Iwantja Rock n Roll The work of three artists from Aboriginal Australian communities

Vincent Namatjira, Kaylene Whiskey, Tiger Yaltangki: Aboriginal Australian communities to produce commentary yielding humor, irony, depth, and re-contextualization

Lampoon presents Iwantja Rock n Roll

New York City’s Fort Gansevoort art gallery hosts the collective exhibition Iwantja Rock n Roll by Vincent Namatjira, Kaylene Whiskey, and Tiger Yaltangki, renowned artists from Australia and members of the indigenous Indulkana Community.

Their community is situated in the northwestern region of South Australia on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands. This is the artists’ first time appearing as a collective exhibit in New York City, Namatjira shares, «When the opportunity came up to have an exhibition in New York City we thought ‘hey, what about we have a show together? Kaylene, Tiger, and myself – we’ve never done that before’».

Iwantja Rock n Roll denotation

All three artists, Namatjira, Whiskey, and Yaltangki are from an Aboriginal community, Indulkana, which is also known as Iwantja after the Iwantja Creek, where the community was first established. Indulkana/Iwantja is one of six main communities on the APY Lands.

The artists are a part of the Iwantja Arts center, one of eleven indigenous-owned and governed enterprises of the APY Art Center Collective which was established in 2013. Iwantja Arts supports the artistic practices of over forty members across varying mediums, some of which are represented in the exhibit including painting and video making.

The common thread found throughout the artists’ work is a commentary that takes western cultural icons out of their context and depicts them in APY lands or Anangu lifestyle, thus giving way to thought-provoking irony and humor.

This connection is represented in the exhibit’s title, Iwantja Rock n Roll, as explained by Namatjira, «All our work is very different, but there are connections there – we all love music, especially rock n roll, so that’s where the title came from».

Emerging contemporary artists from Indulkana

The artists are a part of a contemporary art movement from remote Indigenous communities across their nation, «Younger artists like me, Kaylene, and Tiger are making work that we want to share with people all over the world. We make contemporary art – it’s maybe not exactly what people think of when they think about Aboriginal art from Australia, like dot painting and more traditional work. We’re like the new generation that is moving things forward. We respect the traditions, we’re still influenced by the old people and their strong culture but we make art that is also influenced by what is happening globally with other art, music, and movies», states Namatjira. Whiskey and Yaltangki both grew up and went to school in Indulkana.

Namatjira met the two artists when he moved to Indulkana with his partner over ten years ago and went to the Iwantja Arts center. He shares, «We’re some of the younger artists at Iwantja Arts – we’ve got a lot of respect for the old people who make more traditional paintings and we’re influenced by them and their work but we make our own style of work that is bold and contemporary».

Iconic elements of APY Lands and Anangu culture

Throughout the exhibit, Namatjira, Whiskey, and Yaltangki express iconic elements of APY Lands and Anangu culture with their own style and emphasis, as told by Namatjara: «Kaylene’s work is full of references to everyday life here on the APY Lands; bush foods like maku (witchetty grub) and tjala (honey ant), mingkulpa (native tobacco plant) that is chewed by all the old ladies, and things like that».

Yaltangki’s work often features Mamu, which are spirit people, creatures, or monsters in their culture who appear in traditional stories told to children to deter them from exploring dangerous places, «Tiger’s work includes Mamu[…]. Mamu can be bad or dangerous but in Tiger’s work they’re just fun and cheeky».

Namatjira also explains his own art, «I paint iconic figures like the Queen and displace them onto Aboriginal land, into the typical landscape of the APY Lands – red dirt, rocky hills[…]. When I paint the Country here, I feel the influence of my great-grandfather Albert Namatjira who was a great landscape painter and one of Australia’s most important artists».

With subjects placed in the setting of APY lands, the phrase “on Country” is embedded in some of Namatjira’s works. This phrase is used by Aboriginal Australians to describe the experience of physically standing on the land and engaging with the site of one’s ancestral home.

Iconic elements of Western culture, displaced

The juxtaposition of Western and Anangu culture is prevalent in all three of the artists’ works. The process in which each artist conceptualizes and selects these elements differs, and the reasoning or interpretation varies.

Whiskey shares the influence behind her Western pop culture selections, «I always paint my favorite pop stars like Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, and Cher and my favorite movies like Grease and Mad Max, and comic book superheroes like Wonder Woman – I paint them in my style, decorating them with dot painting and showing them doing Anangu cultural things. Like I might paint Tina Turner going hunting for lizards to cook for dinner, Wonder Woman collecting bush tucker like tjala (honey ants), or Dolly Parton singing about mingkulpa (native wild tobacco plant). I grew up with movies and music videos as well as the traditional culture taught to me by my nannas and aunties, so I combine both on the canvas, to make one big party».

Whiskey often places herself in her paintings alongside her idols, referring to the iconic singers as her ‘Kungas’, a term in the Yankunytjatjara language that means her ‘female cohort’. The term can refer to a woman of any age, but most often describes young women. The artist often conflates the opulence of Western celebrity and material culture with Anangu traditions as an expression of her own cross-cultural interests. Yaltangki’s imagery often reflects his fondness for AC/DC, Hank Williams, and science fiction. Namatjira describes Yaltangki’s process, «He almost always listens to rock music like AC/DC or Creedence when he’s painting, so a lot of the time he paints the Mamu rocking out on electric guitar».

Aboriginal Australian: Iwantja Rock n Roll: Vincent Namatjira, Kaylene Whiskey, Tiger Yaltangki

Iwantja Rock n Roll art features many familiar, powerful, and political international figures like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, the British Royal family, musicians, actors, and more. Displacing these individuals in the context of Aboriginal communities lends the artwork to irony and humor, but the obvious often is tied to a deeper meaning.

Namatjira discloses, «My work uses humor and wit to grab the audience’s attention – I don’t mind if somebody laughs or thinks my paintings are funny, but I also want them to look a little bit closer and see the serious side of my work too. In my paintings I use humor to take away some of the power from people I paint, like politicians or royalty – I put these powerful figures out of their comfort zone and onto a more even playing field. I want Indigenous people and our stories to be on the same level as the rich and powerful».

Namatjara gives his example of displacing the Queen onto Aboriginal land, «I do this to strip away some of their power, to show that on our land their wealth and status don’t matter here». The artist shares how his community responds to the humor in Whiskey’s works, «Kaylene is always making everybody in the art center laugh, they’re like ‘What? Is that Wonder Woman hunting with a kali (boomerang)?’». Across many of her works is the recurring motif of a decorative clock to signify that it is always ‘party time’ in the world of Whiskey’s art.

A change in conversation: colonial history and Aboriginal Australians

As previously stated, while humor serves to first grab attention, Namatjira hopes that the viewer will look closer to find a deeper meaning behind these works. The artist’s bold portraits explore the complexities of colonial history and its lasting effects on Aboriginal Australians, often speaking to the entrenched history of marginalization of Indigenous Australian Communities.

He shares his perspective on the changing conversation and one of the many roles of the art, «When I was a kid growing up, Captain Cook was always shown as a hero – that’s what we got taught at school». Captain James Cook was a British explorer and captain in the British Royal Navy in the mid-late seventeen hundreds, famous for his voyages in the Pacific Ocean and to New Zealand and Australia.

Namatjira continues, «I can see this is changing, with more people in Australia listening to Aboriginal people and trying to learn and understand more about colonization. There’re two sides to every story you know, and for a long time, only one side was being told in this country. I want there to be more recognition of Aboriginal voices, and I want my work to help be part of this – to shed light on some untold or overlooked Indigenous stories».

Namatjira, Whiskey, and Yaltangki

Vincent Namatjira and Kaylene Whiskey were born in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia in 1983 and 1976 respectively. Tiger Yaltangki was born in Ernabella (Pukatja), South Australia in 1973. All three artists are renowned at the Iwantja Arts center and throughout Australia. Iwantja Rock n Roll is their first joint appearance in New York City.

Autumn Mowery

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.