Do you believe in love?
In Cher’s hit song Believe (1998), her anthem to life after love and survival, she chants ‘Do you believe in life after love?’ followed by a refrain about the power of independence. Similarly, Kaylene Whiskey saturates her dazzling artworks with strong and resilient heroines such as Dolly Parton, Cat Woman, Wonder Woman, Tina Turner and even nuns and the biblical Mary. These fiercely feminine figures are an ode to self-determination and empowerment. Transposed to Indulkana, a remote Aboriginal led community in South Australia near the tri-state border, Whiskey’s strident femmes tell stories from the head and heart seamlessly melding traditional motifs with popular culture.
Whiskey’s joyful, sassy female characters are emblazoned across canvases of tiny multi coloured dots, cut-outs from Northern Territory tourist magazine, video stills and road signs. She creates harmony, love and fun by imbuing her vibrant oeuvre with kungka (women) dancing, waving, singing and smiling surrounded by cupcakes, lollies, hearts and butterflies, coca cola bottles and gifts as well as tjukurpa (ancestral stories) such as the Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) story about women who travel together and look after each other.
Radiant and exuberant, Whiskey renders herself in yellow and black, the colours of Iwantja Tigers football team greeting Visitors to Iwantja Arts with mingkulpa (native tobacco plant) vines wrapped around her arms. Lyrics emerge from Wonder Woman’s speech bubble, announcing ‘a party with our sistas!’ while a purple and pink ghetto blaster is depicted in a comic and colourful style. Even Whitney Houston is on the guest list of characters who live harmoniously with the accoutrements of daily life.
In September 2022, I had the opportunity to visit Iwantja Arts Centre in the APY Lands. The atmosphere was one of jubilation, with song and dance, laughter, cups of tea and enthusiasm. At the entrance to the centre, there is a discarded, brown road sign with curved edges, that Whiskey uses as a repository of her radiant and buoyant paintings connecting the artist, her community and Country.
At the centre, men and women paint separately, with women occupying a larger, adjacent room with another sign, kungka kunpu – women power, signalling the primacy of matriarchy. Whiskey paints methodically in the corner, alongside family and friends, dogs, snacks and a stream of visitors. Working to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 schedule, the centre is the heart of the community.
The artist imagines Dolly on Country with her fuchsia pink guitar, a white jumpsuit adorned with musk-coloured flowers and her deep cleavage, accompanied by boomerangs and clap sticks. In another image, Whitney is Going for Tjala (Honey Ants) while an emu and a flock of galahs perched in a gum tree animate the scene.
In mid-2022, Whiskey travelled overseas, painting herself flying to New York City. What if Whiskey met Dolly Parton on a pink Qantas plane holding a basket emblazoned with I love New York and a pink lollypop? In Flying to New York they would eat cake and lollies, sing and laugh, exchange gifts and co-exist.
– Natalie King OAM