What is increasingly being recognised as Australia’s most important event in Indigenous art, Adelaide’s Tarnanthi Festival, has just opened. How does it compare with the annual Telstra NATSIAAs and the occasional Triennial at the National Gallery? Well, most importantly it selects artists and then commissions new work from them. This it can do because of the munificence of BHP – which announced a further 3 years support to that it’s already given since the first event in 2015. So Tarnanthi doesn’t just show art that already exists – from that year for the NATSIAAs, and up to five years old for the erratic Triennial. It’s encouraging novelty and innovation, and everyone gets paid for their efforts – even at the Art Fair, where art centres take 100% home.

And the results? Well, not being able to travel to South Australia currently, it’s hard to be absolutely sure – especially as the tendency towards State parochialism, no doubt encouraged by the whole COVID thing, meant that the Art Gallery of SA offered a press preview only to residents, and a Zoom Opening that seriously missed the highlights of the last one I attended, when Yolngu dancers and musicians from Arnhemland lit up the night.

But parochialism has its value, for Liberal Premier Steven Marshall delighted his audience by announcing something that appears nowhere on the web as I write – that the SA government had introduced legislation for a First Nations Voice to Parliament! Of course, that’s slightly easier at the state level than changing the national constitution. But, heck, let’s give credit where credit is due.

And to match, relying on the web, Tarnanthi at the Gallery appears to have some astounding pieces that justified curator Nici Cumpston’s powers of selection and encouragement. Much has been made in publicity of major quirky works by Mangkaja’s John Prince Siddon and by Iwantja Art Centre’s mingkulpa queen, Kaylene Whiskey. But, I have to say that I feel I’ve been exposed, most pleasurably, to their works before – they haven’t seized upon the Tarnanthi opportunity to go wild. Whereas Nyunmiti Burton from Amata and Spinifex man Timo Hogan have both pushed their desert boats out.

The Burton in the show seems to have absorbed much of the detail one might expect from a Tjungkara Ken ‘Seven Sisters Dreaming’ work and blended it with Barbara Moore’s expressionistic brush-work. It’s a stunner. Hogan has simply expanded his horizons – still (of course) painting Lake Baker, the saltpan he inherited responsibility for and stories about from his father. But this time he’s pushing its complexities and boundaries out to three two-metre panels. “A big painting for a big story”, enthused Cumpston.

In SA’s far north, the art centres at Tjungu Palya and Ninuku have been encouraged to make grand collaborative works. But, elsewhere, Cumpston tells me that she’s encouraged work that is “not always honoured”. And to stimulate this melange, she’s put together a collection exhibition she’s called ‘Keepers of Culture’ – containers of various sorts and paintings that reflect what I suspect is primarily the female side of traditional culture. The range is from Bandaka Mununggurr’s early bark to Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s woven wire narbongs. Sonya Rankine gets a solo show of Ngarrindjeri baskets. Other ‘unconsidered trifles’ that just fly off their plinths are Warringarri’s murmuration of birds – all carved from boab nuts, and Irrunytju’s crazy recycling of discarded car sumps – turning them into cars again; model cars, each with their own story.

Works on paper are also often unconsidered – so Cumpston has accumulated the works of new fewer than 65 Tiwi artists from all three island art centres – including works by Bede Tungatalum, Timothy Cook, Lorna Kantilla and no less than ten Puruntatameris.

In all, there are 27 projects and 189 artists in the Art Gallery, with a further 190 artists elsewhere in the city and 22 exhibitions around the State. The show in the city that I’d be heading for first is ‘Balgo Beginnings’ at the SA Museum. A labour of love by curator John Carty, it celebrates Warlayirti Artists’ 40th anniversary at Balgo, using the fortuitous discovery in 2019 of a discarded shipping container filled with the mouldering art that first flowered there in 1982. As often happens, when the canvases were conserved, they inspired today’s artists to head out bush and reflect on their ancestor’s portrayal of this newly adopted Country – for their origins were as far away as Kiwirrkurra. A 2020 work by Eva Nagomarra has the distinct flavour of the late lamented Wimmitji – massed dotting and muted colours. A book will follow.

Meanwhile, all the fun of the Fair is online only this year this weekend. And my money is on a rush for the Mangkaja ‘stand’ where Tarnanthi superstar John Prince Siddon has a work that should end up in the WA Premier’s office – mocking the efforts of Clive Palmer and PM Morrison to tear down the State’s borders, and praising the steadfast Mark McGowan. Oddly, I note the absence of three other prime art centres – Papunya Tula, Warringarri and Iwantja – but that shouldn’t deny anyone a range of quality from woven work costing just a hundred dollars to canvases in the high thousands. Take a peep at Warmun. Just as art is passing through the generations at Balgo, here the great Rover Thomas’s daughter, Jane Yalunga essays a ‘Cyclone Tracy’ work that contains patterns her father once made his own.

And news just in: The 2021 Tarnanthi Art Fair, which ran as an online event from 15 – 18 October, closed with a record $1.4 million in sales, surpassing its previous record by 16%.

Meanwhile, at the earlier Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (online) a record $3.12 million was generated in art sales at  – with 100% of this returning to the Art Centres and their communities. DAAF online attracted 59,538 unique visitors to the digital platform, hosted 70 participating Art Centres who collectively represented 1,730 artists from across the country, and there were 8,686 unique artworks available to purchase on the platform!

Down in the deserts, Desart is adding to its Desert Mob credentials with a series of 14 films shot in remote art centres with artists talking about their work. And that starts on Monday 1st November. Four days later, from Friday 5th to the following Monday, you’ll be able to buy artworks appearing in the films online in a new MarketPlace.

And in Queensland, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair goes online from November 10th to 19th, with an arty program as well as sales of the State’s First Nations art.

And I note that the SOUTHEAST Aboriginal Arts Market, despite not happening until Thursday 25 November and running until Sunday 28 November 2021, will only be online. Curated by curator and presenter Hetti Perkins and busy Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones, SOUTHEAST celebrates the creative diversity of south-east Australian Aboriginal art.