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Tarnanthi contemporary Indigenous art festival returns this spring

By Jonathan Porter

What’s in a name? Quite a bit as it turns out.

Take Tarnanthi (TAH-nan-di), which in the language of the traditional people of the Adelaide plains means ‘first light’.

It’s also the word Nici Cumpston, director of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, chose to name her exhibition.

“The first emergence of light, or first emergence of a seed, is really about new beginnings,” says the softly spoken Cumpston, who aside from her Afghan, English and Irish heritage is also a proud descendant of the Barkindji – the Darling River people of north-western NSW.

And she has made a new beginning of the traditional art scene in Australia with style and panache. With its launch in 2015 as a biennial event, Tarnanthi became Australia’s biggest indigenous art show, attracting over 50,000 visitors.

She followed up her initial blitzkrieg on the nation’s indigenous art world by securing a $17 million cash bonanza from BHP Billiton and the state government – enough to keep the show going for at least five years.

“Last time we had a major exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia and we will be doing that again.

“We are focussed on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in north-west South Australia.”

With a population of about 2500 covering over 100,000 square kilometres, the APY Lands were a standout of the 2015 show.

“We are also working with artists right across the country. Last time we worked with over 1000 artists and brought more than 300 to Adelaide for the festival,” says Cumpston, who is herself an internationally hailed photographer.

“It’s a unique opportunity for people to meet the artists, to talk to them about the story of their work and the process they went through and to be able to acquire works of art through the art fair.”

The Tarnanthi Art Fair is a pivotal element of the festival program and a focus for the opening weekend, showcasing more than 30 art centres from across Australia.

Learn about the process when you buy

Festival-goers will have the rare opportunity to buy works of art priced between $50 and $10,000 directly from artists and art centres from across Australia.

“We will have artists ranging from quite young to people in their 80s and 90s, coming from the Top End, Queensland, WA, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania; and artists who work in many different mediums, creating textiles, screen printing, natural dyeing, painting on canvas, as well as bark and carvings.

“There is also weaving – which includes sculptural forms as well as woven baskets and bags made from string or pandanus that’s been naturally dyed.”

Also represented will be the Tjanpi Desert Weavers of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) lands.

“These are weavers from central Australia who create works using dried spinifex but also incorporate wool and plastics. They make many kinds of wild and wonderful sculptural forms as well as baskets and animals.”

At the art gallery itself there will be photos and paintings as well as a performance artist.

At the JamFactory meanwhile, three different bodies of work will be on display.

“There will be artists working directly in designing ceramics developing a range of tableware and fashion as well as furniture design and jewellery.”

Bush tucker on the menu

An element of the show will also be going to Mount Gambier and one other regional area in August or September, she says.

“There will be workshops based on that element and an opportunity to come to Adelaide to see the exhibition.”

Because the show is in South Australia, food will play a big part, says Cumpston.

“At the Art Gallery of South Australia they can have lunch in the restaurant or morning tea or afternoon tea, and there is always a menu associated with what’s going on.

“Last time there was bush tucker and lemon myrtle on the menu.

“There will also be a café at Tarnanthi open during the art fair and the JamFactory is part of the West End so there are a lot of great restaurants people can go to.”

This is a unique opportunity to be part of the indigenous Australian art scene she says.

“In most cases this is the first time the works have been shown and this is a chance to engage with the artists one on one and talk to them about their work.”

The exhibition and events program will be announced in August.


Key dates: City Wide Festival 13 to 22 October 2017; Art Fair 13 to 15 October 2017; Exhibition at the Gallery 13 October 2017 to 28 January 2018.

South Australia


Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities. Most major hire car companies are located at Adelaide Airport.

Top image: Inside the Tarnanthi Art Fair, TARNANTHI | Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, October 2015. Photo: Ben Searcy

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