Tiger Yaltangki, Malpa Wiru (Good Friends), 2018, acrylic on linen, 48 × 59 1⁄2".

Tiger Yaltangki, Malpa Wiru (Good Friends), 2018, acrylic on linen, 48 × 59 1⁄2".

Tiger Yaltangki

Alcaston Gallery

In the western and central deserts of Australia, singing and painting are profoundly linked practices. Writings on Papunya Tula artists such as Yukultji Napangati, to cite a prominent example, often describe them as singing their paintings into being: Sitting around canvases stretched on the floor, each simultaneously sings and paints stories of her country, its topographies, and Dreamings (creation myths). As such, it is not an uncommon museological practice in Australia to exhibit paintings by desert artists alongside vocal recordings. This custom suggests that observing a painting in isolation from its song, dance, and other ceremonial performances will afford only a partial experience. What the painting points to, in other words, can only be expressed across multiple mediums at once.

Tiger Yaltangki, an artist who works in the small community of Indulkana in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, is a peculiar figure within this tradition. His acrylic paintings on canvas are typically devoted to depicting Pitjantjatjara Mamu: malevolent spirits appearing in traditional stories told in an attempt to keep children away from dangerous places. In his paintings, these spirits take a variety of forms: four-legged hairy beasts, wriggling serpents, and upright ghosts with toothy grins, bulging eyes, and faces within faces. His paintings are multiperspectival (an outcome of the artist hovering over the canvas, rather than standing before it at an easel) and built up with layers of cartoonish line drawings that float weightlessly around the picture plane. What was so striking about Yaltangki’s treatment of the subject matter in this exhibition, however, was the way in which preening-peacock rock bands of the 1970s—such as AC/DC, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin—wended their way into his paintings alongside ancient Anangu song lines, or the paths created during the Dreamings.

Similarly, Yaltangki has built a reputation for introducing the iconography of Mamu spirits to that of popular science fiction (think Star Wars, Doctor Who,and, latterly, the British fantasy comedy The Mighty Boosh). Though Australian curators often fetishize this supposedly unexpected meeting of cultures for the challenge it metes out to stereotypes of indigenous artists living in “remote” communities, for Yaltangki their intersection is utterly unexceptional. His nonchalance is reflected in the title he frequently bestows on his paintings that bring these cultures into proximity: Malpa Wiru, meaning “good friends.”

Titled “Rock n Roll,” this show comprised ten paintings—all titled Malpa Wiru and made in 2017 and 2018—which continue his development of a personal pantheon of Mamu spirits. While senior Anangu artists Peter Mungkuri and Alec Baker, with whom Yaltangki paints at Iwantja Arts in Indulkana, channel the heat of the desert in their paintings with their palettes of hot pink, vermillion, and orange, Yaltangki’s “Rock n Roll” paintings, by contrast, channel electric currents. Quick and energetic drawings of lightbulbs, fret boards, electric-guitar pickups, and volume knobs, along with the iconic lightning bolt separating “AC” from “DC,” cavort with glaring Mamu figures. With this body of work, Yaltangki has introduced silver paint to his palette, sometimes applying it with a brush, other times using a spray can for a more machinic effect. Using the pigment to block out large sections of the canvases, he created shimmering metallic fields, which accentuate the works’ conductive energy. More specifically, the pieces conjure radio waves rather than electricity. Visitors got the sense that the artist’s images arrive via invisible channels to which he is attuned.

But just as a range of music—from the most generic, globalized rock anthems to local, specific, and practically cartographic song lines—seeps from the world into Yaltangki’s paintings, his practice in turn escapes from the canvas into the world around him. An eccentric, Yaltangki stands out at an art opening, sporting an Akubra hat and cowboy boots that he paints a different color every day, causing these accessories to swell as they become increasingly paint-encrusted. Curiously, these two constantly changing monochromes return us to the medium of radio: Yaltangki’s hat points to the sky like an antenna tuning into passing frequencies, while the boots ground the signal, allowing it to pass through him and into his paintings. On closer inspection, I saw that this hat-cum-antenna manifests across four of the works in the show—at once a self-portrait and a device that negates the self in the process of becoming a medium.