Visual Art

After the shock of the failed referendum, Adelaide’s Tarnanthi 2023 – the biggest display of Aboriginal storytelling in the country – is a counterstrike that repays hatred with love. By Claire G. Coleman.

Tarnanthi 2023

Kaurna dance group Kuma Kaaru performs to a street crowd.
Kaurna dance group Kuma Kaaru.
Credit: John Montes

There was a tension at the Tarnanthi opening ceremony outside the Art Gallery of South Australia on North Terrace in Tarntanya/Adelaide, an energy unlike at any other – and I’ve been to every Tarnanthi since the first, in 2015. The artists I knew were deflated, despondent and afraid. Our hopes for Voice, treaty and truth had been dashed by a shockingly bad referendum result less than a week before.

I don’t want to talk colony and politics again: this is an exhibition review, not a political diatribe. But the referendum was too recent – it was all still raw. Artists and curators told me they were watching faces, searching for a glimmer of hate. We all know now most people we meet don’t want to give us equity or to listen to our voices. The call for peace – for a ceasefire in the form of a Voice to Parliament – has been rejected and the war will continue.

We entered the basement gallery for the press launch to the melodious strains of Acca Dacca, thunderstruck by the wraparound colour and noise of Yankunytjatjara artist Tiger Yaltangki’s Wanangara – Lightning series. Tiger has been painting spirit beings and crazy creatures for years, expressing his story with images that would be disturbing if they were not so cartoonish and cute. Recently, including as part of Shadow Spirit at Rising in Naarm/Melbourne and now at Tarnanthi, he has overpainted poster-sized images of his favourite band, AC/DC, turning them into his heroic spirit creatures.

Tarnanthi feature artist Vincent Namatjira was visiting from his home in the remote community of Indulkana and gave an address at the media preview. Drawing on his Ramsay Art Prize acceptance speech, the Western Arrernte man told us “art is a weapon”. Vincent has long expressed himself in portraits, just as his great-grandfather Albert did in landscapes. Portraits become political statements at the end of his brush. He is a warrior, this is a war: and I fight alongside him.

When I spoke to Vincent of his warrior spirit, he told me he was “fighting to level Australia, to make Australia equal” and that he was “disappointed over the weekend, about hearing the results”. His presence and his art exposes the blatant disinformation that claimed only “elites” from the city voted “Yes” to the referendum.

In this forever war, the strongest weapons my people – our people – have are art and story. This is a conflict of story and of negotiation. Whether intended or not, the art in Tarnanthi is a counterstrike: it says, you mess with our rights, we mess with your soul. When you try to destroy us with hate, we fight back with love.

Aboriginal art has always been political. The fact we are not recognised in the Constitution does not, and never will, stop that. Art such as that shown in Tarnanthi is our Blak constitution, it is our recognition: it’s our “we are here”, our song/title to Country. When the colony has denied us a voice, this art is our voice – and it’s screaming. Its mere presence is political: we assert our existence to a colony that wanted to make us extinct.

Art is a weapon.

Tarnanthi is an exhibition across two floors of AGSA and a number of other galleries across the city. There’s also an art fair, at which artists from across the continent can sell their works, with assistance and funding from Tarnanthi. It’s a unique model – exhibitions and an art fair, all supported by philanthropic funding. The whole city of Tarntanya, and much of the state around it, is a network of art, resonating with story.

Stories from artists such as Elizabeth Close (Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara), who in SandWoman has repurposed parts of Holden car bodies, hacking them, modifying them and hanging them as art. Holden named many of its iconic muscle cars with disembodied Aboriginal words: Monaro, Torana, Camira and Maloo. The words were arbitrary, chosen perhaps because they sounded cool. Elizabeth told me she used her piece to speak about “cultural appropriation and then a broader concept around cultural theft to speak about colonisation”.

When we visit Tarnanthi we are surrounded by paintings of Country, maps of place, stories that convey our identities and prove our forever ownership of our ancient homelands. This is the art of the people of the land.

I don’t have space to mention all the artists whose work I saw at the show. There were hundreds. We are kidnapped by the bones, ceremony and Mokuy works of Wagilak artist Wally Wilfred, that take us to the lands and culture of his people at Ngukurr. We feel the spectacular, adorable and sometimes hilarious soft sculptures from the town camps of Mparntwe. We are captured by the awe-inspiring and vast painting of Timo Hogan (Pitjantjatjara) right at the entrance of AGSA – Timo also has his own solo show across town as part of the wider Tarnanthi offering. We are immersed in the stunning Tears of the Djulpan by Yolngu artist Djakangu Yunupingu.

There are a number of exhibitions scattered across the city, ranging from multimedia to ceramics, from carvings to paintings, from urban to bush. They are united in their story, in their communication of culture and Country. This biennial festival is arguably the greatest expression of Indigenous storytelling in so-called Australia.

Tarnanthi might give us a lesson on how to move on, on how to create a new Australia.

In the Namatjira exhibition is a collaborative painting by Vincent and our mutual friend, whitefella artist Ben Quilty. Vincent has painted Ben and Ben has painted Vincent, in oils, with Mount Sonder on Vincent’s Country in the background. This collaboration symbolises what matters most: walking together, working together, Blak and white, in love and respect.

Later, at the Tarnanthi art fair, surrounded by stunning art from the remote Aboriginal communities which we now know voted “Yes”, I spoke to Quilty. “As artists, especially in Australia, we are expected to be seen and not heard,” he said. “There’s a cultural cringe in how we are expected to operate – but then I meet someone like Vincent who, in a lot of senses, has had a profoundly tragic existence for most of his life, who is then using humour to, in such a powerful way, confront us with the politics of the 21st century.

“I’m inspired by Vinny to be stronger with my voice, to be more political with my work, and I think the whole referendum process really made me feel we need to step up to do more, say more, be louder, ignore the violent voices in our community … and do what we believe in.”

Vincent Namatjira’s strength and Quilty’s words inspire me to do more: more for my people, more for my community and more for the artists whose works I am immersed in. You too can do more: support our artists, support art centres, visit Tarnanthi to see the wonderful art on display, go to the next art fair and open your wallets.

On Sunday afternoon, the last day of the opening weekend, we’re in a tram travelling down North Terrace. We pass a mass protest, police lights and flags, calling for an end to genocide in Palestine. I am reminded of the existential risk of allowing people to reduce our humanity.

This is not the end. As my friend, Western Arrernte, Afghan and Yankunytjatjara man, artist and curator Robert Fielding, said in the opening keynote address for the exhibition: “WE WILL RISE.” This art is our weapon: it’s aimed directly at your heart. I hope it fires true. 

Tarnanthi is on at the Art Gallery of South Australia until January 21.



INSTALLATION Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature

ACMI, Naarm/Melbourne, until April 14

VISUAL ART Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour

Art Gallery of South Australia, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, until January 21

TEXTILES Pliable Planes: Expanded Textiles & Fibre Practices

Fremantle Arts Centre, Whadjuk Country, until January 28


Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until March 10

CULTURE takara nipaluna

Mathers House, nipaluna/Hobart, until December 21


VISUAL ART Shapes for Gods | Steve Lopes

Mitchell Fine Art, Meanjin/Brisbane, until November 4

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Aiming for the heart".

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