Open Hands, the feature exhibition for Tarnanthi Festival at the Art Gallery of South Australia, draws from maternal bloodlines and the passing of cultural knowledge between generations. Encompassing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from different regions across Australia, the exhibition is ambitious in scope, building from past festivals, despite the constraints of an unexpected global pandemic.
By presenting work across different mediums, immersive experiences are created that reflect the multiplicity of language and culture shared amongst the artists. From celebrated weavers Ruth Nalmakarra, Margaret Rarru, Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Susan Balbunga and Mandy Batjula Gaykamungu, to historical photographs overwritten in Pitjantjatjara language and animations produced by Tangentyere artists in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), the exhibition underscores how First Nations experiences and practices deviate radically—reflective of the 365-plus language groups within the continent.
A highlight within this mix includes an installation inside a repurposed, hand-painted rainwater tank by senior artists Tjunkaya Tapaya and Alison Milyika Carroll from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of South Australia. Tapaya and Carroll’s work centres on water creation stories, or Kapi Tjukurpa. For one of four separate projects they are contributing to the exhibition, the women worked with 50 other artists by recording their stories, which can be heard from within the tank.
Caring for country and learning as a form of environmental management runs strongly through the exhibition. When I spoke with curator and Tarnanthi Festival artistic director Nici Cumpston OAM, ‘learning’ was a theme she carefully drew from to bring the works together. She recalled the weaving techniques she had learnt from Elders, explaining that “stories come together when you’re sitting and learning from people. Something happens when your hands are making, things open up inside of you, and I wanted to show how this knowledge is shared by presenting these artists’ work.”
This intention is evident in the work of artists Lena Yarinkura and her daughter Yolanda Rostron, whose installation Ngalbenbe uses weaving to illustrate stories of the Rembarrnga people of Arnhem Land. The installation blends cultural practices with spiritual knowledge, featuring wurum (fish-increasing spirits) and referencing the journey of catching fish with the wider astronomy above.
Similarly, in wunjayi (today), mother and daughter artists Sonja Carmichael and Elisa Jane Carmichael use woven forms to evoke the way that rituals like weaving are used to nurture and maintain the environment. A gulayi (Quandamooka for ‘women’s bag’) is featured, which is used to carry food, and represents an integral part of life for saltwater people. The women’s passing of knowledge becomes symbolic of Blak matriarchies, highlighting the intricate cultural practices Aboriginal women embody, and the continued role we have as leaders in our communities and wider environmental and social justice movements.
Engaging with this work from where I live in Birrarung-ga/Melbourne was impossible to contextualise without reflection of the immense social and geographical change occurring both in Australia and globally. COVID-19 unleashed unforeseen barriers on the arts sector, which hinges upon public outcomes and large gatherings. While Tarnanthi was required to re-adjust some programming in this environment, Cumpston has adapted to these circumstances thoughtfully; artists who can no longer travel to the exhibition are included through recorded interviews and wall text. Their voices will carry even if it is impossible for them to be physically present in the type of public events we have come to expect.
On a deeper level, the Black Lives Matter protests in the US have fueled an unprecedented re-examination into the atrocities occurring in our own nation, which have been neglected even as First Nations communities relentlessly sought change. When asked about the exhibition’s timing and relevance to racial justice, Cumpston explained, “It was really important to present the truth in a way that is accessible so people can learn. It’s even more important to break down stereotypes and to hear from artists themselves.”
Exhibitions like Open Hands have a new urgency in these times. In a recent Guardian article highlighting the surge in Indigenous book sales, Dr. Anita Heiss expressed that “this increase in passion, in the desire to learn, to understand, to be part of the necessary process of change that requires ALL of society’s citizens to participate—it is inspiring, it is helpful, and it gives hope.” The increased interest from non-Indigenous people to educate themselves in this moment gives shows like Open Hands an even greater role, and will contribute to the change and learning that is needed.
As I finished my conversation with Cumpston, she explained to me that Tarnanthi means ‘first light’ or ‘new beginnings’ in Kaurna language, and is also used to describe the first sight of a seed sprouting. These meanings felt like an antidote to the rapid upheaval occurring beyond the gallery walls, espousing hope and the possibility of new growth in challenging times.
Open Hands can be viewed as part of a larger step beyond the dominance of Western systems. In times of uncertainty it shows that institutions are shifting their thinking, opting to follow the cultural knowledge that First Nations communities hold across the country.