The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Tarnanthi exhibition showcases traditional and contemporary artwork by Aboriginal creators. Their works tell stories passed down through generations. (Image: Open Hands exhibition artwork by Elisa and Sonja Charmichael).

By Taylor Siemelink

Amidst the chaos of this year, a return to normality is on the horizon. But what has been a year of uncertainty, hardship and pain will undoubtedly be remembered as such for years to come. Preoccupied by a newfound, pandemic-addled reality, the First World’s focus went from thriving to merely surviving; though for much of humankind, this is all they’ve ever known.

Marginalised groups have, for centuries, been oppressed for reasons out of their control. From their nationality to their skin colour, those who don’t fit the mould of white supremacy are shunned for merely existing; a concept with which many of us are fortunate enough not to fully understand. It wasn’t until recently, when the Black Lives Matter movement began, that strides were made towards creating a more inclusive Australia.

One of the particularly inspiring aspects of the movement has been seeing people get behind Aboriginal creators, whose works tell stories passed down through the generations. A perfect example of which is this year’s Tarnanthi exhibition, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, which showcases a combination of traditional and contemporary artwork by a variety of Aboriginal artists. Since COVID-19 restrictions were introduced, there was a lot of uncertainty as to if the exhibition would go ahead, but its fruition is a testament to Project Officer Celia Dottore’s unyielding dedication.

“I’ve had the absolute privilege and pleasure to work on this incredible exhibition assisting Nici Cumpston, Artistic Director and Curator, and this has been a very important and timely exhibition for us to present this year,” she said.

“I just wanted to express how lucky we feel to have these works and to be able to show them.

“That’s really only due to the trust and support and generosity of the artists in sharing their story, not only with their community but with the broader public.”

This year’s Open Hands exhibition features upwards of 80 senior women artists, whose work tells of their knowledge and experiences which have been passed down through the generations. One artist, Lena Yarinkura, creates physical depictions of animal spirits using traditional weaving techniques.

“I pass my ideas on to my children and grandchildren,” she said.

“It is important that I teach them, because one day I will be gone, and they will take my place.”

The bond between Aboriginal Elders and younger generations is unique and unwavering, with it being customary to share life knowledge and experiences as a means of education. Featured artist Susan Balbunga knows this all too well, having lived with her mother, father and extended family her whole life. Now a senior artist living with her own offspring and their children, the master weaver and director attributes her abilities to her Elders, who taught her everything she knows.

“They taught us, the old people, they taught us bit by bit,” she said.

“Especially me, I know from sitting with my grandmother and her mother, they used to make baskets like this one and I watched their hands.

“I was a little girl sitting beside them, by their side so I could learn, so I could put it in my head.

“When they passed on, I started weaving.”

For the original custodians of this land, their history is riddled with stories of pain and anguish. Since the First Fleet, white settlement has seen Aboriginal people deprived of their basic human rights. Since then, their fight to obtain equality has been one wrought with injustice, as the silencing of their voices prevented their truths from being heard. Local Indigenous artist, Jayda Wilson, believes that Tarnanthi plays a vital role in educating South Australians on Aboriginal culture and the little-known history behind it.

“It’s a learning opportunity for our non-Indigenous audience as they also experience and understand our traditional ways,” she said.

“It’s also an opportunity to understand how colonisation has removed a big part of this from all Indigenous communities, but also why our culture is so important to us.

“We all get to experience a part of the artist’s life and how they tell their story through art.”

Originally published in The Junction.