Submitted Review

Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands) Art Centre

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales • New South Wales

  • 13 March—07 June 2020

  • Marielle Soni • Published 19 April 2020

  • Commissioned Article

By ferry & by foot, on March 16 I sought the work of the artist collective Iltja Ntjarra on Cockatoo Island. Known predominantly for their heritage (most are kin to Albert Namatjira) & watercolour landscapes, I was keen to see how their practice was developing after enjoying recent years of evolution in political, conceptual & issues-based content.

The trek was long & confusingly circular. Powerful installations, many massive in scale, across the recolonised-colonised island ensured a strong & consistent message. After wandering unsuccessfully, it was necessary to follow the map, & look down. There in a humble corner, corrugated metal wall on one side, stone wall on the other, sat 8 ubiquitous shopping bags each with a painted Hermannsburg landscape scene painted on it. The reverse bears a handwritten message in a placard-protest style – “My Home is being Destroyed” the artist tells me.

I was disappointed. I was expecting more. It seemed tiny, too modest, easy to overlook. I checked my pamphlet, Iltja Ntjarra was listed at every NIRIN site. The next day a return trip to AGNSW to seek them out there.

Seek them out you must. Their placement is an essential element of this clever installation, which spans across all sites for the very reason why it was initially invisible. “My Country Is Still Alive” – cries the message underneath Prospero Fontana’s 16thC Deposition of Christ in perfect juxtaposition. So too at the National Art School, Campbelltwon & MCA, the humble nature of the bags (associated with Hong Kong & adding another level of political visual language), the modesty of the small windows of glorious Aranda landscape develops a tone of longing. The text takes on protest, anger. You could walk by without noticing them, as you might have walked by any homeless person with their belongings urgently contained in one bag. As you might have walked by Namatjira himself, homeless & famous, successful & without citizenship, fighting for the right to own a home on his ancestral lands.

The repeated motifs of this installation successfully tell a much bigger story by carrying across multiple sites in a wonderful piece of curatorial vision by Brook.  There is still a lot you can learn At MCA I notice a large piece by Tony Albert made with SEED. Albert has worked closely with Iltja Ntjarra, & they have run with the outcome of this creative collaboration in profound ways. “Don’t Frack the NT”. Displacement, poverty, homelessness, health, environmental destruction are our ongoing life & death issues. It is known that people who emotionally connect with place understand its value and will fight to protect it. The artists of Iltja Ntjarra know this. How sadly but aptly ironic that NIRIN exposes these truths & is shut down by its reality. Healthy lands, healthy people.

Commissioned by Biennale of Sydney with Fondation Opale. Learn more online, and hopefully open to visit before its duration end.