CLAIRE G. COLE­MAN

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - CLAIRE G. COLE­MAN is a Noon­gar au­thor. Her de­but novel, Terra Nul­lius, was short-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize.

There are many beau­ti­ful build­ings on North Ter­race, Ade­laide, home to the ed­i­fices of stone where the ac­tiv­i­ties of colo­nial gov­ern­ment were once per­formed. In the sin­gle long block re­sides the State Li­brary, the mu­seum, the art gallery and two univer­sity cam­puses; the tight­est group­ing of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions I have seen. North Ter­race projects a mag­netism, a grav­ity.

I have known Nici Cump­ston for about three years; we met at the in­au­gu­ral TARNANTHI Fes­ti­val of Con­tem­po­rary Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Art, in Ade­laide, back in 2015, while I was still work­ing on the draft of what was to be­come my de­but novel. I was sur­prised, at first, by how friendly, quiet and softly spo­ken she was, con­sid­er­ing what she had achieved.

The cafe at the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, by con­trast, is noisy; there’s a school group when I ar­rive, and the walls and hard floor seem to have been pur­pose built to throw sound. Nev­er­the­less, it’s a beau­ti­ful place, a whole side of the build­ing is glass, look­ing out to the gar­dens, and there’s art to rest my eyes on in which­ever di­rec­tion I look. I like that room, I have been there many times and it holds great mem­o­ries. Mem­o­ries of TARNANTHI.

Nici is flus­tered and tired when she ar­rives at the cafe but her smile is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally bright; it an­nexes her en­tire face when she sits down for a cuppa. I don’t know how she found the time. The TARNANTHI Art Fair is on this week­end at the Tan­danya Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal Cul­tural In­sti­tute and so is the fea­ture ex­hi­bi­tion, John Mawurnd­jul: I am the old and the new, of which Nici is one of the co-cu­ra­tors. The Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia col­lab­o­rated with the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Syd­ney and Man­ingrida Arts and Cul­ture to present the ex­hi­bi­tion.

A poster – taller than I am – of John Mawurnd­jul’s hand­some face ad­ver­tises the ex­hi­bi­tion from the back wall of the in­for­ma­tion counter. His hair is a puff of white. I hope I can pull off grey with that aplomb when it in­evitably spreads over my head.

Nici is a Barkindji woman whose fam­ily comes from the Dar­ling River re­gion of New South Wales. Her peo­ple are “cul­tur­ally af­fil­i­ated with the river Mur­ray” all the way to “the mouth of the river”. Her great-grand­fa­ther was an Afghan cameleer who also de­liv­ered the mail out of Bro­ken Hill; her great-grand­mother was Barkindji; her fa­ther’s side are English. She is a suc­cess­ful pho­to­graphic artist but as a cu­ra­tor and artis­tic di­rec­tor she has shown ex­tra­or­di­nary power and vi­sion. The TARNANTHI Fes­ti­val, of which she is artis­tic di­rec­tor, is a breath­tak­ing event, which al­ter­nately stages an ex­pan­sive city­wide fes­ti­val in one year and a fo­cus ex­hi­bi­tion the next. On both years there’s an an­nual art fair. It’s al­most cer­tainly the big­gest fes­ti­val of its kind in the coun­try.

In the lan­guage of the Kau­rna peo­ple, the tra­di­tional own­ers of the Ade­laide plains, tarnanthi means to come forth or ap­pear – like the first emer­gence of light be­fore the sun ap­pears, sig­ni­fy­ing a new be­gin­ning. TARNANTHI is an op­por­tu­nity for In­dige­nous artists to be am­bi­tious, “sup­port­ing them fi­nan­cially and link­ing them up with artists who pro­vide sup­port to en­able them to go that lit­tle bit fur­ther”. Draw­ing on re­la­tion­ships “that are built upon over a long pe­riod of time”, the gallery has seen “re­ally am­bi­tious projects re­alised” by “giv­ing the artists a chance to think big”.

This is the year of the fea­ture ex­hi­bi­tion, as if a two-yearly is not enough work al­ready, and Nici is fu­ri­ously plan­ning for the city­wide ex­trav­a­ganza next year. She wants it to be even big­ger than last time – I re­mem­ber last year’s as huge – and says there are “many more or­gan­i­sa­tions that want to be in­volved next year”. The screen of her phone keeps flash­ing with no­ti­fi­ca­tions – dis­tract­ing, un­til she turns it face down.

I ask if her cu­ra­tion work on TARNANTHI has clashed with her prac­tice as an artist. She an­swers,

“Yep”, and her laugh says, “Well, duh.” I laugh, too, at my stupid ques­tion. How­ever, Nici feels “com­pelled” to cre­ate her own work and says her prac­tices of art and of cu­ra­tion “go hand in hand”, each of them teach­ing skills and ways of think­ing that help with the other.

Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced both her art and her cu­ra­tion, I can see how each feeds the other. Her artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ties drive how she hangs the work of oth­ers, her cu­ra­tion in­forms her eye in the prac­tice of her art.

Mid-con­ver­sa­tion, Nici un­ex­pect­edly runs off – a price­less work of Abo­rig­i­nal art is mov­ing past the cafe in the hands of a cou­ple of staff and she, as the head cu­ra­tor of In­dige­nous art, re­ally does need to know where it’s go­ing. She re­turns to our con­ver­sa­tion and her cup of lemon­grass and gin­ger tea and tells me, ul­ti­mately, it’s the art and the artists, giv­ing them the sup­port they

• need, that is the most im­por­tant thing.

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