Puna Yanima, Mimili Maku Arts, Mimili, South Australia. Photo: John Montesi, 2015

Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art

This land is mine
Rock, water, animal, tree
They are my song
My being here where I belong ...

This land owns me
From generations past to infinity
We’re all but woman and man
You only fear what you don’t understand
They won’t take it away[1]

Kev Carmody’s lyrics affirm our place and our ongoing relationship to Country as Aboriginal people in Australia; ultimately, we are responsible for and answerable to the land. 

The land in the far north west of South Australia is home to the Anangu (Aboriginal people) of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (APY) language groups. There are seven art centres across the APY Lands and each have many award-winning as well as emerging artists working at them. The art centres are a major hub of activity and are integral to each community for health, education and family life.

In most communities art projects lead to healthier lives and create outcomes that would not otherwise be possible. One major project is the Purple Truck, a mobile renal dialysis unit that travels across the Western Desert. The Purple Truck, funded by Medicines Australia and supported by Fresenius and Papunya Tula artists, enables artists to stay on Country while receiving treatment.

On a recent trip to the APY Lands with Nick Mitzevich, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, I visited four art centres with the SA Tourism Commission, a group of six journalists and two photographers. It was a privilege to be warmly welcomed into the communities with Inma (ceremonial dance and song) as well as seeing the extraordinary work being created.

While bumping along a rough dirt track in the back of a troopie en route to Tjala Arts in Amata, I was craning my neck to hear the intimate story shared by one of the artists, Maureen Douglas. Travelling through ancient country, I am witness to sacred landmarks scattered all along our journey.

This is no Dream(ing), this is tjukurpa pulka (ancestral creation story or important stories), that are embedded within this precious land. Inma, ceremonial dance and song are performed to affirm the ongoing connection to country and inform the art being made on Country.

At Mimili Maku Arts, we are met by a group of excited school children. Squealing with delight they run through the art centre to a private room to paint up and get ready to perform the maku (witchetty grub) ceremonial dance. The passing down of cultural knowledge to the younger generations is vital and performances like this are a joy to behold for those lucky enough to be there.

Rene Sundown, Iwantja Arts, Indulkana, South Australia. Photo: John Montesi, 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual arts have a strong following locally, nationally and internationally. There are key people, institutions and events that represent and support the artists through exhibitions, competitions, festivals, publications, films, plays and academic seminars. From diverse cultures and backgrounds, there is a sense of community amongst people who gather annually at events across Australia.

The Art Gallery of South Australia is proud to join this community by presenting TARNANTHI in October 2015, the inaugural Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. It is the most ambitious project to date for the Gallery, incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across Australia.

TARNANTHI (pronounced tar-nan-dee) is a Kaurna word, from the traditional owners of the Adelaide Plains. It means to come forth or appear as in the first emergence of light or of a seed sprouting. For most cultures first light signifies new beginnings.

South Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists will be showcased alongside their peers from across the country in a series of exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia as well as at most cultural institutions across the city.

An art fair on the opening weekend will be held at Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute. This will be a unique opportunity to buy works of art directly from over 40 artists and art centres from across the country. As the TARNANTHI Artistic Director, I am inviting people to come along and purchase works of art, meet the artists, and hear their stories firsthand.

Art enables us to connect as human beings regardless of race. By giving the wider Australian population an opportunity to gain insight and an understanding of the richness of our stories, we will lead people to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of our shared humanity.

Remote communities are a hotly debated topic in the media at the moment. I find myself asking, ‘‘remote to whom?’’. For people who live on country, their community is the centre of their universe. As they travel to our ‘‘remote community’’ in Adelaide, it provides us with the opportunity to support their art practice. Art is a way for people to earn a living and gain a true sense of self-worth.

In the words of Nick Mitzevich writing for INDaily after our recent trip to the APY Lands, ‘‘Art is potent – it has a capacity not only for cultural maintenance, but also for regeneration and redefinition that has been proven throughout history. Art can be the answer if we allow ourselves to believe it.’’

TARNANTHI will provide us with an opportunity to sit down, share our humanity and celebrate our differences.

Gordon Ingkatji, Ernabella Arts, Pukatja, South Australia. Photo: John Montesi, 2015


  1. ^ This Land is Mine, words and music by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly. © Copyright Song Cycles, administered by Kobalt Music Publishing Australia and Sony/ATV Publishing Australia

Nici Cumpston is Artistic Director of the TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art on 8 – 18 October 2015, with associated exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia until January 2016.