Tjala Arts, Amata, SA

On the afternoon of our first full day of touring we met our Central Desert pilot from DirectAir, Patrick, for the first time as he took us down to Amata. We had splendid views of Uluru from the air as we departed, with Kata Tjuta in the distance. As always, looking down on the landscape as we headed towards South Australia, everyone was impressed by the look of the country from the air and the uncanny similarity such views offer to paintings from the region. We flew over vast rock formations on vaster plains, and I was reminded for the first time of many to follow over the coming days how Dreaming stories speak of the Ancestors growing weary and subsiding back into the earth from which they had arisen. 

Although the country shown here is north of Warakurna, and not truly close to Amata, it suggests to me those exhausted ancestors most clearly.

We landed at Amata, home of Tjala Arts. This centre was originally known as Minymaku Artists: the name means “belonging to women.” A while back, though, art centre coordinator Sara Twigg-Patterson was able to encourage some of the men in the community to start painting, and so the centre needed a new name. Tjala is local parlance for the honey-ant, the Dreaming that runs through Amata.

The Amata Hills, part of the tjala or honey-ant Dreaming.

This country is known as the APY lands, for Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjarra (the “Pitj/Yankuny people” in our speech). The people in this part of the country are still living very traditional lives; they’re quite conservative by the standard of some communities. That’s one of the reasons I have no photographs of the artists to include here. “This part of the country” is the tri-state area near where South Australia, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory meet. There’s a lot of movement of people from one place to another. There are therefore strong ties among many communities, and an individual living and painting now in Amata may have spent many years, for example, in Ernabella. This movement of people around the country was a theme that ran through our travels throughout the Central Desert. Many people were gathered together in Warburton for the big footy weekend. Farther north, the communities we visited were bereft of women, all of whom had gone on to the big ceremonial business being conducted at Mt Liebig during the time of our visit.

Another element of traditional culture that’s quite evident in Amata is the separation of women’s business from men’s. As I said above, the art centre here originally served the women of the community, and the main painting shed and office is still pretty much strictly a women’s space (although the men in our party were made welcome there).

The women’s painting shed in Amata.

The men who’ve begun painting have their own shed, and although I don’t have any pictures to prove it, they seem to have the majority of the community’s dogs as well, and the business of painting, buying, and selling art was frequently interrupted by the snaps and snarls of a split-second contretemps among the canines, which settled back down into silence as quickly as it erupted. The women muttered a bit afterwards. “Too many dogs. Hector’s dogs.”

Hector being Hector Burton, the former head of the local council and a leading painter in the community these days. At the men’s shed (women visitors welcome), Hector was clearly the host. Relaxed over a canvas, he chatted amiably with us, telling us about his singing with the Ernabella choir, his own travels (since we’d just traveled a significant distance to his homeland), and the painting exhibitions in faraway cities he’s participated in. There’s little doubt he’s a big man in these parts; his presence tells you so, despite his slender frame.

John, Joel, and Margo outside the men’s painting shed at Amata.

The painting sheds are truly no more than sheds, but they’re decorated, especially the older, women’s shed, with community graffiti, some of it quite thoughtfully applied. The picture below doesn’t really show the richness of the color with which these hand prints were made. This wasn’t a casual stenciling of a form onto the back wall of the shed. There are beautiful layers of red and green and blue in these black hand prints. Appearing on the back of the painting centre, they seem to draw a short line between youthful declarations of pride and independence and old, old traditions of wall painting. The almost urban slogans written above them only add to the complexity of expression on display.

The writing on the wall.

The last lesson learned that afternoon in Amata is that our visits to every community will be too brief. We arrive eager to see the artwork on offer in the centre, and find so much else to engage us: dogs and children and cups of tea, old men and young, community workers, trash collectors, mechanics, and nurses. And always, irresistibly, the country.

The Honey Ant Dreaming, tjala here, warumpi farther north.
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