I’ve learned a lot when I’ve had the opportunity to cover Indigenous art over the last few years. Sometimes (more often than not) I feel like I can’t do it. It is uncomfortable to me that on one side of the country there are incredible artists creating deeply important artwork imbued with thousands of generations of history, culture and spirituality. And here I am thousands of kilometres away – both physically and metaphorically – attempting to communicate the impact that I can’t possibly understand. I’ve tried my best but made some mistakes along the way. One of them was in relation to the artist we’re profiling today.
Yaritji Tingila Young is a highly respected artist and community leader living and creating on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the remote North West of South Australia. An incorrect link to an unethical Indigenous art page was accidentally associated with her name in a previous story I wrote, which led to distress for her and her family. I understand why. Yaritji Tingila is a mother and a caretaker. She is an artist and a teacher. As a senior law woman in her community, Yartiji Tingila is committed to fostering law and culture, keeping stories and traditions alive.
Yaritji Tingila is a director and leader of her art centre, the Aboriginal owned and managed Tjala Arts, located in the heart of the community. It’s a place where ‘young and old paint side by side’, she says, where culture and stories are passed down to the next generation. It’s a source of great pride, industry and connection for Yaritji Tingila, her family and her community.
A Pitjantjatjara woman and widely celebrated painter, Yaritji Tingila was born c.1954 in Ernabella, South Australia. She’s has been painting at Tjala Arts in far north-west South Australia on the APY Lands, where she lives 120km south of Uluru in the township of Amata, since the early 2000s. Here, she paints the story of the Tjala – the Honey Ant – found a metre underground in the area, bulging with sacks of honey at their rear, their purposeful journey brightly illuminated in tunnels entwined with rock holes and landmarks of her country on Yartiji Tingila’s canvas. They are the emblems of the Amata region’s creation story.
‘My paintings are of my country; my father’s country, my grandmother’s country, the Tjala country. Everything that my grandmother taught me, I’m teaching to my grandchildren now.’ tells Yartiji Tingila. ‘That’s how I became a good artist because I was watching my grandmother.’
There were nine kids in Yaritji Tingila’s family growing up. Her father Mick Wikilyiri, uncle and grandfather were stockmen, as well as her mother Paniny. ‘She used to ride a horse and do stock work as a stock-lady’, Yaritji Tingila remembers. ‘She was the only woman riding those horses and mustering.’
Many members of Yaritji Tingila’s family come together at Tjala Arts. Her father Mick is a highly respected painter in his own right, and in 2016, Yaritji Tingila and her sisters – Tjungkara Ken, Freda Brady, Maringka Tunkin and Sandra Ken – won the Wynne Prize for their collaborative painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Family and community are everything to Yaritji. As well as her own three kids, Anthony, Valerie, and Chrissy, she has helped raise many others – ‘it’s Anangu way to grow up other people’s kids when they can’t’, she says. ‘The young people are still ninti (knowledgeable) and our family will keep strong, because I’m still working on it before I go. The young people need to not only work well, but our culture has to be strong too.’
Every year since 2017 Yaritji Tingila has held sell-out solo exhibitions at Alcaston Gallery, where she is represented in Melbourne. Famed gallerist Tim Olsen of Olsen Gallery represents her in Sydney. She’s exhibited in dozens of group shows since the year 2000, has been a finalist in both the Wynne Prize and Telstra Prize three times respectively (not including the year she won the Wynne), and her art is held in major collections around Australia including at Artbank, GOMA, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the National Gallery of Victoria. She recently finished a massive mural – the largest scale work made to date in the region. And it all comes back to Tjala Arts.
‘This art centre is our business, we have watched it grow strong and are proud of what we have created. When you support us and work with galleries that support the art centres, you are supporting our business and our communities and making sure that they around for generations to come.’