LINKING FUTURE GENERATIONS TO ANCIENT MYTHOLOGIES, YARITJI YOUNG’S PAINTINGS TELL A STORY BEYOND WORDS AND TIME. CAMILLA WAGSTAFF WRITES. PHOTOGRAPHY BY MEG HANSEN.
To look at the work of Yaritji Young is to look at culture coming alive. Painting on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the remote North West of South Australia, Yaritji is a highly respected senior artist and community leader. She hails from a formidable linage of Anangu painters: she’s the oldest of the Ken Sisters – renowned for their individual practices as well as their immense, award-winning collaborative works – and the daughter of the great artist Mick Wikilyiri.
“My paintings are of my Country; my father’s Country, my grandmother’s Country, the Tjala Country,” says Yaritji. “Everything that my grandmother taught me, I’m teaching to my grandchildren now. That’s how I became a good artist, because I was watching my grandmother.”
Young is a director at Tjala Arts, an innovative and dynamic Indigenous Art Centre at the forefront of the Western Desert painting movement. One of many Art Centres found across Australia and the Torres Strait, Tjala Arts is a place that honours cultural practice, working to empower and support Anangu artists in the production and ethical sale of their work. “Our Art Centre is at the heart of our community, where young and old paint side by side, and where we can teach the next generation,” says Yaritji.
Since the establishment of the Art Centre back in 1999, Tjala artists have firmed up a reputation for their dynamic use of colour and energetic mark making. Many of their works have found homes in top collections and exhibitions across Australia and further abroad. “Artists out here are known for being brave and adventurous,” Yaritji says. “My paintings are like that too. I love colour and paint and it is a joy to tell my story this way.”
A multi-time finalist in Australia’s most important national Indigenous and landscape awards, Yaritji won the illustrious Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2016 alongside her sisters Tjungkara Ken, Sandra Ken, Maringka Tunkin and Freda Brady. The winning collaborative painting told the story of the Seven Sisters – a lesson in family protecting and learning from one another. Yaritji and her sisters also contributed to a major collaborative work commissioned for the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Divided Worlds, at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Yaritji is a traditional owner of the tjala – or honey ant – tjukurpa. English really fails to define tjukurpa in all its incredible complexity, but at its most basic it describes the laws, stories and culture that provide the foundation for the Anangu way of life. When Yaritji paints the rock holes and other landmarks of her Country, she employs the traditional marks that relate to the tjala tjukurpa. Her twisting lines and serpentine, circular forms mimic the tunnels made by the honey ant. Found about a metre below the local Mulga trees, the honey ant is a highly favoured source of food in the area. Yaritji’s work thus comes to stand as a history, a biography, a roadmap of Country and culture – the two always entwined.
Her paintings are imbued with a unique ability to link future generations to ancient Anangu mythologies, helping them to further understand an ongoing responsibility to and reliance on Country.
“Yaritji Young paints from a place in her mind’s eye that is steeped in culture,” says Beverly Knight, director of Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery. Alcaston has worked closely with Tjala Arts since its establishment, and with Yaritji since she first exhibited with the gallery in 2010. “She possesses an innate creativity, gifted to her from birth – a gift given to so few.”
Knight reveals that Young’s paintings have been compared to great non-Indigenous artists like John Olsen. “Yet realistically, upon viewing her vibrant, luminescent paintings, one cannot help but think of her home Country in the APY Lands…the songs and traditional education taught to her by her family…and you begin to realise you are witnessing a genius telling her story.”
Alcaston presents an exhibition of new major paintings by Yaritji in September 2020, marking her fourth solo exhibition with the esteemed gallery since 2017. As Yaritji concludes: “When you support us and work with galleries that support Art Centres, you are supporting our business and our communities, and making sure that they are around for generations to come.”