together they convey the pleasure the artist takes in watching and recording the many species she sees in the Pilbara. It’s a celebration of nature’s variety.
From the same part of the world, I was struck by the dramatic video by the men from the Juluwarlu Art Group, who dance and sing by firelight, wearing demonic-looking masks and waving spears.
Every work in Tarnanthi, drawn from communities around Australia, has its own story and its own sense of belonging. Of the satellite shows, there’s an outstanding display of ceramics from Ernabella at the Jam Factory; a very lively selection of works from Yirrkala, put on by Paul Johnstone and Matt Ward of Salon Art Projects at the Praxis Artspace; and a show organised by the same duo, featuring new work by Timo Hogan at the Light Square Gallery at Adelaide TAFE that would be a highlight in any museum. Hogan has been an acclaimed artist for some time, but these fearless, large-scale canvases show him evolving as a painter as he grows in confidence and tries new things. I’m signing up for his fan club.
If artists such as Bugai Whyoulter and Timo Hogan emerge from Tarnanthi with their reputations supercharged, the artist who has been given the complete star treatment is Vincent Namatjira, the subject of a show-within-a-show at the AGSA, that surveys the full scope of a brief but action-packed career.
Although it remains under the Tarnanthi umbrella, Vincent Namatjira: Australia in Colour, occupies the entire temporary exhibition space on the gallery’s upper level. In the second part of 2024, the show will move on to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Namatjira has numerous distinctions. He is the great-grandson of Albert Namatjira (1902-59), the first Aboriginal artist to carve out a successful career in Australia. Unlike his famous relative, Vincent is a portraitist, which makes him a rare proposition among Indigenous artists. He is also a satirist who rarely takes his tongue out of his cheek, and – lest we forget – the first Aboriginal painter to be awarded the Archibald Prize, for a picture of himself and footballer, Adam Goodes, in 2020.
Namatjira’s sense of humour is the saving grace of paintings that are full of energy but often slapdash and awkward. Not concerned about capturing an exact likeness, he has a knack for pinpointing specific features such as a rather scary smile, or the glazed expression a celebrity wears in front of the camera. He makes the politicians look utterly feral.
The question remains: “Is Namatjira a good painter, or simply a good producer of visual gags and send-ups?” It’s probably a rhetorical inquiry. While purists will never warm to this work, he is idolised by uncritical admirers. There’s a hint of danger in the size of pedestal he has been gifted which lifts him so far above many other talented artists.
Namatjira is one of those charmed beings who, if they didn’t exist, would need to be invented. He has discovered a niche no-one had previously noticed, as an Indigenous artist ready to paint portraits of famous blackfellas from all walks of life, be they activists, soldiers, artists or footballers. The added bonus is his irreverent approach to famous white people – from admired musicians such as Slim Dusty or Angus Young, to ‘villains’ such as Scott Morrison or Gina Rinehart. Neither does he stop there, painting multiple images of the late Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the Royal Family, including the corgis. Then there’s Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and anybody else who catches his fancy. They are usually shown cavorting in the Outback in company with the artist himself, who appears in painting after painting, like Woody Allen’s Zelig. The aim is to cut the mighty down to human scale.
Namatjira’s self-portraits are so plentiful he must spend more time staring into the mirror than a super model, although there’s scant trace of vanity. He portrays himself as an Aboriginal Everyman, who has been unaccountably included in all the team photos of the Royal Family. It would take a hardened critic not to smile at the picture of Vincent with the Queen, him holding out the witchetty grubs, Her Majesty with a handful of honey ants.
Those who can’t make it to Adelaide before next July, might settle for a visit to Yavuz Gallery in Surry Hills, where Namatjira’s solo exhibition, Desert Songs, concludes today. Once again, proceedings are dominated by the Royal Family and a host of wellknown musicians, but the major picture is Vincent and Vincent, in which Namatjira and an obscure Dutch artist stand side-by-side in a landscape that would have made Albert proud.
Namatjira’s most conspicuous quality is chutzpah – or whatever might be the Central Australian equivalent. Faced with the relentless, daredevil satire on display in Adelaide, and to a lesser extent in Sydney, even his most vehement detractors would have to admit that Namatjira is genuinely funny – which is a rare quality in contemporary art. In a world in which the defeat of a referendum is the very least of humanity’s problems, a sense of humour goes a long way.
Art Gallery of SA, 20 October 2023 – 21 January 2024
Vincent Namatjira: Australia in Colour,
Art Gallery of SA 20 October 2023 – 21 January 2024
Vincent Namatjira: Desert Songs,
Yavuz Gallery, Sydney, 5- 28 October 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October, 2023