“The modern world changes constantly. Organisations and funding come and go. But there’s another story. One of survival: a haven for artists sustained over decades.” Amid diminishing opportunity for practical learning and volatile infrastructure, the continuity of Mittagong’s Sturt Gallery and Studios, and of Australia’s oldest Indigenous Arts Centre, Ernabella Arts (in outback South Australia), sparks pride and assurance in Mark Viner, head of Sturt.
The exhibition is the second act to a 1971 partnership, when five young Pukatja women came to Sturt to learn weaving under Elisabeth Nagel. “Over six months, each artist gained new perspectives, experienced new materials, machinery and ways of working,” says Viner. From this archival anecdote, In These Hands expands into a broad survey, marking out the diverse practices of some 28 living Ernabella painters, ceramicists, punu (timber) workers and weavers working with tjanpi desert grass. Yet diversity of mediums is only part of the story. The senior position Ernabella occupies in the Australian art world is underpinned by the “confidence” brought by 70 years of intergenerational, sustained creative diligence.
Viner recognises this balance between tradition and innovation in the paintings of Pepai Jangala Carroll: “they surprise you in terms of their vibrancy. They’re on a remarkable scale.” Milky dots shimmer and coalesce over large canvases. Like starlings or stars, they simultaneously appear as one unit and as innumerable iotas as they embody the remembered shapes of Carroll’s father’s and grandmother’s Country.
The 1971 residencies provide a moment from which to chart evolution. Today, Sturt houses 3D printers and digital routers alongside its kilns and looms, and Ernabella is “achieving work that’s contemporary on any level,” says Viner. Yet, consolidation and the humanity of making are still the creed at Sturt and Ernabella. It comes back to the hands: to “the tactility of making and of handing on knowledge.”
This article was originally published in the January/February 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.