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Burton, Willy Kaika, Amos Tjilya, Brendan Robinson, Kunmanara (Dwayne) Colby, Jamie Dingaman, Trevor Ken, Charlie David - 2016.20

Michael Bruno, Hector Tjupuru Burton, Willy Kaika Burton, Jonathan Jones, Brenton Ken, Milsane Murphy, Tiger Palpatja, Jacob Tiger, Ray Ken, Barney Wangin, Mick Wikilyiri, Frank Young, Anwar Young

Kulata Tjuta 2012–14
277 wooden spears, malu (kangaroo) tendons, mulga shrub binding resin
dimensions variable
Purchased by the Monash University Library 2016

Kulata tjuta (many spears)

One spear is a beautiful thing; 260 spears flying in unison, ‘like a dark cloud across country’, is awesome.[1]

Among the most ancient of human artefacts, a well-made spear is as much a subject as an object. Slowly coaxed into being over coals, the sapling is cooked into a spear, straight and true. Well before the dog, the domesticated tree was man’s best friend. And like birds, spears fly and sing, and must be listened to. The spear is a messenger and a scepter. It speaks the language of the ancestral, of the tjukurrpa (law).

There is more to spears than spearing. When the Papunya Tula artist Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula painted the story of a confrontation between two groups of men, his focus was the straightening of the spears: the men gathering in communion around the fire to collectively renew their social contract. It resounds in their songs and the rattling of their spears.

Renowned for their adherence to tradition, Pitjantjatjara men at Alice Springs, in 1974, threw spears at an exhibition of the new Papunya Tula paintings to express their anger at this transgression of revealing secret knowledge to the uninitiated. But what was new soon became old, and by 2010 the men had joined the painting movement. Keen to use it as a means to strengthen culture, Hector Burton – a senior Pitjantjatjara artist at Tjala Arts, Amata – began a collaborative painting project with the young men, which culminated in two exhibitions he curated at Raft Artspace in Alice Springs in 2011 and 2012.  

At the same time, his brother, Willy Kaika Burton, led the Kulata Tjuta project to teach the young men what his father had taught him: to make spears. The spear’s role in settling disputes and cementing social identity was central to the project, as the wider political context was garnering agency in the face of modernity’s advance. Burton also wanted contemporary art outcomes in which the Pitjantjatjara elders had control.

The first outcome was at the Adelaide Biennale in 2014, Dark Heart, in which 260 spears were suspended vertically as if frozen in flight just before hitting the ground. The installation format was jointly realised by Burton, who worked with a model in Amata, with advice from Jonathan Jones, who had joined the project in 2012, and curators at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Completing the installation was a sound work made by acclaimed Indigenous composer David Page, of the noise of spears in flight and singing, and a wall text by Burton:

We (Anangu) have a word for the rattle of the spears; that word is Tirkilpa. We have a technique where we roll spears over each other to make this noise. A long time ago this noise would be heard before a battle begins.

… Sometimes I hear the Tirkilpa today; it is a different battle today but the fight is real for us.

The spear is more than a sharpened wooden shaft: it announces ancestral presence.

Ian McLean is the Hugh Ramsay Chair of Australian Art History at University of Melbourne.

[1]Frank Young, remembering ‘lying on the ground with other young men … watching the wars being fought’, quoted in Tjala Arts (ed.), Nganampa Kampatjangka Uningu: Beneath the Canvas the Lives and Stories of the Tjala Artists, Wakefield Press, Mile End, 2015, p.240.