The opportunity to see an exhibition in person was too good to resist. This edition of Slow Looking is my review of Tarnanthi 2021 held at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and continuing at satellite locations across the city and the state.
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Anticipation, and temperatures, were running high as the opportunity to see an exhibition in person approached. During a quiet moment in December 2021, just after SA opened its borders but before the explosion of case numbers, my partner and I drove from Barkindji to Kaurna and Peramangk Country to experience life beyond our familiar little town.
Tarnanthi has a reputation as a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and art for good reason, and though the satellite exhibitions were closed when I visited (open now), there is a strong feeling that this event sends tendrils of excitement across the state. The Gallery’s permanent exhibitions also seemed to me to be celebrating new and interesting connections between Australian First Nation’s history and broader Australian history, making it a seamless experience to view the whole. I entered the exhibition from the front of the Gallery walking through the permanent exhibitions (not realising where Tarnanthi began and ended until much later). Immediately I saw a deep engagement with history, such that Aboriginal material culture is displayed alongside European Australia material in a productive and intriguing way.
Tarnanthi proper begins at the rear of the Gallery, though by viewing the permanent collections first I noticed a theme emerging of artists reflecting on Australia’s history and engaging with the legacies of colonisation in unexpected ways. The permanent collection naturally engages with a past that has mostly been left behind; moving through Tarnanthi there was a pervasive sense that this past was not gone. Unpacking such legacies of trauma revealed, to my surprise, so much joy that I was taken aback.
Among artists speaking to the colonial narrative Julie Gough is prominent. On the upper floor, in a small room Gough has curated items from the Art Gallery of South Australia collection with moving images and kitch objects to produce the aptly-named Psychoscape. The word unsettling, no pun intended (but pun appreciated) so perfectly describes Gough’s installation, with its deliberate focus on elements of history, uncovered through archival research, that show the darkness, trauma, horror and barbarity of Australia’s past. A beautiful and innocuous looking piece of furniture, beneath a rugged waterfall painting, is rendered troubling by the presence of two spears, leaning against the wall. It shocks me a little to see these weapons so casually placed. On another wall nearby is a Brown Bess Musket and two of Joseph Lycett’s watercolours. Once again beauty and atrocity are proximal. As though this point needs further elaboration the wall text for Gough’s shadow diorama The Promise II is right next to the details about the gun and the delicate watercolours. It explains that Gough has transformed Van Diemen’s Land Governor George Arthur’s explanation of equal justice—used by the governor in c.1830 to promise equal treatment for the First Peoples and the new arrivals under British law—into a nursery room mobile of truly sinister proportions.
A sketch of one of Governor Davey’s proclamations from 1876 hangs innocently by the door as I leave Gough’s room and it, too, has the effect of jolting me. I’ve read extensively about the Proclamation Boards, they have a reputation among historians of the nineteenth century as things of myth, in a way they makes seeing one in a gallery all the more exciting. Visiting archives is a solitary experience which at times, with the manner of institutional gatekeepers, makes me feel like an imposter. Here I could call to my partner and say did you see the Proclamation Board? Did you see what Gough has done?!
This work is a challenge to the colonial narrative perpetuated in Australia's national story in ways that thrilled me as an historian and art lover. Seeing the juxtaposition of nice colonial things thrust up against racist curios and remixed moving images was potent.
Alongside the exploration of the ongoing impacts of colonisation Tarnanthi included works so joyful and heartening they reminded me why deficit narratives are bullshit. The carved boab nuts by artists from the Kimberley flock together in the downstairs gallery. Quietly hovering near a corner, their unassuming bird forms drew me in and I marvelled at the whimsical smiles and faces carved into these large nuts. Imminently covetable as they are, to separate them would be a disaster.
In an adjoining gallery Gwenneth Blitner (Marra/Nunggubuy people) from the remote community of Ngukurr, near Roper River NT, has painted her Country in full bloom. There is so much happiness here, unassailable, like a field of flowers after a flood these paintings are covered in petals. Small and large, detailed and broad stroke, the colours sometimes in sections or flower beds jostle together creating something luminous. The joy in these paintings has been noted by reviewers, and the artist herself says it feels right to paint from a place of happiness.
Speaking to the dotted details in Blitner’s paintings are a nearby group of ten vehicles, roughly toy tip-truck size, and painted with characters and the names of their destination, or function (ambulance, bus, troopy). The wheels look to be from trolleys and the carved metal surfaces are intricately painted by a number of artists from Pitjantjatara and Irrunytju (Wingellina) Country in Western and South Australia. Sally Foster’s Truck is covered with bush medicine describing the ways this knowledge is passed down to the next generation of Pitjantjatjara people. There is something poetic about the vehicles which convey the artists and their communities being inscribed with their function and with traditional knowledge, as though everything is a canvas if you know how to look.
Other highlights included an entire room of Tiwi painting, uniting three art centres on the Tiwi Islands (Manupi, Jilamara and Ngaruwanajirri) and composed of 145 works by 65 artists. The joy in this space is cacophonous, floor to ceiling works on paper announcing in no uncertain terms WE ARE HERE! Time spent with this symphony of designs reveals so many unique voices, it really was musical.
I also loved the quiet and reflective ceramics adjoining the Tiwi paintings. It’s a dark space with black walls and spotlights on beautiful organic shapes. Kaurna/Boandik/Ngarrindjeri artist Christina Gollan’s vessels feature lifelike birds or larger than life seeds and fruits. Is there a more joyous creature than a fairy wren? Gollan has carved them onto the surface of vases, combining texture and a lightness that is quite arresting in the sombre space.
Exuberance is also present in Kaylene Whiskey’s video work and painted sign. A Yankunytjatjara artist who works at Iwantja Arts—an Aboriginal-owned art centre situated at Indulkana on the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands (roughly 1,200km northwest of Adelaide)—Whiskey’s world is populated by pop-culture icons in a style similar to a comic strip. Dolly Parton, Black Wonder Woman and Cher are incorporated into desert life and the Seven Sisters story, an important creation story for Aboriginal women across the continent. Her paintings are transformed into videos, snippets are on available on vimeo, and often present a diverse crowd gathering for a party.
My emphasising joy over trauma is not intended to minimise how we got here. So much of the work presented in Tarnanthi shows us a way forward without forgetting or ignoring the history of dispossession that has made Australia what it is. On 26 January it is fitting to listen to the voices of artists and by looking slowly at their work I have observed a message of joy in spite of history. It says we have found our truth and it is bright, both regardless and because of the past.
Tarnanthi is on display until 30 January, and can also be viewed online here. It’s well worth the three-dimensional navigation which also includes the extensive and thoughtfully presented permanent collection. Possibly the best presentation of a permanent collection that I have had the pleasure of viewing in a while.
Also online is a Welcome from Kaurna Elder Mickey O’Brien, whose words—by way of conclusion—summarise how looking at art is about more than what we see.
When our people share culture, we believe you receive culture, and through the works of art you support this ongoing connection… When we walk, when we sit, and listen to the land, we connect and it connects with us, and therefore we have the responsibility to look after it.
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