Kaylene Whiskey (b.1976) is a Yankunytjatjara artist who spends her days painting and working at Iwantja Arts – an Aboriginal-owned art centre situated at Indulkana on the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands roughly 1200km northwest of Adelaide. Whiskey’s brightly coloured comic-strip style paintings are known for their playful synthesis of popular and desert culture, often featuring recurring cameos of Hollywood actors, famous film and television characters, divas and pop icons interacting with Whiskey’s daily life in Indulkana.
Whiskey’s painting style is distinct. She uses a combination of cartoon speech bubbles, flat two-dimensional planes of colour and ‘dot’ iconography deeply connected to a history of central desert painting to tell her stories. While painting, she listens to a variety of rock’n’roll, country and pop music. She checks social media, plays films or NITV – the National Indigenous Television channel – in the background, all of which is incorporated into her work. Under Whiskey’s paintbrush, icons like Cher and Dolly Parton, even hybrid characters such as Whiskey’s own ‘Black Wonder Woman’, are re-staged in the desert. They become kungka kunpu – strong women – talking in language, tending to or harvesting bush tucker, and almost always preparing for a party.
I love trying different things in the art centre. I’m from the generation that grew up with Coca-Cola and TV as well as Tjukurpa (cultural stories) and bush tucker, so I like to have a bit of fun with combining those two worlds.
Whiskey listens to music or plays films in the background while she paints. What music do you like to listen to while you are working, writing or creating a work of art?
Watch the animation Party Time!, or 52 Actions by Whiskey. As you watch, make a list of all the things or people you recognise. Share your list with the class, what other things did your peers notice? What do these things have in common, can they be grouped in some way?
Now make a list of things that are important to you, include your family, friends, pets as well as your hobbies, interests or favourite foods, sports, TV shows, movies or colours. Create a series of individual drawings to represent each of your favourite and important things. Cut these drawings out and make either a collage or simple animation that communicates the story of your life.
Investigate what pop culture is and how it has influenced artists and their work. Select two works of art (one historical and one contemporary) and analyse how the artists have used pop culture within their work. Compare this approach to that used by Whiskey. What characteristics do these works of art share?
Whiskey likes trying different things in the art centre and stated ‘I’m from the generation that grew up with Coca-Cola and TV as well as Tjukurpa (cultural stories) and bush tucker, so I like to have a bit of fun with combining those two worlds.’ Similarly, Maluyligal and Wuthathi artist Brian Robinson states:
“Growing up on Waiben (Thursday Island) in the Torres Strait in a family of fisherfolk whose Roman Catholic faith exists in synergy with traditional Maluyligal and Wuthathi spirituality, my creations are seemingly incongruous concoctions where many motifs and characters are co-opted into the spirit world of the Islander imagination, which are then intertwined with historical narrative, personal history and humour”.
Brian Robinson was also in Tarnanthi in 2019 with his work Empyreal: A Place and a Path in the Sky and on the Earth, and in 2015 with Custodian of the Blooms.
- Compare works of art by each artist. How do Robinson and Whiskey bring together their ‘two worlds’ - their cultural stories and popular culture they also grew up with.
- Create a drawing incorporating your favourite pop culture references combined with something about your culture or family traditions.
Explore the movies and children’s programs featured on NITV, National Indigenous Television made by, for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. You may like to select a few programs you could watch with students, perhaps watch a program weekly or save some favourites for Reconciliation Week or NAIDOC week.
The title of Whiskey’s latest painting, Seven Sistas Sign (2021), is a play on words. It refers to the story of the Seven Sisters, Kungkarangkalpa , a significant Tjukurpa (ancestral story) for the Aṉangu people, as well as for many other language groups and communities across Australia. Centred on the constellations of Pleiades and Orion, it describes the seven sisters keeping each other safe and protecting one another as they are chased across the night sky by a bad man.
Whiskey paints this big story using her recurring characters:
Aṉangu Kungka (Aṉangu woman) is growing the mingkulpa (bush tobacco), she’s going to sell it with her kangaroo friend. Whoopi Goldberg as the nun from Sister Actis there too, getting ready for the party to get started soon. Cher is bringing tjala(honey ants) to the party… That’s Tina Turner wearing big yellow wings like a pinta-pinta (butterfly). Wonder Woman is really excited to meet Dolly Parton… Dolly is getting ready to sing under the shiny disco-ball and Catwoman is already dancing. ‘Careful not to step on the maku(witchetty grub), Cat-lady!’
Whiskey’s seven feminist icons stand in for the strength and resilience of Whiskey’s own community of sistas: “Our art centre is full of strong women… we’ve all got each other’s back, we support each other, and we love to have fun together too.”
For Seven Sistas Sign, Whiskey painted directly onto a road sign that once marked the highway turnoff to Iwantja Arts and Crafts Centre. Whiskey has reclaimed the sign from a time when Aboriginal art was only bought or considered part of the souvenir trade for travelling tourists – a period of history when Aboriginal communities and culture were exploited for profit. Today, Iwantja is closed to tourists. It’s artists, just like Whiskey, are now at the forefront of contemporary art in Australia.
Kylie Neagle and Lisa Slade, “Kungkarangkalpa – Seven Sisters: APY Lands Women’s Collaborative.” Interpretative Resource, 2017, p2
Kaylene Whiskey, Tarnanthi Catalogue 2021, p124
Kaylene Whiskey, Tarnanthi Catalogue 2021, p124
Sometimes artists will use alternative surfaces for creating works of art – materials that can’t be purchased at an art supply store. Whiskey has painted directly onto a road sign that once marked the highway turnoff to Iwantja Arts and Craft Centre. The use of discarded metal objects has also been used by Anmatyerre artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Untitled, 1992, which is in the Gallery’s collection. Yolŋu artist Gunybi Ganambarr who featured in Tarnanthi in 2019 pioneered the metal etching technique where unwanted road signs and metal from old water tanks were used as the surface for his work.
- Explore works of art in Murrŋiny (see virtual exhibition). Compare these works by Yolŋu artists from Yirrkala to those created by Whiskey.
Tip: Look at Gäṉgän by Gunybi Ganambarr. You may also like to look at by Murrŋiny– a story of metal from the east at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Darwin
- Whiskey is from Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands roughly 1200km northwest of Adelaide and the Yolŋu artists are from Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Despite being located in very different regions of Australia, both artists are working with discarded metal. Why have these artists used road signs as the surface for their works? How are these works similar and different, conceptually as well as how they look?
- Locate a discarded object or surface. It could be a piece of wood, cardboard, plastic or metal. Create a work of art on this surface which communicates something about where this object was found. Depending on the material you could paint on to it, or etch or carve into it.
Read more about Murrŋiny:
Whiskey’s use of space in her paintings resembles comic strips. Create a comic strip painting about your family as hybrid-superheroes. Brainstorm the characteristics of people in your family. You might like to research existing superheroes and create a hybrid of these characters with people in your life - who is the Wonder Woman, Hulk or Joker in your family?
Whiskey’s seven feminist icons are symbols of strength and resilience. Investigate a female role model in your life. It might be someone you know personally in your family or community or it could be someone who influences you from sport or popular culture. Create a work of art that pays tribute to this person, capturing their strength, resilience and character. You may even like to transform this person into a superhero.
Twenty four women artists from across the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, located in the northwest of South Australia, collaborated to paint a large canvas depicting the Seven Sisters story known as Kungkarangkalpa.
This painting is about the constellations known in the west as Orion and Pleiades. The sisters are the Pleiades constellation and Orion is said to be (a bad man). Wati Nyiru is forever chasing the sisters. According to the story, the seven sisters travel again and again from the sky to the earth to escape the persistent and unwanted attentions of Wati Nyiru.
They turn into their human form to hide, but he always finds them and they flee back to the sky. As Wati Nyiru is chasing the sisters he tries to catch them by using magic to create the most tempting kampurarpra (bush tomatoes) for the sisters to eat and the most beautiful Ili (fig) tree for them to camp under. The sisters however, are too clever for Wati Nyiru and outwit him. They go hungry and run through the night rather than be caught by him.
Every now and again one of the women would fall victim to his ways. It is said that he eventually captures the youngest sister, but with the help of the oldest sister, she escapes back to her sisters who are waiting for her. Eventually the sisters fly back into the sky to escape Wati Nyiru, reforming the constellation.
Making and Responding
- Examine astronomical photographs of Pleiades. Compare these images to the painting Kungkarangkalpa – Seven Sisters. What similarities and differences do you notice?
- Compare Kungkarangkalpa to Seven Sistas Sign by Whiskey. Why do you think these artists have captured this story? What are the messages these artists are trying to send to younger generations?
- Research the feminist icons depicted in Whiskey’s painting. Who are these women and why do you think Whiskey chose to feature them specifically in her Seven Sistas Sign? Provide examples to support your response.
- Think about a tradition or belief that your parents or grandparents have passed down in your family. What are some things that are unique to your family? Create a painting that will help to keep your family tradition or belief strong for future generations.
- Wati Nyiru is described as a ‘bad man’ in the Seven Sisters story. Brainstorm a list of characters in other stories that feature a villain or an antihero. What characteristics do these villains or ‘bad men’ share? Use your list of your characteristics as inspiration for your own villain or antihero.
Tarnanthi is presented by the Art Gallery of South Australia with Principal Partner BHP and support from the Government of South Australia
The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.
This education resource has been developed and written in collaboration Dr. Belinda Howden, Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade.