Monday, November 2, 2015

Tarnanthi: Art in Adelaide, Australia

Tarnanthi is an aboriginal word from the Kaurna people of South Australia. It means to come forth or appear – like the sunrise, or a seed sprouting. For many cultures, first light represents a new beginning. I was fortunate, not only because I was able to travel to Australia and visit the Art Gallery of South Australia but also because this exhibit called Tarnanthi had just been unveiled. Billed by the museum as the “most ambitious exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in its 134 year history,” Tarnanthi was more ambitious even than that. It really is a series of 21 distinct exhibitions and those exhibitions were just part of a citywide festival of indigenous arts. 

Here is but a very small sample of what I saw at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Traditional indigenous paintings on eucalyptus bark by various indigenous people.

Detail of “Dead man” from the Gunbalanya people of western Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.

This is a detail of just one of several rooms devoted to the weavings of contemporary indigenous artist Yvonne Koolmatrie, of the Ngarrindjeri nation. The weavings reference traditional eel, fish and animal traps, along with scoops, baskets and other utilitarian woven objects. Koolmatrie, whose art practice was inspired by her experiences as a seasonal worker and a “lifelong relationship with the river,” became a “pivotal figure” in contemporary aboriginal art. She represented Australia in the 1997 Venice Biennale.

One of the things I liked best about the installation of the permanent galleries in the museum was the placement of contemporary works amongst traditional ones. The piece in the center of this gallery features the headless, skinned bodies of two horses. Called “We are all flesh,” by Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere, it has been one of the more controversial ones, according to the museum staff person I spoke with.

This series of portraits was created between 1944 and 1947 by Australian artist Sidney Nolan.

One of the things I did not care for was a penchant for hanging paintings and framed works on paper on mirrored walls positioned in the middle of galleries. I found it distracting to see the reflections of other works of art on opposing walls, not to mention people moving through the gallery. Here is one of Hokusai’s famous woodcut prints of “Fuji in Fair Weather.”

An untitled photograph by a contemporary Swiss artist named Claudio Moser seems to float in the doorway between two galleries.
This is the second of a series of stories about art experiences during my recent foray to Australia and New Zealand. To read the first, click on Toi o Tāmaki.

To read stories from my excursion to the Antipodes, go to Urban Wilderness. To see a series of photos from Australia and New Zealand, go to my flickr album.


  1. You would think that as a gallery, there would be a better way of displaying their art work rather than that suspending method you dislike. Surely they have a pedestal of sorts in storage right?

    1. There are certainly alternatives. I can only assume that this unorthodox method was a deliberate curatorial decision.