Somebody once announced It’s Time, and won a famous election. Now another Somebody “ Djambawa Marawili AM “ has declared, This is the time when we should show the culture and the wisdom of the Country to the world beyond his Yolngu-speaking lands in North East Arnhemland. The art, the language and the Songlines have to talk to you, he continued. Let’s share the knowledge of the Country.

Generous as ever with his ancient and complex culture, this artist, politician and community leader was opening Adelaide’s biennial Tarnanthi Festival at both the Art Gallery of SA and spread across 35 venues Statewide. AGSA also has a single exhibition in alternate years, and next year is spreading its wings to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes in Brittany during October 2020, where it will show the ever-developing ‘Kulata Tjuta’ sculpture created from a multiplicity of hand-made spears by APY men. Earlier, Marawili had led the singing in a passionate ceremonial performance by his Blue Mud Bay dancers; preceded by the local Kaurna being equally passionate and welcoming in their ceremony and proud in their language rediscovered over the past decade, plus speeches in Pitjantjatjara and Aranda.

This was a powerfully respectful event “ the respect coming as much from SA Premier Steven Marshall and local BHP chief Laura Tyler, the munificent source of $7.5m. over the (first) six years of Tarnanthi’s existence. AGSA Director Rhana Devenport added a key concept: “These stories are ancient as they are urgent”.

This was not whitefellas handing out gongs, as I fear tends to come across at the annual Telstra NATSIA Awards in Darwin. And it may be said to represent a shift in the dynamics of significant Indigenous art events in Australia. There’s little doubt that Tarnanthi is now where it’s really at.

And this matters, because “ as I shall reveal soon “ South Australia’s plans for a new Gallery for Aboriginal Art & Cultures are moving along carefully and quietly behind the scenes. Which will make Adelaide the place to go in Oz to understand and appreciate our amazing First Peoples.

So “ question…..could the art itself by more than 1200 artists spread across the Art Gallery of SA and 35 other venues across the State, match up to this opening?

Well, the advantage of the two-year planning and commissioning cycle that Artistic Director Nici Cumpston enjoys is that bigger projects, cooperative projects and individual artists are given their head to experiment with interesting results.

Biggest of all is the mighty material from the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre “ home of Djambawa Marawili “ much of which is intended to fulfil his time when we should show the culture dream and tour America as part of an 80-year span of art from that Country. Some of AGSA’s basement is a tour of new works contributing to ‘Dhawit’ “ ‘Fly Away’, as the art will do when Tarnanthi is over, heading for the US forever. And much of the rest is devoted to explaining in a magical doughnut-shaped video and exemplifying on bark ‘Gurrutu‘, the engine behind all Yolngu art by which people, clans and the land are all linked to each other and each other’s Country.

But the city’s Jam Factory craft centre is crammed with works created by individual artists from different remote communities who’ve come to the city to expand their practice with experts here. And Tiwi Islander artists have had a feast producing 25 substantial Tutini poles and plenty of Tunga baskets to cap them off. Further south, one of the most remote desert communities “ Ninuku “ took its artists and families off for a 2 week even remoter camp at the significant Aralya site to give everyone the feel of the place and its important Wati Tjakura or Desert Skink Dreaming to paint it en plein air and to be filmed in action.

At the new APY Gallery in Adelaide, relatively emerging artists from across the Lands formed a backdrop for the launch of a book by one of the greats, the late Mumu Mike Williams, who completed this mix of the personal, the political and the cultural just before his death. And at the Library, the International Year of Languages was celebrated by the Barkly Arts Centre from Waramunga who were showing art based on 1966 recordings of stories by their parents and grandparents, made by an itinerant Indian anthropologist and now restored to them digitally.

So far, so much community “ amplified by the opening weekend’s Art Fair, subsidised by the Festival so that every cent of sales goes back to the community art centre. But individuals do emerge in different ways. Jonathan Jones, for instance, the Wiradjuri artist has found visual ways of expanding upon Bill Gammage’s and Bruce Pascoe’s books about Aboriginal agriculture. In the Botanic Garden, he’s superimposed strongly inked images of native grasses on to colonial pastoral magazines. In the background, the sound of the traditional grindstone turning those grasses into flour “ recalling that Adelaide was the site of the important Ngintaka Songline exhibition, based on the Perentie Lizard hearing the perfect grindstone over an 800 km distance and setting off to steal it.

Jones has also found a sketchbook by SA surveyor Frome showing a neat Coorong ‘village’ of some 24 houses, empty because the Ngarrindjeri had been ‘dispersed’ for killing survivors from a nearby ship sinking, and burnt by me October 1840!

In the SA Gallery, several individuals have been commissioned to let it all out “ Miriwoong Peggy Griffiths from Kununurra has turned out 8-metre ‘maps’ which also become the background for a cartoon film. The late Nyaparu (William) Gardiner is given a whole, ghostly room to show his portraits of the heroes who lead the first Aboriginal station walk-off at Yarrie Station way back in 1946. Pauline Sunfly from Balgo hits you in the eye on the AGSA landing with a series of substantial canvases that show fealty to the art of her father, the legendary Sunfly Nampitjin. And just about everywhere “ well at AGSA, the Jam Factory, the Festival’s catalogue cover and at a commercial show in Beulah Park “ Gunybi Gumana was pushing boundaries. A formed steel work at the Jam Factory was his most novel effort.

Finally, for points of difference artistically and as far as adventurism in the Tarnanthi Festival’s own thinking is concerned, the Ngarrindjeri rush weavers came together over many months under Ellen Trevorrow to create a whale of a work “ ‘Kondoli: the Keeper of the Fire‘, which is almost 5 metres long “ to hang in the SA Museum foyer. At AGSA, the 15-year-old Layne Dhu-Dickie sets a high bar for the youngest Tarnanthi entrant with his comic book morality starring Captain Hedland. And dance entered the Festival via Aboriginal/Maori woman, Amrita Hepi who was filmed responding to landscape in SA. In December, the dance continues with Jacob Boehme’s reprise of ‘Blood on the Dance Floor‘.