Exhibition review: Dana Awartani, Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide

An undoubted highlight of the Adelaide Festival visual arts program, this exhibition explores creation and erasure.
Woman in black dress sweeping up sand artwork in old building

After a year of closures due to water damage, Samstag Museum of Art has opened its Partnati season with an elegant reimagining of Dana Awartani’s 2017 performance-based installation, I Went Away and Forgot You. A While Ago I Remembered. I Remembered I’d Forgotten You. I Was Dreaming.

From a viewing perspective, it is minimal, elegant and discreet. Visitors watch a video from the Gallery’s upper level. In it, the artist sweeps up a carpet of sand in a deserted mid-century building. At the simplest level, it is an homage to a past architectural and cultural tradition – the handmade floor tiles that were a signature of these buildings and an homage to local artisans.

Awartani’s installation takes two parts – a film and a geometric floor-based sand sculpture – which pair an action of creation and an act of destruction.

The floor work recreates designs in sand, in a mandala-like process of dyeing the sand and then methodically creating its geometric design, square by square, stencil by stencil.

Where this gets interesting is that Awartani was unable to travel to Adelaide for this installation, but rather worked with local artist-installers to recreate the piece. Part of that journey of making is the imparting of cultural knowledge – as if to enliven and ensure the continuation of those traditions.

Geometric sand artwork on the floor of a gallery. Samstag.
Dana Awartani, ‘I Went Away and Forgot You…’, installation detail Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide. Photo: ArtsHub.

The “carpet” sits in the lower gallery below – static and stately. It is a stunning piece upon which to meditate. Above it hovers a video of the “carpet” being swept up, as if erased – like so many of these buildings that are being razed by developers.

The installation is presented alongside an exhibition of Bruce Nuske’s porcelain teapots and vessels, which have been set against a highly patterned backdrop designed by the late Khai Liew. There is a wonderful synergy between these two artists, unabashedly celebrating a beauty and narrative. Together they put “traditional crafts” into the contemporary and conceptual context.

In a separate room, there is a further work by Awartani – the single-channel video, Listen to My Words. It takes its foundation from the screening that is used in Islamic architecture – often used as a divide, and more explicitly a gender divide or barrier. The poetic soundtrack that accompanies this piece is compiled from writings by women.

As with her sand work, erasure is a key point of discussion. In tandem, they capture the expanse of Awartani’s poetic and smart practice, which is highly codified and sensitive to past and present. It is a sure highlight of the Adelaide Festival visual arts program.

Dana Awartani
Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide
1 March — Friday 10 May 2024

This exhibition is part of 2024 Adelaide Festival programming. The writer travelled to Adelaide as a guest of the Festival.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina