Deep in remote north-western South Australia, a group of Aboriginal artists are winning international acclaim for their striking contemporary works. By Sophie Tedmanson.
Deep in remote north-western South Australia, a group of Aboriginal artists are winning international acclaim.
Flying high above the South Australian Outback, the red dirt is broken by lines of eucalyptus trees and bush scrub intersecting the earth like arteries, the lifeblood of the land. We are passing over the Painted Desert, a beautiful landscape that unfolds like a welcome mat, a soil canvas that does indeed resemble a stunning work of art. Further along, the ground shimmers into a dazzling pink and white salt lake, then rises into rugged green and brown mountain ranges; the scenery transforming kaleidoscopically before our eyes. It’s an evolving environmental work of art that has been reimagined in Aboriginal song, dance and Dreaming stories for millennia.
This part of our sunburnt country belongs to the people of the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, which makes up a 103,000-square-kilometre area of northwestern South Australia, a perimeter that runs along the Western Australian and Northern Territory borders. It is Aṉangu country, one which holds their Tjukurpa (ancestral creation stories); storylines that are passed on from generation to generation. While the focus of many Indigenous Australian communities is often on their battles with long-term health issues, government regulations, decades of neglect and the historical effects of the Stolen Generation, APY Lands people connect and heal through their art and their art centres, which form the physical and emotional nucleus of their communities.
“There is a unity and bond that we have with our neighbouring communities – Eastern and Western desert art is one, and we stand together as a community of art,” says Robert Fielding, an award-winning artist and Aboriginal leader from the Mimili Maky Arts in Mimili community. Fielding is one of dozens of artists from the APY Lands who will exhibit at TARNANTHI, the biennial Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, which will showcase more than 1,000 Indigenous artists at the Art Gallery of South Australia and other venues around Adelaide this month. Highlights from the APY Lands include a major sculptural collaborative installation of suspended
kulata (spears) and wooden piti (bowls); large-scale ephemeral paintings made on country of ancestral creation stories created collaboratively across communities by 45 artists; and exemplary works by award-winning artists including Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, who won this year’s Wynne Prize.
The strength of the women in the communities is potent. In the Tjala Arts centre at Amata community, Barbara
Moore says her mother taught her how to paint, but she adapted it to her unique personal style. Several hours’ drive away at the Ernabella Arts centre, a group of women are sitting quietly in the back workshop delicately carving patterns like lino cuts into ceramic pottery vases, which the community is famous for producing. Elizabeth Dunn uses her literal environment as inspiration. “Sometimes we go out to the bush and eat bush tomatoes and learn the stories,” she says, carving the native plant patterns into the vase. “I learnt from watching other people in the community.”
The young artists of the APY Lands are unsurprisingly more contemporary than their elders, bringing a modern approach that transcends generations and cultures. One of the most celebrated is Vincent Namatjira from Iwantja Arts in Indulkana community, whose irreverent The Queen and
Me is a tribute to his great-grandfather Albert, who was awarded the Queen’s Coronation medal in 1953. Namatjira’s bold aesthetic and humorous take on celebrity and politics has earnt him many accolades – two of his works have been acquired by the British Museum, he was a finalist for this year’s Archibald and Ramsay Art Prizes, and will also be showcased at the Sydney Contemporary art fair this month.
Another is Kaylene Whiskey, who shows us a painting of Wonder Woman hunting for kangaroo with her special rope lassoo, accompanied by Michael Jackson with a spear, standing near a wombat hole. Whiskey’s satirical humour – her other works are inspired by Dolly Parton and Cher – infuses pop culture gleaned from TV, radio and advertising, with traditional Aṉangu culture learnt from grandparents.
These APY artists are dominating Indigenous art across Australia, enjoying healthy international sales and myriad award nominations – indeed, six out of eight of this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards were presented to artists from the APY Lands.
Nici Cumpston, TARNANTHI curator and herself an Indigenous artist, says while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists can stand alone in mainstream art fairs, “TARNANTHI gives us a unique opportunity to delve deeply and present the works of art through the voices of our artists, giving agency to their way of thinking.”
Back in the South Australian bush, Robert Fielding is standing alongside his latest creation: an old Holden abandoned by the side of a dirt road that he has painted in red-and-green-dot motifs to “bring this object to life and give it colour … to add colour to it, it’s a resurrection.”
He contemplates the idea that TARNANTHI represents more than the art for Indigenous communities.
“To live in your community is about who you are as a person and how you respect the land, and how we live together in unity and how we, as Indigenous people, can own a share of bits and pieces and the snippet of our stories and songs and dance that we have,” he says with a smile. “We all have different forms of art, but to show people and to showcase our work in different forms is a snippet of who we are as a culture, and our people of remote communities, and to show how important it is that we have so much history and so much song that non-Indigenous people are the ones who are hungry to understand who we are.” TARNANTHI opens on October 13. Go to www.tarnanthi.com.au.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: JENNIFER INGKATJI’S PAINTING AT THE TJALA ARTS CENTRE IN AMATA; AT THE ERNABELLA ARTS CENTRE, FROM LEFT: LYNETTE LEWIS, JERMIAH BURTON, PEPAI JANGALA CARROLL (BEHIND), ELIZABETH DUNN AND EVA WELLS; RAY KEN, PATRIARCH OF THE KEN FAMILY OF ARTISTS, AT AMATA; TUPPY GOODWIN FROM THE MIMILI COMMUNITY; THE SUN-PARCHED LANDSCAPE OF NORTH-WESTERN SOUTH AUSTRALIA; VINCENT NAMATJIRA, IN FRONT OF HIS ARTWORK THEQUEENANDME, AND KAYLENE WHISKEY FROM THE IWANTJA ARTS IN INDULKANA COMMUNITY; BARBARA MOORE AT AMATA; PEPAI JANGALA CARROLL FROM THE ERNABELLA COMMUNITY; THE APY LANDS STRETCHES FOR THOUSANDS OF KILOMETRES; ROBERT FIELDING, FROM THE MIMILI COMMUNITY, WITH HIS CAR ARTWORK.