Kaylene Whiskey

From the community of Indulkana on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands, Kaylene Whiskey imagines sisterhoods: gatherings of cultural figures, icons, allies, and friends from global cultural traditions, on Country. A new exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery shows Whiskey working in both her familiar painterly vocabulary and with new forms of found print media, as she weaves together, from disparate sources, a new feminist mythology.

In Whiskey’s new show, ‘Sistas,’ we’re in good company: Dolly Parton, Cher, Tina Turner, Catwoman, and David Hasselhoff are with us. The works across this show, with their exuberant playfulness, and their insistence on humour and pleasure, take as their launch point the painting Seven Sistas Story, 2021. Here, the figure of Hasselhoff stands in for the Wati Nyiru man who traditionally acts as a central character in the story of the Seven Sisters. In this widespread songline, which stretches across Australia, seven sisters are pursued through the desert by a man (here, Hasselhoff) driven wild with desire. The sisters’ story teaches of survival on the land, ingenuity, and spirit, as well as family and kinship of various kinds.

While the traditional story of the Seven Sisters is concerned with rules about marriage (who can marry whom, how to prevent incestuous unions), Whiskey’s reworking is more interested in the kind of kinship that sisterhood – whether biological or not – can be. This shift in conceptual focus brings with it a marked modulation in tone: Whiskey’s storytelling is celebratory, and gives weight to what’s fun, lively, and even defiant. Surely, these kinds of affects are useful in the feminist myth-making that Whiskey undertakes. We might even consider the act of celebrating social bonds between women of vastly different backgrounds and experiences to be a liberatory act, in and of itself. Many of the pop cultural figures that Whiskey paints have defied gendered expectations in careers which have celebrated women’s embodiment, joy, and sexuality, as well as their intellect and social power; one has even funded significant research into Covid-19 vaccines. To see these diverse figures gathered on Country is to enter into a community of women who party, make art, and laugh together, even through their differences.

This work is both intensely serious and entirely committed to fun – a kind of feeling which can’t easily be made to serve the interests of institutions, corporations, or individuals who we might think of as ‘powerful,’ in a conventional sense. In a number of new works, Whiskey playfully reconfigures historical road signs leading to the Indulkana community, and advertising it as a place where tourists might like to buy souvenirs. So too, in this show, has Whiskey moved into new territory by painting on found souvenir prints of her Country; she imagines Superwoman flying overhead, or Dolly Parton striding across the landscape. Whiskey refuses the stories given her by a colonial history which insists upon her community as a tourist attraction. Instead, she proposes that the art that she and her fellow painters at the Iwantja arts centre make is much more profound, serious, and significant that this story would suggest. In the same breath, though, she swerves away from the sanctimonious self-seriousness that might also, itself, serve the interests of some powerful arts institutions. Whiskey’s work is her own.

12 May – 12 June 2021
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney


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