Ancient Great Southern Land

South Australia’s museum is home to the world’s best collection of indigenous artefacts while the Art Gallery is about to launch another stellar exhibition

Around a little tucked-away alcove in the South Australian Museum is a most remarkable object. It’s a 10,000 year-old boomerang. It’s most likely the oldest boomerang in existence.

Now, it’s a bit hard to comprehend such a time scale. For a point of comparison the oldest pyramids in Egypt are only about 4500 years old. The Parthenon in Greece is merely 2500 years old. This boomerang was already 8000 years old before Jesus Christ did his thing in Galilee. It was found intact in the 1970s in a peat bog near Millicent in the state’s South East. For John Carty, the museum’s head of anthropology, the simple little boomerang is one of the “keys that unlock every door on this continent’’.

Carty is a bundle of enthusiasm as he guides me through the museum. What he wants most to impart is that the history of indigenous culture, art and religion is vastly underappreciated.

There are many reasons for this. Some are political. Some are historical. “There is probably in Australia a sense that it’s too hard to deal with some of the difficult parts of our history, so we haven’t been able to celebrate some of the really positive parts of that history,’’ he says.

But, as he tells it, there is another reason and that goes back to the vast time scales as illustrated by that boomerang. “It is actually too big to comprehend,’’ he says. But if you are going to try to comprehend it, the SA Museum and next-door neighbour the Art Gallery of South Australia are probably the best places to start.

The museum is widely acknowledged, in Australia as well as internationally, as being home to the best collection of indigenous artefacts, culture and history anywhere. The Art Gallery, meanwhile, is about to launch Tarnanthi, its second festival of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, to run from October until the end of January.

Back in the museum, Carty is talking about how such institutions must innovate to remain relevant. Of how museums must move away from just static displays where exhibits are hidden away in glass cases. What he wants the SA Museum to do is tell stories.

“People need a story and we have the most extraordinary story on the planet,’’ he says. “We have that story to tell in a way no other museum can, because we just have that geographic and time depth to talk about the whole country.” It’s through the story telling that Carty believes it is possible to overcome the problem of the enormity of time and to explore the long history of the continent. And he returns to his “key” metaphor. “There all these (individual) small wooden objects, but you put them together and they are the keys to a whole continent’’.

The museum is also about to undergo a transformation. There is a $100 million plan to refurbish, restyle and reinvigorate the institution, which was started in 1856, making it only 20 years younger than the colony of South Australia itself.

There all these (individual) small wooden objects, but you put them together and they are the keys to a whole continent

But there is another cultural shift underway. Last year, the museum employed Glenn Iseger-Pilkington as its first indigenous curator for Aboriginal art and material culture. And it goes further. Rebecca Richards was Australia’s first indigenous Rhodes Scholar and is now working on an anthropology PhD and is on a scholarship at the museum. Given museums have a patchy history when it comes to how they acquired objects in the past many — were just stolen — Richards says she couldn’t do the job without support from community elders and her family.

“It’s really quite controversial, but I think it’s an important thing to do,’’ she says. “I feel quite comfortable with the modern stuff. I am getting more comfortable with the museum holding the older stuff as well.’’

One of her favourite displays is the doors that adorned the Yuendumu School in the Northern Territory. Yuendumu lies 290km north west of Alice Springs. In the 1980s, to remind kids of their culture, their Walpiri dreaming stories, five artists painted 30 doors at the school. Carty says the idea was to say to the children that “this is the doorway through’’ to a successful future. “You can hold on to your own culture but also learn these other things you are going to need.’’ Carty says they are now among the “most important’’ pieces of art in Australian history.

The idea that Aboriginal art is continually evolving is also explored at the Art Gallery’s Tarnanthi exhibition. It has been curated by Nici Cumpston who has been travelling the country looking for art and artists.

“It’s a way to show the ongoing connection to culture,’’ she says. “(There will be) artists who are working with moving images, right through to artists who are working with bark, but in really innovative and interesting ways. But also on canvas, installation, sculpture.’’

The first edition of Tarananthi recorded 311,063 visits across 22 venues. This year’s version has been bolstered by a $17 million sponsorship from mining giant BHP.

One of the exhibits Cumpston is most excited about is the kulata display by men from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara region in the far north of South Australia.

A kulata is a spear and 700 of them will be suspended from the roof in a large-scale installation depicting the impact of the atomic bomb testing on Anangu land in the 1950s and ’60s.
The spears will be arranged in the shape of an atomic bomb blast. They will be placed above a group of piti, which are wooden water carriers, made by local women to represent the water poisoned by the nuclear explosions.

“For the first time they are publicly speaking about their own experiences,’’ Cumpston says.

Art Gallery director Nick Mitzevich believes there is no other indigenous arts festival anywhere else in Australia that showcases such a broad range of artists.

“When you come to Adelaide you will see brand new work that hasn’t been exhibited anywhere else,’’ he says. “We want the wider community to get an insight into all the different facets of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.’’