As South Australia lead the cultural way in the 70s when Don Dunstan emerged as the first Aussie politician to recognise the value of the arts to the soul and economy of his people, so the Art Gallery of SA is doing its bit for the integration of Indigenous art into the Anglo-Australian mainstream. Having reorganised its permanent galleries accordingly, it’s now opened Heartland, a commissioned show of local artists “ Anangu, Blak and white “ responding to the physical and psychic specificity of the State.

Naturally, the people of the APY Lands in the north have a big role to play “ both Tjala Arts at Amata and the Tjanpi Desert Weavers contribute big numbers of artists “ 32 of the 42 artists involved. By way of contrast, a surprisingly high number of migrants from New Zealand “ well 2, Ian North and Wendy Fairclough, that’s 20% “ are invited to interpret the flatness and antiquity that differs so markedly from the land of their upbringing; and how could anyone put on an SA show without Hossein Valamanesh, the now well-established migrant from Iran/Persia?

Other coincidences that may (or may not) say something about how SA sees itself are the two glass artists Wendy Fairclough and the Aboriginal Yhonnie Scarce with her blue bush bananas reflecting on her Woomera birthing “ which could be a response to the bountiful sand that may become glass, or to the influence of Adelaide’s excellent Jam Factory art centre; then there are two drawers, Kim Buck and Annalise Rees (versus a single painter, Stewart Macfarlane); two couples, the Valamaneshes and James Darling and Lesley Forwood, who do interesting things with mallee roots; and no fewer than three photographers, Kate Breakey, Paul Sloan and Ian North “ surely the result of co-curator, and photographer Nici Cumpston’s influence.

Challengingly, those 32 Anangu artists are lumped togather in the catalogue, while Blak and white artists get individual biographies and appreciation. Is this a throw-back to the old communard days before individual tribal artists were allowed to stick their heads over the parapet? Or is it a justified reflection of the fact that painting commissions for Heartland seem to have gone to the APY men and women working collaboratively? The Tjanpi Weavers also tend to do their work “ collecting grasses, dying them and weaving “ in company, especially when they’re working towards a project like Heartland‘s Paarpakani, a group of wacky birds taking flight.

Or is it in some way a reflection of AGSA Director Nick Mitzevich’s retro-view that the Gallery was in some way “broadening the genre of landscape” by including Aboriginal and settler narratives. Funny, I’d always thought that Aborignal art was primarily about Country “ with its physical and spiritual dimensions “ which is surely a genre of landscape.

And, come to think of it, pretty much all settler art in Australia in the 19th Century was about trying to come to terms with this new landscape.

Indeed the co-curators “ Cumpston and Lisa Slade clearly say that senior lawman Hector Burton gave them the “well-spring for the exhibition concept” through his glorious paintings. Sad then to be reminded by Burton’s fellow lawman, Frank Young in his catalogue essay that for many Anangu artists, their art is as close as they can get to actually living on Country, and that this disassociation may well be the cause for ill-health in remote Aboriginal communities. “Only our Country knows what we need and how to take care of us”, he explains.

Will SA Premier Jay Weatherill, who saw Heartland as important enough to contribute a note or two, take note of Frank Young’s plea to offer diabetes treatment in-community rather than in distant Adelaide?

URL: Art Gallery of South Australia