In November 2017, the second edition of the Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art opened at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), following a very successful inaugural Tarnanthi Festival in 2015 (reviewed by Collage co-founder Josephine Boult). Collage writer Matilda Handsley-Davis sat down with Nici Cumpston, AGSA’s Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and Artistic Director of Tarnanthi, to discuss selected works and themes from Tarnanthi at the Gallery, the Festival’s major exhibition hosted at AGSA.
Tarnanthi at the Gallery continues until 28 January 2018 — don’t miss out!
Nici Cumpston on the process of assembling Tarnanthi:
Tarnanthi is a Kaurna word that means ‘the first light of day’ or ‘the first sight of a seed sprouting’. It’s a word that we worked with the Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi Kaurna Language Revival Unit to come up with. Aboriginal art and culture is so diverse: each different language group has its own way of expressing its art and its stories. With over 250 language groups in Australia, I didn’t want to be prescriptive with what people were going to create. I didn’t want to work with a theme. So the title was a way forward to provide a new opportunity, a new beginning, like the word tarnanthi indicates.
We only found out late last year  that we had funding for five years of Tarnanthi, so it was quite quick. Some of the ideas that I had were about existing works that we could exhibit: for example, Cicada Press at the University of New South Wales. I had done a workshop with them personally, so I knew that they had this incredible existing body of work. I asked Tess Allas, who manages the Aboriginal programs at UNSW, and works closely with the artists when they come to do workshops at Cicada Press, if she’d like to be involved and curate an exhibition. She worked with the master printmaker, Michael Kempson, and proposed an idea to engage an up-and-coming Aboriginal curator to work with her so she could mentor someone. She put out a call, and a third-year painting student at UNSW, Dennis Golding, was successful. He curated the exhibition and they came across and installed it. So they did everything, choosing the space, the colour and layout of the walls, and hanging the show. That was a way to tap into someone else’s knowledge of a different medium, and show works that we don’t have in this collection.
I’d been to Sydney and seen the major collaborative works that are in Tarnanthi and that we ended up acquiring. Twenty-three women have come together from the seven art centres across the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in South Australia and worked together to tell a shared story of Kungkarangkalpa: the Seven Sisters, an ancestral creation story. It’s the first time that artists have worked together across art centres, and it’s the first time that such a large group of people have worked together. And it was really an act of solidarity and a way to show the strength of their culture. And then the men came together and made the work Kulata Tjuta: a work for Kunmanara (Gordon) Ingkatiji. They came together and spoke about how important this was for all of them to be together in the one room. One of the senior men spoke about how it might be the last time that some of them were in that room together, and some of them would pass on and it would only be their memory that will remain, but this was an important moment for them and they needed to bring their spirit to this painting and the importance of their culture onto this canvas. So they didn’t do a creation story, they just painted the strength of their culture. Robert Fielding, from Mimili Maku Arts, started creating a series of portraits of the artists who painted the works. On the walls opposite the works are 32 portraits – not all the artists, but a lot of them.
I was in Venice [at the Venice Biennale] and I saw Reko Rennie’s work OA_RR, and that work was profound. It’s a moving image work with a soundtrack by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The artist has returned to his grandmother’s country in a Rolls-Royce that he painted. His grandmother was a strong, beautiful person who brought [Rennie] up in Melbourne. In Kamilaroi country, when there was ceremony they would mark out a circular shape for the site of the initiation ceremony. So he marked out those rings using that Rolls-Royce. And to see the photo of him and his grandmother on the dash of the vehicle, to know the history of his grandmother and how she didn’t have an opportunity to choose for herself her lifestyle – as a young woman, she was taken into domestic service on a station and had to wash, cook and clean for the station owners. It was about going back to that country where she served and to reference, through the Rolls Royce, the wealth of the station owners – but at what cost to his grandmother? And to see that when you’re in another country, to feel that history of Australian Aboriginal people … I went to Reko and asked him, ‘What’s the scale you would imagine this to be projected at?’ and he said, ‘Oh, well initially we thought we could get it to a 12-metre length and have it as a totally immersive installation.’ So I came back and talked to Nick [Mitzevich, Director of AGSA] about being able to acquire the work and to present it as part of Tarnanthi.
So, it was really an evolution. The works came to me, the artists came to me, I approached other artists, there were works that we acquired throughout last year – one was Every face has a story, every story has a face: Kulila!, the work of the Yarrenyty artists from the Larapinta Valley Town Camp in Alice Springs. At their art centre, they recycle old blankets and dye them using natural materials in big half 44-gallon drums over a campfire. Then they cut them up and make them into soft sculptures that they embellish with bright embroidery threads. Each one is a self-portrait. The work kulila is an Aranda word for ‘listen’, and it’s about, ‘listen to us, we have stories to tell and we’re sharing our stories with you’.
They also made a film called Petrol been wasting all our lives, on the issue of petrol sniffing and the effect that it’s had on young people. It’s mainly women artists who do the embroidery and soft sculptures, but there’s also young men who come to the art centre and do printmaking projects as well as, now, moving image. And they use the soft sculptures to share the stories. It’s a really beautiful film, but of course a devastating story. When we acquired the soft sculptures last year, they said to me, ‘We’re making a film, would you be interested in showing it?’ So they managed to get the film made in time.
I think Tarnanthi’s about providing an opportunity. The word tarnanthi is about new beginnings – it might be about an existing work that needs further development to get it to how the artist wanted it to be … for example, with Reko, to be able to project it on a scale, with the sound and the quality of projection … so it’s more about how we facilitate what it is that you’re trying to achieve, whether it’s providing financial support, providing a link with someone who can mentor you to another stage … and that’s the exciting thing, that we’re able to work with people to get to that next stage that they want to be at.
On the idea of ‘listening’ in Tarnanthi:
Kulila is an Aranda word that means ‘listen’. In Pitjantjatjara kulila means ‘everybody listen’. It’s really similar across Australian desert languages. Mumu Mike Williams has created a series of works where he’s painted on the surface of mailbags, which are used in regional areas to deliver the mail via Alice Springs. They’re no longer using those mailbags and it says on them that this is Commonwealth property and if you use those bags you’re liable for prosecution. He’s crossed all that out and said, ‘This is our country, this is Pitjantjatjara country, this is our tjukurpa, this is our ancestral story, this is our law’ … so he’s reverted the text on the mailbag back to his own culture. And then he’s also done a series of maps, where he’s re-drawn on top of maps of Australia his own tjukurpa and his own creation stories. So it’s about listening to the artists telling us their stories.
In the Kulata Tjuta project, 59 artists have come together to make kulata, the spears, and women have made the piti, the wooden bowls that would have traditionally carried babies, water or food. They’re referencing back to the atomic bomb tests that happened at Emu Field and Maralinga. They had stillborn children, the waterways were poisoned, food could no longer grow – or if it did, it was poisoned. [The artists] are then sharing their stories on the six-channel moving image piece, telling us about their very personal experiences that a lot of the artists haven’t even been able to bear speaking to each other about, let alone the public. But it’s a way for them to heal and to share their own personal experiences with the public. So it’s to us to listen to those stories and hear what it is that they’re saying.
And there’s other ways, not only through seeing the work on the walls, but through the artists’ portraits that have been created, through the catalogue, through the website, and through coming to hear the artists speak, there’s all different ways for people to engage and to hear and understand a bit more.
On the surprises and challenges of assembling the exhibition:
I just love the way that the works started speaking to each other once we got them into the rooms. It was really interesting because you have your ideas of how you think you’re going to hang the show, and then they all just started having conversations with each other. It was very fascinating. I planned it out to a certain extent, but then things shifted.
The revelation was actually sitting down with the designer and doing the book. Because then everything had to make sense. That was where it just started to flow. It was so hard, I hadn’t even shown Nick [Mitzevich] everything, because everything runs through Nick and Lisa [Slade, Assistant Director of Artistic Programs at AGSA], but in the end it was like I was skipping and jumping and trying to get them up to speed!
On the 2017 Tarnanthi Art Fair:
The art fair was just brilliant. Great to have so many of the artists here, and to help raise money for the renal dialysis units and for the new one that’s going to be at Ernabella.
Editor’s note: The 2017 Tarnanthi Art Fair raised $169,000 for installation of a renal dialysis unit at Pukatja/Ernabella in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands. Previously, residents in need of dialysis were required to travel long distances to either Adelaide (1,370 km) or Alice Springs (330 km) in order to receive this care.
On what’s next in Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of South Australia:
Next year for Tarnanthi we’re working on a joint project with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, which is very exciting, so watch this space!