Stan Grant compares Indigenous cultural sites to the Sistine Chapel

Broadcaster makes comments at opening of Tarnanthi festival of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

Stan Grant has compared Indigenous cultural heritage sites such as Lake Mungo to the Sistine Chapel and said the depth and breadth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art “punctures” the conception of Terra nullius.

The ABC broadcaster made the comments at the opening of the Tarnanthi festival of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of South Australia on Thursday night.

The program was introduced in Pitjantjatjara, Yolngu Marta and Arrernte before being introduced in English to a crowd that included many artists from remote communities.

Grant said the works presented in the festival, which features about 1,000 artists across 26 exhibits, “speaks of a continuity that is tens of thousands of years old on this planet”.

“The story of Australia, of modern Australia, began with the idea of Terra nullius, of emptiness, of invisibility,” he said. “[Tarnanthi] punctures that idea of emptiness and invisibility.”

Many of the works at the festival, such as a series on the Maralinga nuclear tests, are explicitly political. Grant suggested all were implicitly political because they represented Indigenous culture.

“Many of the artists here have fought for their land and for recognition of their rights as human beings,” he said. “This is art as evidence, evidence of a culture as old as human time on this land, evidence of resilience, evidence of survival.”

Tarnanthi, named for the Kaurna word meaning to rise or come forth – as in the first light of day – was first held in 2015, attracting 330,000 visitors across 23 venues. It has been jointly funded by the South Australian government and BHP, with the latter committing $17m over five years.

South Australia’s premier, Jay Weatherill, who tasked the SA art gallery with creating the festival several years ago, said it exceeded his expectations and praised BHP for its support, saying it helped improve relations between the mining company and Indigenous peoples.

“When we presented this to Andrew McKenzie, the chief executive of BHP, he didn’t hesitate in grasping the significance of this event for his company that wants to project itself as a first-class corporate citizen as it seeks to engage in its important work in developing the natural resources of this country, understanding that to do that it needed respectful relationship with the first peoples of this nation,” Weatherill said.

The 2017 festival includes the Kulata Tjuta project, an installation of more than 600 spears, made by men from the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, arranged in an orb and hanging over two concentric circles of water carriers, or piti, made by the women.

The work represents the nuclear bomb testing at Maralinga, in Anangu lands and was first presented, in an earlier stage, at the first festival in 2015.

Artists from the APY lands held a minute’s silence for Mr Lester, an activist who was blinded during the tests in the 1950s and died this year, before a ceremony at the opening of the exhibit on Thursday.

Also featured is a series of photographic portraits of 12 Tasmanian Aboriginal elders by Ricky Maynard, titled “Saddened were the hearts of many men”, and a series of sculptures of sea creatures made from “ghost nets” – discarded fishing nets pulled from the ocean by artists from Erub on Darnley Island in the Torres Strait.

Speaking earlier on Thursday, the director, Nick Mitzevich, said the artworks both reflected upon and suggested solutions for Australian society.

“We live in a time where we lament the past, where we don’t necessarily know the way forward, but there’s one thing that is so clear: that art is the answer,” Mitzevich said.

A three-day art fair begins on Friday evening and features work from more than 200 artists hailing from more than 40 art centres around Australia, culminating in the Purple House auction on Sunday to raise money to fund a renal dialysis centre at Pukatja in the APY lands.

The city-wide festival runs for 10 days until until 22 October and the Tarnanthi exhibition, as well as an accompanying exhibition called Ngurra: Home in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, will run until 28 January.

Guardian Australia travelled to Adelaide courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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