Kaylene Whiskey

Kaylene Whiskey is an artist who is fast turning into a household name, in part due to her winning the 2018 Sir John Sulman Prize at Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), but also because of her steady presence at some of Australia's most prominent galleries. Evoking familiar gestures of the everyday, her paintings dazzle with bright colours rendering pop stars in flat pictorial space, engaging with Whiskey's own life in rural Australia. Whiskey is part of the talented collective Iwantja Arts, the art centre in Indulkana Community. We discussed her work, the collective and how she is bringing a special piece of Indulkana to the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) as part of The National 2019.

Why did you decide to become an artist?
I’ve always been involved with the art centre. My family are all artists, and I used to watch my grandfather, Whiskey Tjukangku, painting. For me, working in the art centre started out as a good way to keep busy and to spend time with friends and family, but over the years more and more people have started taking notice of my work and I’m being recognised as an artist. That’s something I’m proud of; that young girls might look up to me and want to try being an artist.

Celebrities feature a lot in your paintings – how do you choose your subjects?
I love listening to music while I’m working, and the music gives me ideas for the pictures. I might be listening to Tina Turner and that reminds me of when Tina was in the movie Mad Max 3 in the sparkly silver dress. Mad Max is filmed in the outback and looks just like Indulkana, so I start thinking about what it might be like if Tina came to my community. I like to have fun with my paintings, and so I paint the pop stars and celebrities that are famous for being great performers and having the best outfits.

You just mentioned your community; tell me about the art collective like Iwanjta Arts?
Iwantja Arts, the art centre in Indulkana Community where I live, is a busy studio space with lots of artists working. We all support each other and like checking out each other’s work and talking about our paintings. Sometimes the other artists will look at my paintings and say ‘Kutjupa Way! Wiru!’ (‘Wow, that’s something different! That’s great!’). It’s a wonderful group of artists, and we’re actually working on a special collaborative film project together later this year that will be lots of fun.

Where do you draw inspiration from?
My work is inspired by the other Iwantja artists, my friends and family, as well as the desert landscape of the APY Lands. I always like to have good music playing and a good energy in the room when I’m painting, and my favourite musicians, like Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and Cher, are a big influence on my work.

How did it feel to win the 2018 Sir John Sulman Prize at AGNSW with your acrylic painting Kaylene TV (2018)?
It was amazing! It was a huge surprise to win and to have all these other artists wanting to meet me and say ‘Well done Kaylene!’ It felt really special that so many people knew who I was and my painting made them feel happy. All my family back home in Indulkana saw me on the TV news too, so when I got back from Sydney everyone was saying ‘hey, you’re famous sister!’

What can audiences expect from your work in The National 2019?
I’m really proud and excited to be included in ‘The National’ at the MCA this year. There’s so many great Australian artists included. I’ll be showing a new painting that is the biggest work I’ve ever made. I painted it on a road sign for the Arts and Crafts Centre. The sign used to be out on the highway near the turn-off to Indulkana Community. The signs were to tell all the tourists to come and have a look and maybe buy a small painting, or a bookmark, or a necklace or a boomerang. We don’t really make that stuff for tourists anymore at Iwantja Arts – we’re making paintings, big paintings, strong paintings, about our culture and our country. So we took down that sign from the highway and I painted on it. It’s like a real piece of Indulkana has been put in the gallery, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it in the National!

You mentioned earlier that your Sulman-winning work made audiences feel happy, and indeed there is a refreshingly joyful element to your paintings.
I want my work to show a strong, positive message about life in a remote Indigenous community. We’re proud to live on our land and hold on to our culture and our language. I’m from the generation that grew up with Coca-Cola and TV, as well as Tjukurpa (cultural stories) and bush tucker, so I like to have a bit of fun with combining those two different worlds.

The National 2019: New Australian Art
29 March – 23 June 2019
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

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