November 22, 2019


Coming forth like the first light: Tarnanthi 2019

By Miriam Cosic

Tarnanthi 2019 featuring works by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.

This South Australian festival celebrates the rich diversity of contemporary Indigenous art

After spending three days last month at Adelaide’s Tarnanthi festival, an exuberant celebration of the survival of Indigenous cultures and their evolution in the contemporary world, the prime minister’s decision the same week to repeat his “habit” of adding an incongruous shout-out to military veterans to an acknowledgement of country was hard to take. Why undermine the respect paid by such an important symbolic gesture? Was it thoughtlessness? Or was it a dog-whistle to those for whom the frontier wars and colonisation are black-armband history?

His tone-deaf invitation to exhausted fire fighters – and the Australians who have lost everything in the ongoing bushfires that are currently devastating the continent – to enjoy the cricket, while seizing a photo opportunity with Steve Smith at the Gabba this week, suggests it was fatuity rather than a deliberate attempt to offend, and yet it still betrays a profound misunderstanding of the acknowledgement of country.

The word “Tarnanthi” means “to rise”, “to come forth”, “to appear”. The festival is a powerful answer to postcolonial Australia. Director Nici Cumpston, curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), has described it as “a place of ideas and discussion, a gathering place for people to come together to encounter other viewpoints and to make connections. It is an opportunity for new and old relationships to develop and it is a chance to look, listen and hear one another.”

Once the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) in Darwin were the biggest deal in First Nations art, but it has found a richer, more expansive home in Adelaide. The AGSA is the nucleus of a festival that has satellites across the state. A massive sponsorship from BHP – which has given the festival a free hand to think outside the box, politically as well as artistically – tops up the South Australian government’s financing to a total of $42 million.

This fifth iteration of the AGSA-centric exhibitions, and third iteration of the biennial festival that accompanies it, is the largest yet. Some 1000 artists from all over Australia are participating, and 300 of them gathered in Adelaide on the opening weekend. Between them, they have created 63 collaborative and solo works. Yolgnu artist and ceremonial leader of the Madarrpa clan, Djambawa Marawili, presided over ceremonies; Tiwi Islander and Yolgnu dancers performed, as did rap artist Baker Boy, 2019’s Young Australian of the Year. Uncle Mickey Kumatpi Marrutya O’Brien gave a moving and inclusive welcome to Kaurna country at the media preview; Jack Buckskin and the Kuma Karro traditional dancers gave another welcome at the public opening in the evening.

Yirrkala paintings and burial poles, arrayed on the lower ground floor, steal the show, as they so often do. Art from East Arnhem Land has transformed over recent years from earthy and figurative bark painting to abstract and shimmering raark, or crosshatching, with white predominating, governed by the concept of buwuyak, or invisibility. While it seems abstract – and very beautiful – to those who are unfamiliar, contemporary Yirrkala art is dense with meaning, the crosshatching camouflaging figurative elements, a profound reversion to ceremonial secrecy after a period of politically opportune openness to the outside world.

Though Djambawa Marawili (who won the top prize at NATSIAA this year) helped pioneer this direction in the course of his work on the Saltwater sea rights barks that revealed miny’tji, or sacred patterns, created by the ancestors, his own paintings have hewed closer to the traditional, in colour at least, than many other artists’. At Tarnanthi, his towering 1997 bark Madarrpa at Yathikpa and Biranybirany is powerful, with its two small 3D elements carefully incorporated into his painstaking painting.

It has only been in the last decade that Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, now in her 80s, has stepped out of the shadow of her late husband, Djutadjuta Mununggurr, to develop a striking and idiosyncratic style of her own. Originally a painter and printmaker who stuck to conventional themes authorised by her husband, she first cleared her barks of background clutter to create “negative space”. Then she developed bold imagery that concentrated on environment rather than ceremony.

Her works at Tarnanthi not only intensify her increasingly rounded plant-like forms, but have a new boldness in colour. Upholding the late Madarrpa elder Gawarrin Gumana’s injunction that “when you paint the land, you must use the land”, Noŋgirrŋa Marawili retrieved discarded printer cartridges and emptied them of the last colour remaining when they run dry – magenta – and pressed that vivid and feminine colour into service on stringybark. The results, such as the organic yet haunting Baratjala, are intriguingly beautiful.

Gunybi Ganambarr took Dr Gumana’s words a step further, advancing the new “Found” movement in Yirrkala art. He also uses discarded building materials to craft his artworks: grinding, etching and painting on metal. In Darra (2019), a large-scale work that greets visitors at the bottom of the escalator, he has etched his clan designs on aluminium.

A number of these Yirrkala paintings are the result of a 2017–19 commission by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art collection at the University of Virginia. Called Dhawut (Flyaway) here, because it will fly away to a long touring exhibition across America after its only Australian exposure at AGSA, it will be part of an exhibition called Madayin: Eight decades of Aboriginal bark Painting from Yirrkala, Australia overseas. The theme, Madayin, which refers to the complete system of Yolgnu customary law, was proposed by Djambawa Marawili while he was artist-in-residence in Virginia in 2015.

While the Yolgnu works leave a lasting impression, there are many notable moments throughout the exhibition – too many to mention. Highlights include Queensland artist Judy Watson’s magnificent canvasses: sea-blue meditations on objects found in nature, what she calls “tools of survival”, in paintings titled string over water (walkurrji kingkarri wanami) and spine and teeth (mundirri banga mayi). There is also a collection of paintings by descendants of the famous Aranda painter Albert Namatjira, who form an easily recognisable school grouped around its founder’s style and country.

Peggy Griffiths-Madij’s political statements include two significant works of earth pigments on paper: Standing on Country and Being in Country. They unfold at length, understated but self-assured, to tell the story of her country, Miriwoong in east Kimberley, where she is an elder and cultural custodian. Her beguiling video animation, Woolangem Balaj Gida – At First Sight, has a completely different vibe. It shows a young girl, quietly wandering about billabongs filled with lush, edible water lilies, who rushes home to tell the aunties that a local pastoralist – portrayed with unsettlingly bright blue eyes – is rounding up Aboriginal people to work on his station. We don’t see the denouement on screen, but a written afterword tells us of the massacres and the enslavement that ensued.

Presented across two sites of Western knowledge – the Museum of Economic Botany MEB in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens (a museum worth visiting at any time) and AGSA – Jonathan Jones’s Bunha-bunhanga: Aboriginal agriculture in the south-east elaborates on the essential research of Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage. At AGSA, he has curated a roomful of works. At the MEB, he has created an absorbing installation consisting of plant specimens in traditional museum cases, and defaced early 20th-century newspapers that twisted the story of colonial interactions, all set against the deceptively pretty azure tones of a floral Victorian wallpaper.

There is much more to see. Perhaps the prime minister can be persuaded to take time out to visit. Sport and the military are not the only aspects of our culture he should champion.


Tarnanthi exhibitions run until January 27, 2020.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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