From stargazing with the Mabo family to colonial artefacts, reappropriated: inside Tarnanthi 2021

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Gail Mabo was around eight years old when her father, the late Eddie Koiki Mabo, first traced out for her the story of Tagai the hunter in the night sky above the Torres Strait Islands. “As Tagai moves through the sky, he dictates when it’s time for planting, when it’s time for harvesting, and when it’s time to hunt the turtles,” she says. It was the first time she had been to the islands. “Because there are no other big lights, you could see the full array of stars.”

Related: Pilungah Reserve: celebrating connection to country – in pictures

From this week, Mabo’s large-scale tribute to Tagai, an eponymous scaffold of bamboo stems festooned with a constellation of black stars, is featured in Tarnanthi festival 2021, the Art Gallery of South Australia’s annual celebration of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Appearing alongside work by over 1,400 artists from across the continent and its waters, Mabo’s art speaks to a thread of memory and place that recurs throughout this vast exhibition.

“The story of Tagai is always told through Torres Strait [Islands], because it’s a connection to space, connection to where you are – each island would say it in a different way. This is my interpretation,” Mabo says.

Every piece of her star map is imbued with meaning and memory; its bamboo backbone is harvested from groves planted by her father on the campus of James Cook University, while the black stars festooned across it are enlarged, 3D-printed replicas of rare, star-shaped sand (technically the husks of tiny marine organisms) collected by Mabo on that same childhood trip. “It only happens on one beach; he sat us on the beach and told us to close our eyes and put our hands out. He then poured some sand on our hand – I could feel it.”

Collecting the bamboo also brought back a “flood” of memory: it was Gail who was often by her father’s side, helping him after school while he worked as the university’s gardener. “It’s like someone’s turned on a video camera, and I’m reliving my life with my Dad out there.”

While Mabo looks skyward, in a gallery upstairs Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough presents a bird’s eye view of Country closer to her own home. “I made it like surveillance footage,” Gough says of aerial drone footage of Tasmania’s Clyde River projected in the centre of Psychoscape, a suite of mixed media work. The region was the site of numerous killings of Tasmanian Aboriginal people by settlers (“an absolute bloodbath”, Gough says) and soon enough the flowing water is tinted red while an ambient soundscape hums through the room. “I wanted a foreboding sense of trying to understand the land and the Country, and what it’s been through.”

In these works, Gough takes a lost and found approach that reframes objects sourced from antique markets, secondhand shops and the Art Gallery of South Australia’s own collection to draw out the fictions and absences in Tasmania’s colonial story – in ways that often dovetail with Gough’s own family histories. “It’s like they’re inhabiting an invented space in a way,” she says of a pair of 1823 landscapes by English painter Joseph Lycett. “These Lycett prints from the 1820s don’t show any Aboriginal people, they’re just these invented, bucolic landscapes,” she says. “We’re erased.”

In the face of erasure, Gough provokes us to reflect on what we can see: “All the Lycetts in Tasmania show the ‘Brown Bess’,” she says of the 19th century musket favoured by the British army and sported by the colonists in the picture. “It’s the firearm of empire, they’ve always got them leaning and ready. But it’s not like they had any big game to fight off … it’s just us.” Beneath the paintings, Gough has perched a very real iteration of the weapon bought in an online auction. “This is from the 1820s, so this might be that gun.”

It’s Eugene von Guérard’s 1877 oil painting, Waterfall on the Clyde River, Tasmania, that inspired the video footage, which Gough filmed herself after tracking down the site depicted using Google Earth and word-of-mouth. “It was overgrown with willows so the landholders went in and tried to reveal the waterfall again by cutting and burning,” she says. “When I sent through the painting, I think it precipitated a bit of landcare going on.”

A 21st century landholder with a jerry can is a long way from the fire-stick burning of its original custodians, but the story is an apt metaphor for Gough’s provocations: that to gain a clearer picture of the past sometimes requires fighting through the weeds – or taking a match to them.

Mabo’s bamboo and Gough’s willows share some common threads, but also reflect the diversity of expression seen across Tarnanthi’s two levels (and in other participating galleries across Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide), from Ngaanyatjarra/Pintupi artist Katjarra Butler’s colourful meditations on ancestral sites across the Western Desert, to Mutaka, an ode to the motor car by the artists of Irrunytju in Western Australia’s Ngaanyatjarra Lands – who have turned salvaged oil sumps and pram wheels and turned them into painted model cars. At the start of the downstairs galleries, it’s hard not to be hypnotised by John Prince Siddon’s surreal “jigsaws” of sharks, Scott Morrison, red-backs, boat people, and fire-fighting kangaroos (they do hold a hose).

“Standing back and sharing with people is part of that cycle,” Mabo says of her work, its origins by her father’s side, and current place in such an outpouring of culture. “You’ve got to share the story, for the story to remain the same. Stories don’t die just because people pass; they’re continued on with each generation. So the sharing of stories in our culture is a strong thing – to keep us connected to Country.”

• 2021 Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art is showing at Art Gallery of South Australia and venues across South Australia until 30 January 2022

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