Australia’s leading Aboriginal art festival, Tarnanthi this year includes exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia, a state-wide festival with exhibitions and accompanying events, and the Tarnanthi Art Fair, which will be both in-person and online.

Tarnanthi represents the dynamism of contemporary Aboriginal and (sometimes) Torres Strait Islander art, and offers a generous, BHP-sponsored platform for artists to share their important stories. Since it started in 2015, Tarnanthi has shown the work of more than 6000 First Nations artists, while more than 1.6 million people have attended Tarnanthi exhibitions and events.

Highlighting this year, the first-ever survey exhibition of Western Aranda artist Vincent Namatjira will open on October 20. With works that offer a wry look at the politics of history, power, and leadership in Australia (and back to Britain), from Namatjira’s signature satirical Aboriginal perspective, Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour will premiere at AGSA, featuring new paintings by the 40 year old Archibald Prize-winning portraitist, and rarely seen works from public and private collections across the country.

Vincent Namatjira has also selected works from the Gallery’s collection by his great-grandfather Albert, whom he cites as one of his greatest inspirations. Interestingly, a commercial exhibition by Vincent at Yavuz Gallery in Sydney reveals his debt to Albert in the way he’s painting landscape backgrounds these days. Following Tarnanthi, Vincent Namatjira: Australia in colour will travel to the National Gallery in Canberra in 2024.

Tarnanthi 2023 features more than 1500 artists from across the continent, as far north as Arnhemland to the Spinifex heart of the Great Victoria Desert. Working diversely in painting, photography, weaving, carving, sculpture, moving image, works on paper and textiles, the artists share traditional cultural knowledge through totally contemporary works of art.

At AGSA itself, Tarnanthi features more than 100 artists including Kala kunbolk (Colour Country), which will feature exquisite woven baskets by the Kunwinjku women of Gunbalanya in western Arnhemland. They are exploring the world of fibre art through weaving practices that can be traced back thousands of years.

In their culture, colour is life, and brightness and vibrancy are highly valued. Drawing attention to the natural variations of dye, each of the baskets has been created using a single colour of dyed pandanus. Intricate knowledge of plants enables the intensity of each dye colour to be achieved only by sourcing the plants at the correct time of the year.
The whole process has been mapped on a large-scale hand-painted banner created by one of the younger artists, weaving together country, colour, and culture.

From the Central Deserts, Tiger Yaltangki is a prolific Yankunytjatjara artist who works at Iwantja Arts in Indulkana, in the APY Lands of South Australia. With bright, bold brush strokes and texts, he has inserted himself and his community into the setting of recycled AC/DC posters, plus a series of self-portraits, bringing his idols into his life in the desert.

Urban ceramicist, Janet Fieldhouse has crafted amuletic sculptures using clay, feathers and raffia in a series of cameos carved from porcelain that respond to both the artist’s Torres Strait Islander and her Chinese family history.

Also working with clay is Judith Pungarta Inkamala, another renowned Western Aranda artist, who has been working at the Hermannsburg Potters since 1993 in Ntaria. Encouraged by her mother to share the story of her life, Inkamala has created a new body of work for Tarnanthi. On each of her hand-built clay forms, she has painted intricate scenes capturing poignant moments from her life.

Wally Wilfred, a Wägilak artist working at Ngukurr Arts in southeast Arnhemland, is known for his use of vivid colour in his paintings. He employs traditional rarrk technique of cross-hatching, which artists across Arnhemland mainly use with natural earth pigments. Wilfred’s contemporary works are as likely to use acrylic greens or reds to reflect stories handed down to him from his grandfather. The works speak of cycles, life and death, and the ongoing connection to strong traditions and culture.

Back in the Red Centre, Marlene Rubuntja joins her friends and family at Yarrenyty Arltere and Tangentyere art centres in Alice Springs in a project that involves sixteen artists ranging in age from twenty to eighty. The Mpulungkinya project takes in kinetic soft sculptures, rendered ceramics, and paintings with the positivity that shines out of the two art centres.

Among the most senior artists exhibiting at Tarnanthi is Bugai Whyoulter, a Kartujarra artist who paints with Martumili Artists in the Pilbara region. Her mazy works depict the seasonal changes across the salt lakes and sand dunes of Wantili, the Country where she was born. Alongside her exquisite suite of paintings is film that transports us through her Country, across vast tracts of land where cultural knowledge is vital for survival.

At the other extreme, the youngest artist in the Tarnanthi is twenty-three-year-old Ray Mudjandi, whose work expresses his Bininj and Western Arrernte culture and identity as well as his love of pop culture, contemporary film, comics and superheroes. For Tarnanthi, Mudjandi will reveal his superhero, Black Speed, who holds lightening in his body as djang (sacred power), portrayed on traditional barks and relief sculptures. “Tarnanthi fosters opportunities for First Nations artists at all stages of their careers,” said the Festival’s Artistic Director, Barkandji woman, Nici Cumpston OAM, “opening up new pathways for creative talents”.

From the heart of Tarnanthi at AGSA, the Festival stretches across SA with 27 partner venues presenting more than 36 exhibitions and events, from Port Pirie to Port Adelaide. For instance, Saltbush Country brings together works by seven First Nations artists from regional South Australia, curated by Wangkanurra artist and curator Marika Davies.

She says, “Each artist is different, and their works are different, but they all connect in ways that could easily be overlooked. The artists live and work in their communities and have strong connections to where they are from, what has happened in our shared history and what is affecting First Nations people now”.

As well as group and solo exhibitions, this year’s partner projects include a First Nations dance development opportunity with Australian Dance Theatre and opportunities for First Nations writers to engage with Tarnanthi exhibitions. There are also projects that support arts in health, with children invited to make work that responds to the theme of ‘what matters to me’ at Adelaide’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Kaurna Women’s Art Collective shares their collective strength in Footprints, a showcase of textiles, moving image, portraits and text at Hart’s Mill in Yartapuulti (Port Adelaide).

One of Australia’s most celebrated singer-songwriters, Arrernte/Gurindji man Dan Sultan will kick off the opening weekend celebration of Tarnanthi in a free public event on AGSA’s North Terrace forecourt on Thursday 19 October.
For the first time since 2020, the popular Tarnanthi Art Fair also returns in person (and online), at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre – offering a great opportunity to meet and learn from artists firsthand about the thousands of art works and artefacts for sale. Since 2015, more than $6.6 million of art has been sold at the Fair, all proceeds going directly to the artists and their community-run art centres.

Tarnanthi runs until 21 January 2024. The Tarnanthi Art Fair takes place at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre from 20 – 22 October 2023.

I wonder whether anyone listed might win a prestigious Red Ochre Award next year? Nominations for a lifetime achievement in First Nations arts and culture close, via the Australia Council, on 10th October