From stargazing with the Mabo family to reclaimed colonial artifacts: inside Tarnanthi 2021 | Art and design
gail Mabo was about eight years old when his father, the late Eddie Koiki Mabo, first traced the story of Tagai the hunter in the night sky over the Torres Strait islands to him. âAs Tagai moves across the sky, he dictates when it’s time to plant, when it’s time to harvest, and when it’s time to hunt turtles,â she says. It was the first time she had visited the islands. “Because there are no other great lights, you can see the whole range of stars.”
Starting this week, Mabo’s large-scale tribute to Tagai, an eponymous bamboo stalk scaffolding adorned with a constellation of black stars, is on display at Tarnanthi Festival 2021, the art gallery‘s annual celebration. from South Australia of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Appearing alongside the works of more than 1,400 artists from across the continent and its waters, Mabo’s art evokes a thread of memory and place that recurs throughout this vast exhibition.
“The story of Tagai is still told across the Torres Strait [Islands], because it’s a connection to space, a connection to where you are – every island would say it in a different way. This is my interpretation, âsays Mabo.
Every piece of his star map is imbued with meaning and memory; her bamboo backbone is harvested from groves planted by her father on the James Cook University campus, while the scalloped black stars are enlarged, 3D printed replicas of rare star-shaped sand (technically the envelopes tiny marine organisms) collected by Mabo during this same childhood trip. âIt only happens on one beach; he sat us down on the beach and told us to close our eyes and hold out our hands. He then poured sand on our hand – I could to feel this.”
Picking bamboo also brought up a âfloodâ of memory: it was Gail who was often by her father’s side, helping him after school while he worked as a gardener at the university. “It’s like someone has turned on a video camera, and I’m reliving my life with my dad there.”
As Mabo gazes skyward, in an upstairs gallery, Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough presents a bird’s eye view of Country closer to her own home. âI did it as a surveillance video,â Gough said of aerial drone footage of the Clyde River in Tasmania being projected at the Psychoscape center., a suite of mixed media works. The area has been the scene of numerous killings of Tasmanian Aborigines by settlers (“an absolute bloodbath,” Gough says) and soon enough the flowing water is tinged with red as an ambient soundscape hums. across the room. “I wanted a hunch of trying to figure out the land and the country, and what he’s been through.”
In these works, Gough takes a lost and found approach that reframes artefacts from antique markets, thrift stores, and the South Australian Art Gallery’s own collection to bring out fictions and styles. absences from Tasmanian colonial history – in a way that often matches Gough’s. family stories. âIt’s like they inhabit a space invented in a certain way,â she says of a pair of 1823 landscapes by English painter Joseph Lycett. âThese Lycett prints from the 1820s don’t show any Indigenous people, it’s just these bucolic made-up landscapes,â she says. “We are erased.”
Faced with erasure, Gough prompts us to reflect on what we can see: “All Tasmanian Lycetts show the ‘Brown Bess’,” she says of the 19th century musket preferred by the British military and sported by the settlers in the photo. âThis is the gun of the empire, they always have them ready and ready. But it’s not like they have a big game to fightâ¦ it’s just us. Underneath the paintings, Gough perched a very real iteration of the weapon purchased at an online auction. “This is from the 1820s, so it could be that weapon.”
It was Eugene von GuÃ©rard’s 1877 oil painting, Waterfall on the Clyde River, Tasmania, that inspired the video footage, which Gough herself filmed after locating the site depicted using Google Earth and word of mouth. âIt was overgrown with willows, so the landowners came in and tried to reveal the waterfall again by cutting and burning,â she says. âWhen I sent the painting I think it precipitated a bit of land maintenance. “
A 21st-century landowner with a jerrycan is a far cry from his original guardian’s firestick burning, but the story is a fitting metaphor for Gough’s provocations: to get a clearer picture of the past, he sometimes you have to fight the weeds – or take a match from them.
Mabo bamboo and Gough’s willows share some commonalities, but also reflect the diversity of expression seen across the two levels of Tarnanthi (and in other participating galleries through Kaurna Yerta / Adelaide), colorful meditations of artist Ngaanyatjarra / Pintupi Katjarra Butler at ancestral sites across the West Desert, at Mutaka, an ode to the automobile by artists from Irrunytju in the lands of Ngaanyatjarra in Western Australia – who transformed casings from salvaged oil and pram wheels and turned them into painted miniature cars. At the start of the lower galleries, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by John Prince Siddon’s surreal âpuzzlesâ of sharks, Scott Morrison, red-backs, boat people and fire kangaroos (they hold a hose).
âTaking a step back and sharing with people is part of this cycle,â Mabo says of his work, his origins alongside his father, and where he fits in such an outpouring of culture today. âYou have to share the story, to keep the story the same. Stories don’t die just because people pass by; they continue with each generation. So sharing stories in our culture is a strong thing – to keep us connected to the country. “