YARITJI YOUNG + TJALA ARTS: APY LANDS
The Brooklyn Rail April 12, 2019
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This group show features the work of women indigenous artists who belong to the artistic collective Tjala Arts, located in south Australia in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara, the full name of the acronym “APY” used in the title of the exhibition. The paintings, some of them collaborative, are fairly described as contemporary art, despite the fact that much of their work is informed by the imagery of dreamtime, the time of creation (dated to 60,000 years ago) in aboriginal Australian mythology. Their aesthetic voice renders an ancient artistic tradition anew through exuberance and a freely expressed hand and holds an important place in the global artistic continuum.
Yaritji Young’s work, Tjala Tjukurpa - Honey Ant Story (2018), is a magical tumble of a painting, its inspired chaos filled with cylindrical shapes, red and blue ribbons, and, on the bottom right, tightly curved black markings along with very small designs. The painting tells a story about honey ants, which live beneath Mulga trees in nests a meter underground and are eaten by the indigenous peoples, who ingest the honey-like nourishment from the ants’ stomachs. A narrative about interdependent nourishment between people, animals, and the environment, the honey ant story is told across the Northern territory into South Australia, and the painting reflects the myth’s fertile imagery, which has been active for a very long time.
Seven Sisters (2018), by three artists belonging to the Mitakiki Women’s Collaborative, consists of many circular dots, usually with black interiors, that cascade across a ground of mostly red and purple. The dots appear in aligned groups, sometimes in rows or pyramidal shapes, flowing across the body of the painting, which is divided by three undulating stripes in the middle area of the composition. Smallish dots of white and gold and black create an abstract landscape notable for its repetitive, but also improvisatory, energies. But the story the composition tells is specific: the indigenous Australian version of the Greek Pleiades myth about seven sisters who flee the amatory attentions of Orion by escaping into the sky, leaving traces of themselves as the star constellation of the same name.
Another work titled Seven Sisters (2018), by Sylvia Ken, does not appear to be figurative but also refers to the Seven Sisters narrative, whose tale is often enacted in traditional dance. In the middle of the work is a crossed set of red tubes regularly punctuated by circular forms with mostly black centers. Underneath this crossed form is a ground of myriad tightly curved white lines on black. This dense imagery fills most of the upper part of the painting, and a considerable piece of the lower half. Reddish abstractions in the higher register and orange and purple amorphous patches on the lower part occur, adding to a pattern of considerable complexity. To the uninitiated viewer, the image looks a lot like a microscopic photo of something vascular within the body.
The energies and vibrancy of these three paintings continue throughout the rest of the show. In the other works on view, painting is used to tell a story central to the mythology of the aboriginal people who made the work. Interestingly, it is hard to see actual figurative references in this art, which is symbolic of the landscape and stories that so marvelously support the culture. Because the mark-making is in fact highly specific in its references to nature and to myth, the paintings cannot be read as abstraction. They are, instead, imbued with a cultural imagination carrying back tens of thousands of years. It is interesting to note how, on a superficial level, this work might be likened to abstract contemporary Western art. But though the narrative may be disguised by the style of the paintings, it is surely there. Indeed, the story structures the paintings’ style. Storytelling does not always abound in modern or contemporary Western art, but narrative can extend easily across boundaries, and this is what makes the show so exciting.