Indigenous Australian Art

Textile Encounters with Ansie van der Walt

The second TARNANTHI – Festival of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art – is on in Adelaide, South Australia. As a new Australian, I know that few people outside this vast country know much about indigenous Australian art, except for what we might see in curio shops and the odd movie. Let me introduce you to some of the talented artists you might not have heard of before. As this is an embroidery blog, I will concentrate on fibre and textile related art.

Tarnanthi Textiles
But first, a quick history and geography lesson

The Indigenous cultures of Australia are the oldest living cultural history in the world – they go back at least 50,000 years. For Indigenous Australians, the land is the core of all spirituality and this relationship and the spirit of ‘country’ is central to the issues that are important to Indigenous people today. Language is vitally important in understanding Indigenous heritage as much of their history is an oral history. Hundreds of languages and dialects existed (although many are now extinct), and language meaning, as well as geographic location, is used today to identify different groups.

Torres Strait Islanders are the second group of Indigenous Australians and a minority within a minority. Torres Strait, which lies between Cape York and Papua New Guinea, is legally part of Queensland. Torres Strait Islanders are not mainland Aboriginal people who inhabit the islands of Torres Strait. They are a separate people in origin, history and way of life.

Indigenous Australian Art

Overview of Aboriginal art represented in TARNANTHI

The Festival’s vision, led by Barkindji artist and curator, Nici Cumpston, encourages new beginnings by providing artists with opportunities to create significant new work and extend the practices that they have been developing in studios, art centres, institutions and communities. Independent artists and collectives from across the country present works of art in mediums such as painting, photography, performance art, sculpture, installation, the moving image and design. TARNANTHI also commissioned over 50 new works.

Indigenous Australian Art
Confluence – Nicole Monks’ Marlu Collection. Yolngu weavers of Elcho Island Arts worked with Sydney based design company, Koskela.
Focus on textiles

Aboriginal people live in close relationship with the land. Most of what they do and make depends on where they live and the types of plants they have access to. Weaving is a popular craft allowing people to make items that are both decorative and useful. Spinifex (a tough spiky tussock grass), twine made from the inner bark of the Kurrajong tree, sedge rushes (Lepidosperma canescens), are just some of the materials used to create baskets and other vessels, mats, fishing nets and traps, and contemporary items like screens and lampshades.

Tjanpi Desert Weavers are world renowned for their unique sculptures, depicting scenes from their life and culture.

Indigenous Australian Art
Sculptures by Tjanpi Desert Weavers

The women from Bula’bula Arts in northern Arnhem Land uses a variety of plant material to create their distinctive mats, baskets and fish traps. Their string figures and games were depicted in a series of prints exhibited in Entwined at this year’s festival.

Indigenous Australian Art
Bula’bula Arts String Figures

Conventional, contemporary textile and textile printing is a learned skill adopted by several and to reproduce their traditional images and designs. It also provides a sustainable source of income for individuals and communities.

Injalak Art and Crafts have a very productive screen-printing workshop, where very talented and highly skilled artisans produce indigenous designs on cotton, linen and silk.

Indigenous Australian Art
Screen print on cotton. Egret design by Gershom Garlingarr. Injalak Arts
Embroidery and stitching

In a previous post, I wrote about my visit to the Yarrenyty Arltere Art Centre in Alice Springs. I was delighted to see their latest installation at this year’s TARNANTHI. They have made a series of soft sculptures of life-sized self-portraits, titled Every face has a story, every story has a face: Kulila! As well as a moving image work, Petrol been wasting all our lives.

Indigenous Australian Art
Every face has a story, every story has a face: KULILA! by Yarrenyty Arltere Art Centre
Recycling and repurposing

Erub (Darnley) Island, is one Australia’s most remote places, located in the Torres Strait Islands. Artists from Erub Arts Collaborative have worked with ghost nets (abandoned fishing nets) to create a massive installation of an underwater world including vivid coral and magnificent sculptural fish, turtles, sharks and jellyfish. Ghost Nets of the Ocean shares the artists’ concerns for the loss of marine life and environmental damage caused by rogue nets, bringing to light the irreparable harm that discarded nets cause to marine life.

Indigenous Australian Art
The story of ghost nets

This is just a taster of what is going on in the indigenous art in Australia. It is a gift that keeps on giving. This vast and beautiful country has a rich heritage of art, culture, language, oral traditions and music which few people outside the country ever get to see or experience. This is an invitation to learn more and to come and experience it in person.

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