New directions: The Amata men - Art Collector

Issue 63, January - March 2013

This profile appeared in the New directions feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2013.

Freddy Ken, Kulata Tjuta, acrylic on linen, 152.5 x 101.5cm. Courtesy: the artist and Tjala Arts, Amata, South Australia

The senior men from Amata, a community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands of South Australia, continue to innovate, driven by a desire to engage their young men and take this engagement into the outside world. Hector Burton, Frank Young, Ray Ken, Willy Kaika and Barney Wangin are all still painting but they are also excited by a quite different vision for showing their art and traditions.

This has arisen from teaching their young men to make traditional weapons – spears and spear- throwers. They have seen “how strong and powerful” the weapons would look in their art, says Young, director of the Tjala Arts art centre in Amata and chairman of the Amata community.

Weaponry has emerged recently as a notable subject in their painting – bold painterly representations by Freddy Ken, more abstracted orchestrations by Ray Ken, notations amid a dense field of motifs by Hector Burton. Now, they are imagining something else entirely – a room in a gallery “full of spears, thousands of spears”. Incorporating sound and lighting, their installation “won’t be still and straight like most exhibitions,” says Young, “it will be like a movie”.

They have involved installation artist Jonathan Jones, a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man based in Sydney. “We knew he worked in a different way, filling a room with things,” says Young, “and we asked him for support.”

This development in the work coming out of Amata follows two landmark exhibitions at Raft Artspace in Alice Springs. Both were wholly conceived by Hector Burton. (As the critic Nicolas Rothwell has noted, he is the first traditional artist to do this in four decades of Western Desert painting.) The exhibitions were significant departures – particularly the second,
Punu-nguru (From the trees) – because of the way the subject matter was carefully chosen to protect secret-sacred knowledge. As Young said in the catalogue: “With this exhibition we draw a line. We pull back and put a fence around our culture.”

Joyous figurations of trees were a feature of many works in
Punu-nguru. Wangin largely eschewed other motifs, with wonderful painterly renderings. In his collaborations with Burton and Tiger Palpatja, they were absorbed into vast intricate schemas. However other artists treated other subjects, including weaponry in the case of Ray Ken. At Desert Mob in 2012 only Wangin stayed with the tree motif, while Burton returned to his favourite theme, the Anumara tjukurpa, in a collaborative work.

The driving force remains the same.
Punu-nguru was dedicated to Amata’s young people – “the leaves” of the Anangu family tree, as Young puts it, “the future of our families”. The spear installation may represent a new direction but the main game remains “the old men training the young men, the same way it’s always been”.


Kieran Finnane



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