Thirteenth National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award

Curator: Margie West
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin

Since its inauguration in 1983, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) has consistently succeeded in show-casing the changing face of contemporary Aboriginal art practice. It is arguably the premier event on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and national annual art calendar. If the scale of an exhibition's opening is anything to go by NATSIAA is certainly growing bigger and better each year. For the first time at this year's opening the awards were presented or rather 'danced' to the winners by Tiwi performers in ceremonial dress. This gesture may not have gone down too well with the local descent group, the Larrakia, however Koolpinyah (Richard Barnes), a senior Larrakia and exhibiting artist in the award, did present an opening address on behalf of his people.1

In terms of the number of entries, however, the thirteenth award saw a decrease of about thirty on to last year's Award. Also its previous strong representation from certain communities, like Balgo, Ngukurr, and the Torres Strait Islands, was noticeably diminished or absent. Some of the edge and experimentation of past entries also seemed lacking-more of a indication of the high standards that have been set rather than any serious lapses in artistic production. Nevertheless the thirteenth NATSIAA is a 'must-see' and justifiably well acclaimed exhibition. Now into its second year as a travelling exhibition its increased profile and accessibility is a welcome and logical evolution.

While I was walking through the exhibition, pen and clipboard in hand, one of the Museum's attendants asked me how I could possible critique the works as they come from a 'different' culture: his point being that a non-Aboriginal appreciation could only take place on a pure aesthetic, first-impression basis. Although there is an element of truth here, in the allusion to that old self-reflective dilemma of Western art historical discourse, the NATSIAA, in its thirteenth year, provides its own ground for critical debate. Needless to say, there is also a variety of formal, cultural, political and thematic contexts offered by the works, which invites critique on trends and traditions in Aboriginal art practice and Australian contemporary art practice as a whole. Along these lines, the Award's instigator and current curator, Margie West, writes, " ... the artworks may be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic basis but almost always there is an important message which provides us with a deeper understanding about Aboriginal life today".2 Should these messages appear too abstract or culturally encoded, most of the entries have accompanying text cards which explain, through the individual artist's or art adviser's words, the story/meaning/significance behind the work.

Collectively, the artworks in this exhibition do share a great diversity of insights into contemporary Aboriginal life, covering a broad spectrum of issues from the highly personal to the political (often one and the same thing in the Aboriginal experience), the spiritual-mythological to the mundane: works deal with land rights, missionary life, colonial brutality and massacre, separation and displacement, and of course many are about caring for, celebrating and acknowledging 'country'. Daisy Andrews' eminently beautiful and striking landscape painting Kariny Kariny continues the form with which she won the overall award in 1994 and is part of the relatively new phenomena of synthetic polymer works on paper being produced by senior women artists from Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia.

Vincent Serico's blatant attack on Queensland 's Aboriginal Legal Aid Service in A Legal Service Story gains a more topical bite with the recent full-scale review into Sydney's Aboriginal Legal Aid. Apart from a number of works dealing with the question of how to reconcile cultural differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia there are also works about cultural exchange. This can be seen on various levels-for example, the cultural exchange between Aborigines of differing backgrounds, as in Adelaide-based artist, Ruth Fitzpatrick's curiously titled My Tiwi Dreaming, or between Aborigines and other indigenous peoples, as is the inspiration for Michael McLeod's Don Freed and Friends and in Djarpirr Julie Munungurr's historical work Macassans' Visit to North-east Arnhemland.

Mention must also be made of the Larrakia artists showing at the Award because it is, after all, held on Larrakia country. This year's exhibition saw the record number of four Larrakia artists: Peter A (Browne) Garamanak, Duwun Anthony Lee, Koolpinyah (Richard Barnes) and Desmond J. Raymond Kootji, with works from the latter two chosen for the travelling exhibition. The Larrakia people first lodged their land claim, the Kenbi Land Claim, during the formative years of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act which eventually came into force in 1976. The Kenbi land claim is, according to the text card for Kootji 's work, Australia 's longest running land claim , so it is perhaps no surprise then that this and fellow Larrakia artist, Duwun Anthony Lee's paintings are concerned with this claim , both asserting Larrakia identity and strength of presence through the depiction of the formidable Dangalabba totem. (Dangalabba is Larrakia for salt water crocodile.)

In terms of the winning entries there were no great upsets, although there were a number of works that were equally worthy of picking up the overall or categorical awards. The overall winning entry, Storm in Aknangkere Country 11, by Kathleen Petyarre of the Anmatyerr language group from Mosquito Bore via Utopia, Northern Territory, is indeed an awe-inspiring work. Based on a sacred women's dreaming site associated with the desert green pea (antweth in Anmatyerr), the visual power of the work derived from the multitude of minuscule dotted concentric circles emanating from the central site. These dots, depicted in two alternating tones against an ochre coloured background, are said to represent the seeds (ntang) of the pea.

Some of the bark paintings seemed to be more monumental in scale than in previous years-the gallery walls were barely high enough to hang them. Yolngu artist, Djambawa Marawili's Madarrpa Miny'tji is one such largescale bark painting and the winner in this category. Marawili is a senior spokesperson in the Madarrpa clan at Yirrkala. This particular work is all about the journey of freshwater through to the sea, a story and sacred clan design (miny'tji) which has been passed on to Marawili by his father. It is an interesting winning choice, particularly in its subject matter, in view of the increasing calls for acknowledgement of Aboriginal sea rights as the Northern Territory Land Rights Act commemorates its twentieth year. Also of note in an outstanding collection of bark paintings is fellow Yolngu artist, Galuma Maymura's Mangalili Dhawu which includes a section telling the story of the foundation of her clan that has never before been painted. Maymura's work highlights a recent trend in Arnhem land whereby women artists are also inheriting the right to carry on artistic tradition.

As the winner of the Works on Paper category, Naminapu Maymuru White's slick and glossy linoprints (a vertical triptych) portraying Nyapalingu, the female creator ancestor for the Mangalili clan from Cape Shield, attest to the enduring quality of classical Aboriginal iconography. So too does Terry Ngamandara's Hollow Log which won the Three Dimensional Works category. The design painted onto this hollow log signifies the 'gulach' (Burarra Gun-nartpa language) or spike rush from Balparnarra which is a network of important sites associated with the Djangkawu Ancestral Sisters.

Ian Abdulla's winning entry in the Painting category, Memories of Fishing with the Family is an especially lyrical example of his characteristically nostalgic vignettes of life growing up along the Murray River. As the only winner from outside of the Northern Territory, this may perpetuate the misconception that the NATSIAA is really just to honour 'Territorian' Aboriginal artists. A cursory glance at the list of past winners will show a majority who come from the Territory but, then again, most of the entrants are also from the Territory, which is why the Award began in Darwin. In any case the winners reflect the bias of the invited judges each year and one expects that non-Aboriginal state boundaries don't count for much against the implicit beauty and integrity of the entries.

In such a large exhibition (138 works in all) there are many outstanding artworks engaging the viewer in myriad ways. Admittedly some of the text panels proved as interesting and moving, if not more so, than the works they described. Perhaps this is an inevitable observation from someone who comes from a more text -based culture .

However, as the Award is an important avenue for young and emerging Aboriginal artists throughout Australia to exhibit alongside the 'big names' and better known art-producing communities, there is bound to be disparities in talent and confidence. The thirty-two works chosen for the travelling exhibition do represent a good cross-section of the various communities, issues and media on display and will no doubt stand on their own as an eloquent, intriguing and vibrant picture of Aboriginal life today.

notes: 

1. The Larrakia Aboriginal people are the original Inhabitants and the traditional owners of the Darw1n and Cox Peninsula region in the Northern Territory.

2. "Introduction", 12th Nat1onal Abong1nal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award Travelling Exhibition, catalogue, 1996, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, p. 5.