Tarnanthi 2020: Open Hands

Where: Art Gallery of South Australia
When: Exhibition spans 16 October – 31 January, Art Fair held over 4 – 6 December

Naomi Hobson’s photographs of young people from her community. Photo: Saul Steed

The Art Gallery of South Australia opens their annual Tarnanthi festival, with this year’s exhibition titled Open Hands. We were lucky enough to be at the preview and to hear a little more about how it came together. 

On the title, Artistic Director Nici Cumpston explains that Open Hands was chosen because they wanted to explore the act of making. “When you’re busy making work, your mind is free to think about connections. When we’re sitting together in a weaving circle or painting, we share information, we share stories. Weaving and yarning…” 

Open Hands is a tribute to this yarning that is so vital to the cross-generational exchange of cultural knowledge in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the exhibition pays tribute to senior artists who are responsible for passing on this important knowledge. 

Nici continues, “[This exhibition] celebrates the ongoing and often unseen work that women in communities do to maintain culture. Keeping these stories alive and sharing knowledge is deeply embedded within everyday life across Australia”.

We are lucky enough to hear from one mother and daughter pair, Elisa-Jane and Sonja Carmichael, both Quandamooka artists, who tell us a bit about their brilliant blue cyanotype prints that adorn the first gallery. 

Sonja and Elisa-Jane Carmichael’s cyanotypes. Photo: Saul Steed

The cyanotype prints represent the saltwater country, their family’s memories, and their relationship to their ancestors. One of the prints was made for Elisa-Jane’s great-great-great grandmother, who married a European man and was never afforded a wedding celebration. In this print, they offer her a seafood feast, Quandamooka style. 

The prints are about reviving language, culture, and weaving. Elisa and Sonja explain that the tradition of weaving had been almost lost to a generation. Without photos documenting the weaving, they were able to utilise baskets and bags collected by the University of Queensland’s Anthropology Museum. Through accessing this collection of items that had been taken from their ancestors, they were able to re-learn the traditions and “solve the knot”.

In another gallery, we hear from Sally Scales who tells us stories about her grandmother, Wawiriya Burton, who could be one of the oldest practicing artists in Australia at around 99 years old. Wawiriya resolutely pains for 5 or 6 hours every day, walking herself through Amata if no one drives past to collect her.

Wawiriya Burton’s painting is visible on the far side of the gallery. Photo: Saul Steed

It’s the stories of the artists that shine through the exhibition that are really significant. There is such a strong voice throughout the space. Alongside the video portraits that are screening in one of the galleries downstairs, there are quotes from artists surrounding their works, which adds dimension, personality, and the cultural weight to each of the works.

Despite all of the issues that needed to be overcome this year, Open Hands boasts 87 artists from across Australia. With works across a variety of media, including painting, works on paper, photography, moving image, sound installation, weaving, ceramics, and sculpture, Open Hearts celebrates the role of art in Aboriginal Torres Strait Island cultures. There are so many stories to discover.

Natalie Carfora

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