Multiple Venues, Adelaide

‘My dream pre-dated the money.’ Nici Cumpston, artist, curator and Artistic Director of the Tarnanthi (pronounced Tar-nan-dee) Festival, that was staged across in some twenty-three venues in Adelaide, modestly left her presence out of the festival program. She left the fronting to ebullient Art Gallery of South Australia Director, Nick Mitzevich, to State Premier Jay Weatherill, who boldly declared that Adelaide was ‘now the international gateway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in Australia’, to Olympic Dam BHP boss Jacqui McGill who stumped up the money, and to Paul Keating who opened the whole shebang with a speech that mixed personal braggadocio with challenging assertions about Aboriginal art.

But, make no mistake, it was Cumpston’s festival. While the BHP funding of four million had come only two years beforehand, as recompense to the State for its failure to expand production and employment at the important Olympic Dam mine, Cumpston can date her Dreaming back to a 2010 visit to Perth, when she was seeking art for a completely different exhibition. Allowed the freedom of the Mossenson commercial gallery, she found a treasure trove of works by the relatively unknown Andinyin artist, Ngarra; ‘dynamic, playful drawings which just wouldn’t leave my mind’, she explained. Since then, the artist, who died in 2008, has also got under the skin of American collector Dennis Scholl, who is touring him (and eight other Aboriginal artists) in the exhibition ‘No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting’, around contemporary art museums in the United States, and Melbourne curator Quentin Sprague, who included him in ‘The world is not a foreign land’, a six-artist touring show that was selected for Tarnanthi.

But Cumpston’s presentation of nineteen Ngarra works in his own room at the State Gallery should be the most influential outing in revealing this west Kimberley tribal man’s unique visual take on his world. Take a work like Ngarrangkarni Changeover Time—the cover picture for the first of two books on his Texta Drawings—which looks like nothing else in contemporary Aboriginal art. But then, few Indigenous artists have attempted to capture the time of transformation in the Ngarrangkarni/Dreaming when ancestral beings became animals and other features of the world all around the Andinyin. Perhaps, too, it took someone special to associate that time with the flux of his own life as it transformed from pre-contact via station life, to archivist with the encouragement of the artist’s anthropologist friend, Kevin Shaw.

It was 2012 when Nici Cumpston first determined that Yvonne Koolmatrie’s reed-weaving works over thirty years needed a serious display, and she sat down with artist/curator Jonathan Jones to plot it. His hanging of some seventy of Koolmatrie’s eel-traps, prawn scoops, birth and burial baskets, etcetera, in a dimmed room, is exceptional. Lit from above, the solid constructions achieve a second, more ephemeral life as shadows on the ground. But even in the air they breathe through constant, gentle movement—giving on-going sustenance to Ngarrindjeri ecological craft traditions.

And then two years ago, even before the BHP money was publicly announced, Cumpston sent Spinifex artists out into the Desert at Ilkurlka to paint. Patriotically, Ilkurlka is in South Australia, near the Maralinga test site from which the Spinifex people had been displaced in the ’50s. They have never come back across the Western Australia border to live—but their art remains totally South Australian—and their huge, vibrant, mostly collaborative canvases astonished a darkened room in their nakedness. For, unlike politer or more politically correct Desert artists, these unique expressions of classical ceremonial mapping are undisguised by over-dotting, and they both connect their Storylines and emerge as each individual artist’s statement of who they are and how they relate to Country, other artists and the community. It was hard to leave that room—even for its neighbour filled with the spinning tops of Hermannsburg-painted skirts from the ’50s. Just sitting in the heart of the Spinifex world and following their Songlines from canvas to dazzling canvas in the imagination was mesmeric.

Outside, though, taking pride of place in the exhibition’s foyer, was another Maralinga work commissioned by Cumpston—Yhonnie Scarce’s Thunder Raining Poison (2015). A glittering mushroom cloud candelabra constructed from hundreds of blackened glass yams, it duly attracted the crowds and wooed one reviewer to exclaim, ‘A bravura piece, overwhelming in the manner of installations by contemporary artists of the international circuit such as Olafur Eliasson or Ai Weiwei’. The artist also attracted one of the few preview pieces I tracked down in the Adelaide press; the other was an interview with the Torres Strait’s Brian Robinson—like Scarce, a Western-trained artist and curator, and like her, also increasingly creating public art installations.

It is so much easier to interview—and understand—a Scarce in Adelaide or a Robinson in Cairns, than it is to interrogate a Tjaruwa Woods or a Patju Presley in Tjuntjuntjara. For Thunder Raining Poison speaks evocatively and directly, with a single message, of the colonial power polluting good Australian land. But the Spinifex canvases could speak of ancestral creatures creating a harsh but beautiful, even bountiful land, of songs sung over it, of the pain felt by separation from it—of ancient history and a political present—if only viewers had minds open to it all.

Or if at least part of the stories accompanied the canvases. Confusingly, Cumpston assured me: ‘Story is so rich in Aboriginal art—it does help to know the story’. But the telling of the Spinifex story was left to the excellent John Carty essay in the Tarnanthi catalogue. Something more intimately linked to the art is needed, and the argument that it is all ‘contemporary’ art which needs no explanation just does not wash. A national Indigenous Cultural Institution which took on the didactic role might help to deliver context. But I suspect the artists themselves, who invariably record a painting’s story when it is delivered to their art centre, would be quite happy to have that cultural context texted at the point of viewing it. And that might overcome the tendency at Indigenous art prizes for the ‘People’s Choice’ to so often go to the more easily understood work from a Western-trained artist.

Interestingly, Paul Keating bought into a bit of this debate in his lively opening speech. After mistakenly claiming that Tarnanthi was the first occasion on which remote and urban Aboriginal art had been shown together, he went on: ‘My great hope is that over the next half century or so, Aboriginal art will become so integral and so central to Australian art and representation—that it will require no separate showing. Indeed, in a society like this, even to be known as an Aboriginal artist is to be positioned, to be pigeon-holed’.

Great idea to show all Australian artists side by side—and already tackled in several State Galleries. But the thought that a remote artist might feel ‘pigeon-holed’ as Aboriginal suggests an Abbott-esque misunderstanding of Indigenous identity! There certainly are urban artists who prefer a descriptor as plain ‘artists who are Indigenous’ and may or may not tackle matters concerning their identity—Danie Mellor and Tracey Moffatt spring to mind. But don’t tell me that Mavis Ngallametta isn’t an Aboriginal artist. ‘I am Kugu Matha language, though I speak three or four others, and can make friends in English’, declared Mavis Ngallametta in a talk session at Tarnanthi—emphasising the essential nature of her language to her being. Coincidentally, a week or so later at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Arnhemland’s Wukun Wanambi said something remarkably similar: ‘Yolngu are the tongue of the land’…we speak, sing and paint on behalf of our Country.

I wonder whether Wanambi, represented by the dynamic Buku Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre, feels unnecessarily ‘commercialised’ by it? For that was another of Keating’s strange assertions: ‘Contemporary Aboriginal art is pinned by its commercialism to fund community income and community service obligations, denied the right, first to breathe, then to expand and grow in its own terms—it is pushed straight out to earn a dollar. Aboriginal art centres have given much to Australia in bringing forth this cornucopia of the Aboriginal imagination; but much has been asked of them too’.

Certainly, there have been tensions between the community responsibilities of art centre members and individuals who want to break free. But then Buku has managed to accommodate Nyapanyapa Yunupingu! This Tarnanthi-selected artist has followed her own course, free from the restraints of strict Yolngu lore, has dealt with the childhood trauma of being gored by a buffalo, made films, painted barks expressionistically and offered the Adelaide audience a stick-man montage that deals with the eight hundred and eighty possible relationships that twenty generations of Yolngu might have with each other! Clearly, what is in her mind at any one time determines her art. But I have a suspicion that she is not unhappy to have it ‘pushed straight out to earn a dollar’ once she is happy with her creation. Her status in the community is not unrelated to her capacity to fulfil her financial obligations within it.

Apart from the Spinifex and Hermannsburg collaborations, the Art Gallery of South Australia had one further stand-out group, from Cape York. Under artist Tony Albert’s tutelage, Alair Pambegan has covered a wall with outsize Wik designs, hung giant ‘Bonefish’ in a serried row and painted the old garden rakes that his mother and aunts were forced to wield on mission properties in a conceptual work called Mother. The personal becomes mythic in such a context. And this move by Indigenous artists into the public art sphere is an interesting development.

Another wall of Tangentyere Artists’ Outsider work from the Alice Springs town camps lacked tribal reference, but threw up a new name to me—Sally Mulda—who is one to watch for her observational paintings. Other names/works in this mixed show—Cornelia and daughter Delores Tipuamantumirri from Tiwi, Warwick Thornton’s wacky Star Wars in the Desert project, The way of the Ngangkari, and Off the Grid, Raymond Zada’s a very local lightbox photographs of Kaurna landmarks that were displaced by Colonel Light’s re-mapping of Adelaide.

Twenty-two other shows festooned Adelaide—collaborations between Nici Cumpston at Tarnanthi central and each exhibiting institution. Memories stay most vital of Kapi ungkupayi/He gave us water at the South Australian University Gallery. This work recalls a disaster of 2013, in which five elderly women were lost out in the desert in fifty degree temperatures, surviving through a mix of their desert lore and divine intervention. The story is transformed into a multi-faceted conceptual installation creating a new Tjukurpa. In the Botanical Gardens, Ramingining women brought their woven sun mats to ceremonial heights in Nganmarra: the container of life, reminding us that these beautiful and practical objects were also the ‘wombs’ where the ancestral Djang’kawu Sisters—who mothered the tribes of Arnhemland—hid their sacred objects.

Of the rest, in a five remote artists to thirteen urban split, one of each stood out. The inventive Brisbane-based Archie Moore has come up with a suite of eleven scents in response to his childhood pain at the cruel reproach, ‘You stink!’. No, not sweet flowery scents, but the effluvia of ex-girlfriends, his father’s wood-smoked clothes, wattle for his Kamilaroi country, the cedar pencil smell of his first day at school, and the stale beer and fags stink of a country pub. And you can test out each of Les Eaux d’Amoore. Round the corner from the Samstag Museum, in a classic white-wall gallery at Adelaide College of the Arts, the Yirrkala Print Space showed off twenty years of effort. This marvellous cross-generational activity has turned disaffected youth to art and stimulated older masters to acts of invention. 

Then there was the Tandanya Aboriginal Art Fair, which included forty art centres and packed a lot of sales into two days to people inspired by the plethora of non-selling exhibitions. It seems that specialist commercial galleries have deserted Adelaide in recent years—I believe you have to go to the Port or the Hills to find a regular supply—making Tarnanthi all the more important for the city. Though it will need to work a little harder to justify that ‘international gateway’ claim. And an enhanced performance element from the ceremonial North is essential for the future.

Certainly BHP should be made to feel guilty again in two years time; and Nici Cumpston should get early encouragement to set out round the country to select and then funnel such a range of arts and crafts from Indigenous Australia’s many nations into another such survey. 

Ngarra, Andinyin/Gija people, Western Australia, Ngarrangkarni Changeover Times, 1998-89. Text drawing. Photograph Jeremy Eccles. 

Alair Pambegan, Wik-Mungkan people, Queensland, Walkaln-aw (Bone Fish Story Place) 2, 2014. Ochre on canvas. Acquisition through Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art supported by BHP Billiton. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Image courtesy the artist.

Installation view Tarnanthi: Festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Featuring Yhonnie Scarce, Thunder raining poison and Tony Albert, We can be heroes. Photograph Janelle Low.

Yvonne Koolmatrie. Installation by Jonathan Jones. Photograph Jeremy Eccles.