New exhibition carves more than wood

15 March 2019

Yurtu Ardla

The first exhibition curated by Nukunu person and the William and Margaret Geary Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and Material Culture at the South Australian Museum, Dr Jared Thomas, opens on 15 March at the South Australian Museum. Based on the woodcarving practices of Aboriginal men of the Flinders Ranges and the languages of the Adnyamathanha and Nukunu people, Yurtu Ardla celebrates Australian Aboriginal culture as the oldest continuous living culture on Earth.

The exhibition is the result of a project led by Ku Arts, an Aboriginal owned and governed organisation, with the project seeing 20 Adnyamathanha, Nukunu and other Aboriginal men attending carving workshops since 2015. In 2017 the project evolved to form partnerships with Ku Arts, South Australian Museum and Mobile Language Team.

Dr Thomas, whose father and uncles have been involved in the Yurtu Ardla project since its inception, said the exhibition is the unique outcome of Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal-led organisations, and the South Australian Museum working together.

“The Adnyamathanha and Nukunu people of the Flinders Ranges have lived side-by-side for tens of thousands of years,” said Dr Thomas.

“Due to colonisation my people, the Nukunu, have experienced a pause in the continuation of some of our cultural practices.

“Because of this pause, when Ku Arts first started offering wood carving workshops through the Yurtu Ardla project there were less than 20 Nukunu carvings recorded anywhere across the world, and all of these were stored in the South Australian Museum’s collection.

“Now, through the Yurta Ardla project, we are working with the Adnyamathanha people and Mobile Language Team to reinvigorate our carving practices and language. We have created almost 80 new Nukunu carvings, some of which are now on display at the South Australian Museum, and we are speaking full sentences in Nukunu language,” said Dr Thomas.

Uncle Roy Coulthard, a highly respected Adnyamathanha Elder and master wood-carver, has led the Yurtu Ardla carving workshops. When he was at school in the 1950s he used to work with his dad to create carvings, which were then sold to the missionary in exchange for food.

“Now I go to schools. I want to keep this culture going, so I teach the school kids about carving,” said Uncle Roy.

“This is their culture. If they don’t know how to do it I reckon I should be the one to show them,” he said.

Chief Executive Officer of Ku Arts, Ms Marie Falcinella, said that Ku Arts was proud to have played a vital role in facilitating the Yurtu Ardla project.

“Yurtu Ardla is an example of how, through engaging in arts and cultural practice at a community level, projects and partnerships can be developed that have really significant outcomes. Through sharing skills, knowledge and language the men of two neighbouring language groups have not only produced important contemporary cultural works that reflect on tens of thousands of years of practice, they have also deepened connections that will strengthen carving and language for Adnyamathanha and Nukunu for years to come,” said Ms Falcinella.

The Yurtu Ardla exhibition is part of a series sponsored by Beach Energy. The series has been designed to provide a deep focus on community engagement and promote audience awareness of Australian Aboriginal culture.

“We are very proud to continue our support for the South Australian Museum and help it tell powerful stories such as those embodied in Yurtu Ardla,” said Mr Rob Malinauskas, Head of Corporate Affairs and Community Relations at Beach Energy.

The Yurtu Ardla Project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and Arts South Australia.

The Yurtu Ardla exhibition is on display at the South Australian Museum from 15 March to 16 June. Entry is FREE.