Adaptive ingenuity: lessons for nation from Aboriginal artists


Above: Djalkiri, 2019 by Wukun Wanambi, assisted by Joseph Brady and Ishmael Marika from The Mulka Project at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala.

A visit to Tarnanthi, Adelaide’s annual Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, is to be reminded all over again of the dazzling brilliance of that cultural outpouring that seems to be losing nothing of its vigour.

My exposure has only been to the major exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and not to the wide program of smaller exhibitions and events running in multiple venues since 18 October. This program brought together the work of more than 1000 artists, while some 200 showed work at AGSA.

As noted by the festival artistic director, Nici Cumpston, “This scale of participation is a remarkable declaration of the breadth of artistic expression across our country and the depth of its cultural significance.”

From an Alice Springs perspective, with the unresolved push to host a national Aboriginal art gallery here, Tarnanthi’s AGSA showing underlined the compelling appeal of a national – in the sense of country-wide – presentation of First Nations creative endeavour, with that work front and centre (and suitable venues in their proper role of support). 

 Left: Barks by Nongirrnga Marawili, with Baratjala, 2019 on the left. 
Another perspective also weighed on my mind, that of the raging country-wide bushfire crisis that has dominated this summer.  In this context Tarnanthi and its artists offer a journey for mind and eye into hope: hope for human ingenuity, drawing on past strengths, adapting where useful to new and changing conditions, creating in a magnificent blend of beauty and integrity.

In this vein the work of Yolngu artists stands out, none more so than Nongirrnga Marawili. Around 80 years old, she has recently broken out from a printmaking practice to paint on bark and larrakitj (hollow logs), adding to her earth pigments the magenta shades she derives from recycled print toner pigments.

At AGSA this prolific artist is showing a commanding series of large barks as well as an installation of larrakitj, whose gridded patterns are taken up in a vast number of small paintings made on discarded print proofs.

The late B. Yunupingu also used these discarded materials to make a series of drawings describing many aspects of Yolngu life, historic and contemporary. (Detail below; note at bottom, second from left, figures circling around the Aboriginal flag.) 

From the works of these two artists alone (and there are many other Yolngu artists showing) came an impression of intensive creativity at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala and the homelands it draws upon, and of nothing being wasted. The recycling inventiveness of these artists has become something of a hallmark of their work and an object lesson to Australians everywhere.

From the same art centre Wukun Wanambi adapts to new technology in a brilliantly conceived installation, titled Djalkiri, incorporating larrakitj with a multi-channel HD interactive projection. The swarming fish (sea mullet), finely painted on the larrakitj, also came to life on the floor, seeming to swim around the logs and around my feet as I walked through, deflecting away where I trod. (See at top.)

I could imagine the delight of children playing this game but the work also conjures the teeming life of Yolngu country in the Wet and the artist’s deep relationship with this country. Beyond appreciating this in the art context, questions pose themselves: how do we honour both, safeguard both? Big questions that will replicate for people everywhere across the country in heating years to come.

– Kieran Finnane


Below: Ngarrindjeri artist Sandra Saunders, from the Eyre Peninsula,  makes explicit her deep concern for the state of the Australian environment in this quartet of paintings, clockwise from top left: Shadows Falling , 2019; The Poor Fish, 2019; On the Verge, 2019; The Lone Tree, 2019. 

The banners in Shadows Falling read: ‘Stand up’; ‘Save the finch’; ‘There’s No Planet B’; ‘Water is Life’; ‘Protect Our Future’; ‘No Adani’. The sign on the cliffs in On the Verge reads ‘Big Oil has no future in The Bight’.

Below: The imposing edifice of the Art Gallery of South Australia promoting Tarnanthi. The banners reproduce a painting from the exhibition, Punu (trees), 2019 by Peter Mungkuri of Iwantja Arts in the APY Lands.


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