Iwana Ken acquired by Art Gallery of South Australia
18 July 2013

Iwana Ken, Kamala Tjuta, 2012, woolen tapestry and acrylic on linen 62 x 92 cm.

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Iwana Ken, Kamala Tjuta, 2012, [detail].

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Iwana Ken, Kamala Tjuta, 2012, [detail].

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The Art Gallery of South Australia has acquired Iwana Ken's Kamala Tjuta, 2012 tapestry painting from our May exhibition, Kuwari kutju warkarinyi kaltjitila artists: New work from Kaltjiti.

The work demonstrates Ken's extraordinary needlework talents. As she is nearly blind and finds painting increasingly difficult, Ken has returned to a skill she learnt as a young girl at Ernabella School. Ken's creativity and inventiveness reveal themselves through her expressive stitching; each stitch describes the form of the camels and riders in a manner similar to drawing. Ken has used touches of acrylic paint for the faces and eyes. It is her attention to detail that makes her work noteworthy: bamboo skewers have been re-imagined as nose rings, around which she has twisted twine for the reins. Ken is well-known for incorporating found objects into her work.

Aside from the delightful playfulness of this piece, Ken's camels refer to the legacy of European exploration and trade. The building of the Adelaide to Darwin Overland Telegraph was perhaps the most significant European endeavour to use camels. Built between 1870-1872, it spanned some 3,200 kilometres and stands as one of Australia's most significant engineering achievements of the nineteenth century: its successful completion connected Australia to the rest of the world via a submarine cable in Java. The construction was a joint venture between the Government of South Australia and the British Australian Telegraph Company.

Camles also provided reliable transportation and haulage to exploration parties and construction teams in areas that were inaccessible to horses, bollocks and carts. These camels became essential to the economy of the interior, and to the nation. Throughout this period of history, there was regular contact between Aboriginal people and white Australians. Many of the Telegraph's repeater stations were situated at permanent water sources, which were in close proximity to Aboriginal camping grounds. The line followed explorer Charles McDouall Stuart's original path northward, which is believed to have been based on Aboriginal routes that followed groundwater courses.

However, with the construction of better roads and rail, the camels became redundant and were released into the wild. There are now large bands of feral camels roaming throughout central Australia to the point of pest proportions. For the local people like Ken, the camels pose an environmental management problem as they drain precious water supplies and foul the waterholes. With each stitch in Kamala Tjuta (Many Camels), Ken reminds us of the impact of introduced species on the environment and the Indigenous people’s way of life.

This is the Art Gallery of South Australia's first acquisition of a work by Iwana Ken.