'Connection to country' inspires artworks

Artist Kaylene Whiskey used a reclaimed road sign as a painting surface ahead of a major exhibition.
Artist Kaylene Whiskey used a reclaimed road sign as a painting surface ahead of a major exhibition.

Kaylene Whiskey is ready to party.

Using a reclaimed road sign as a surface on which to paint, the Yankunytjatjara artist from Indulkana, South Australia, fashions a tableau of famous women coming together to celebrate strength and friendship on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands.

Attendees include Whoopi Goldberg (in Sister Act drag), Cher (who's brought along tjala, or honey ants, to share) and Tina Turner (resplendent in yellow butterfly wings).

Joining in are Wonder Woman, who's pretty excited about Dolly Parton also turning up, as well as Cat Woman, whose dance moves are in danger of squashing maku, or witchetty grubs.

Completing the group of seven is a homegrown superhero, Anangu Kungka (Anangu Woman), who comes with a kangaroo sidekick. She's selling minkulpa (bush tobacco), the lime-green foliage of which snakes above the women's heads like a decorative frieze.

Cleverly updating the Seven Sisters creation story, or Kungkarangkalpa Tjukurpa, which Whiskey says is about "sisters looking out for each other", the Sulman-prize-winning artist infuses the 2.7m-long painting with levity, humour and warmth.

Whiskey is one of 1400 artists to feature in the 2021 Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, which opens on Friday at the Art Gallery of South Australia and beyond.

"Kaylene is effusive of love and joy, and she likes to paint all her friends, all of the women on the Lands coming together to have a party," Tarnanthi's artistic director, Nici Cumpston says.

"But she also loves pop culture, so here she's painted some of her favourites on a tourist attraction road sign. It used to direct people to Iwantja Arts in Indulkana, but because of COVID-19, they're not currently accepting visitors."

Whiskey has removed the 'D' from 'CLOSED' on the road sign.

"This is a place for family and friends, painting and having a good time together," Whiskey writes in the catalogue.

"We're not closed, we're close," she adds, signing off with a love heart.

Whiskey's not alone in utilising novel materials to make art.

Repurposed oil sumps provide the raw form for a series of painted sculptures made by artists from the Minyma Kutjara (Many Women) Arts Project in Irrunytju on the Ngaanyatjarra Lands of Western Australia.

"They've taken the sump covers off dead cars around the community, turned them upside down, painted them and then put wheels on them," Cumpston says.

"Each car-painting references a real car and has a story attached to it."

Playfully titled Mutaka (motor car), the display points to the importance of vehicles in remote communities, not to mention the mechanical ingenuity required to keep them going in desert conditions.

Meanwhile, Walmajarri artist John Prince Siddon paints on kangaroo and cow hides, bullock skulls and boab nuts as often as he does on canvas.

The former stockman was born in Derby in Western Australia but is now based in Fitzroy Crossing with his wife, son and a cat called Boo.

Siddon's richly coloured paintings comprise a fluid medley of intersecting motifs - figures, animals, objects - anchored by landmasses and bodies of water.

Arranged in dynamic and densely patterned compositions, they call to mind lucid dreamscapes in which the familiar and the strange, tradition and modernity, reality and myth merge to intoxicating effect.

The material innovations of Whiskey, the artists of Minyma Kutjara and Siddon are matched elsewhere in the festival by artists with an intensity of vision informed by a deep connection to, and responsibility for, country.

Like Whiskey, Yankunytjatjara man Alec Baker also comes from Indulkana and is the most senior artist at Iwantja Arts.

Aged in his late 80s, Baker was instrumental in the founding of the art centre and successfully campaigned for land rights for Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people.

His suite of 16 paintings is collectively titled Kalaya Tjina, or Emu Tracks, while each canvas has been given the name Ngura, meaning country, campsite or place.

Restrained and meditative, the works are laid down in a harmonising palette of white, sand, orange, red, mauve and black.

"These paintings represent Baker travelling through the country he's responsible for," Cumpston says.

"He is painting the Tjukurpa, or ancestral story, as well as all the different spots he's camped at.

"Looking at these paintings, you feel like you're out there with him on that beautiful Country."

Pitjantjatjara artist Timo Hogan's mural-sized triptych of his Country at Lake Baker in WA's Great Victoria Desert is also born of a deep connection to place.

Spare yet monumental, the painting depicts the Wanampi, or water serpent, that created the lake while thrashing about in pain after being speared by two hunters.

In the catalogue, Hogan, who took out this year's Telstra Art Award, describes the location as "a dangerous place".

"I can go there because I'm family," he writes.

"And when ... you're getting close, that cold wind starts coming around. You can feel him, that watersnake man, he knows you're there.

"And I start yelling out, 'Hey, it's me. I'm family. I come to visit.'

"And I take the sand from the lake and rub some on my body and let that Wanampi smell me so he knows I'm family."

Wunambal artist Angelina Karadada Boona uses white gum sap and earth pigments, or ochres, to create spectral images of the Wandjina, a sacred ancestral being associated with water and said to predict rain, floods and cyclones.

Hailing from an artistic family in Kalumburu in the Kimberley, a rock-art site with a proliferation of Wandjina imagery, Boona approaches the subject matter with great delicacy.

"She mixes the sap together with white ochre as a binder," Cumpston explains. "In two of these works on paper you can barely make out the Wandjina, while the other two bear more obvious mark-making."

Other artists employ scale to highlight the material beauty and cultural significance of their work.

The centrepiece of Melbourne-based artist Maree Clarke's display, Remember Me, is a 50m-long necklace made from river reed dyed with charcoal and ochre and accessorised with feathers.

Displayed alongside are necklaces of kangaroo tooth and echidna quill, as well as glass necklaces cast from river reed and kangaroo tooth.

Gail Mabo's wall-based sculpture, Tagai, references the bamboo charts traditionally used by Torres Strait Islanders to navigate sea travel.

Measuring almost nine square metres, the work is considerably larger than the 'star maps' on which it is based.

Tagai is named after a constellation that guides Torres Strait Islanders between islands, which in turn is named after a great fisherman and creator being.

In the catalogue, Mabo writes: "Tagai also tells the islanders when to plant their gardens, when to hunt turtles and dugong, when the monsoon season arrives (and) when the winds change".

Mabo, who is from the Piadram clan of Mer (Murray Island), made the sculpture using bamboo planted by her famous father, the late land rights campaigner Eddie Koiko Mabo, when he worked as a gardener at James Cook University in the 1950s and '60s.

Affixed to the bamboo structure are dozens of black, 3D-printed enlargements of grains of star-shaped sand, which can be found on one of Mer's beaches.

"Gail brought some of the sand with her to show us, and the particles are exactly that shape - they're incredible," Cumpston says.

While the Art Gallery of South Australia is Tarnanthi's hub, offering 27 exhibitions under the one roof, the festival encompasses a further 29 partner shows across Adelaide and in several regional areas of the state.

These include Balgo Beginnings at the South Australian Museum, which marks 40 years of art making by Warlayirti artists in the remote southeast Kimberley community.

At Jam Factory, there's a display of punu, or wooden objects, by a collective of women artists from remote communities throughout the Central and Western Desert regions.

And over at Flinders University Museum of Art, group show Sovereign Sisters: Domestic Work shines a light on the troubling historical practice of forcing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls into domestic servitude.

Boasting a high-calibre line up of artists including Destiny Deacon, Julie Dowling, Dale Harding, Tracey Moffatt and Yhonnie Scarce, the exhibition is co-curated by Mirning woman, artist and academic Ali Gumillya Baker and Madeline Reece.

'Tarnanthi' means 'to spring forth' or 'to appear' in Kaurna, the language of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains.

Since debuting in 2015, the annual festival has attracted some 1.4 million visitors to its exhibitions and events.

One of the most popular events is the Tarnanthi Art Fair, which will be an online affair, opening at 5pm Friday and closing at 9pm Monday.

Tarnanthi festival runs until January 30.

For more information, go to agsa.sa.gov.au

Australian Associated Press