Exhibition review: Tarnanthi

Large scale installation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art 'comes forth and appears.'

There is a real and deep affection shown in South Australia for the Indigenous arts community that has been coming together from across the country for Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art since 2015. Pronounced tar-nan-dee, in the Kaurna people’s language, Tarnanthi means to come forth and appear.

As you would expect, this exhibition is expertly presented by the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), founder and co-ordinator of the overarching festival within which this anchor exhibition sits. This, combined with both the scale and quality of curation, makes the 2021 exhibition of national significance. 

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Among many artists of merit, the star of the show was John Prince Siddon, whose work features on banners greeting visitors at the main entrance to the gallery, and on the cover of the richly illustrated exhibition publication by artistic director Nici Cumpston.

Siddon’s paintings are off-beat and original, and yet somehow on trend. His map-like paintings, Dedication and Mix it all up, are full of playful fantastical imagery: serpents, a dog with a fire hose, boat people, and what might be a man riding a shark while playing a didgeridoo. These are a wonderful mix of a naïve painting meets playful Hieronymus Bosch.

Writing about his work, Siddon said: ‘Many of our old people painted their lives, their own land, even animals. Well I’m trying to do the same thing, to piece together every animal – North, South, East, West – trying to mix them up like a jigsaw – they love each other, they hate each other. Landscape, dreamtime stories, kids’ paintings, poetry, animals; put them all together, it’s all the same with my paintings. It’s called mixed up – I really don’t know how to translate it into words, but I can in my art. I am a shy person and my art is shy, yeah well, life goes on, whatever.’

Another highlight is the work of Kaylene Whiskey, which uses pop culture icons like Dolly Parton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Wonder Woman in her paintings, employing a strong decorative graphic style reminiscent of the late Barbara Hanrahan.

Again Whiskey makes narrative-driven works painted in a naïve style. Her colourful work, Seven Sistas Sign, is made with water-based enamel paint on an SA Tourist Attraction road sign.

Story telling is popular with Indigenous artists but as the immensity of this exhibition demonstrates, Indigenous art is not a monoculture of style or ideas.

Katjarra Butler’s large canvases are impressive. While at first they might be seen as the upscaling of traditional symbols, they are in fact much more. There is a casual uninhibited quality to these works that is not easily attained. Butler’s paintings are not simple graphic statements; rather they are an intense conversation with the viewer that will remain interesting over a lifetime.

Viewing the entirety of the Tarnanthi exhibition at AGSA, I am compelled to raise a question about deeming this ‘contemporary’.

It is my belief, that the works on show may well all be recently made but that is not the generally accepted meaning of ‘contemporary’ in the context of an art exhibition. Traditional imagery and ideas need reinterpretation to be deemed contemporary, not just be works made yesterday by someone living today using modern materials. And while the distinction between art and craft has become razor-thin, it is clear that outside of an Indigenous exhibition some of this work would be regarded as craft, not art.

It’s fair to say that you perhaps won’t like everything in this show, but I hope you will find works you love, as I did, and images that will be deeply remembered.

The scale of Tarnanthi extends well beyond the walls of the AGSA with exhibitions and events across South Australia. And now in its fifth year, the Tarnanthi Art Fair brings together 50 art centres with thousands of works for sale by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. 

Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art 2021
Art Gallery of South Australia

Tarnanthi will be on display until 30 January 2022.

Stephen Richardson is a visual artist based in Adelaide. He works in a range of media and has exhibited locally and internationally. Stephen is the Honorary Ambassador in Australia for the European Academy of Sciences, Arts, & Letters (EASAL). He is currently completing a PhD in visual art with Central Queensland University.