The 29th National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
10 August - 30 October 2012

One of the most interesting commentators on Aboriginal art—Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian—published two contrasting articles in August/September; one damning Darwin’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA), the other hailing Desert Mob, the desert community art centre’s annual show at Alice Springs.

In fact, the August invective hit out at three targets in one—the Awards themselves, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) which stages them, and the wider Indigenous art market. His negatives included good winners from a thin field, ‘pomp and rhetorical triumphalism’ in the speechifying, and a poor turn-out of collectors and dealers. Rothwell also asked whether an Indigenous-only award is today outmoded, thirty years after the NATSIAAs were created. But his key point was the selection of too much repetitious and familiar work from artists who are encouraged to churn out market-friendly images rather than innovate—surely a reflection on both the Award’s judges, who do not know the scene well enough, and the art co-ordinators who place a higher priority on turnover than culture, rather than on the artists.

Yet it was the innovation of a second and third generation of artists which excited Rothwell at the marketplace which is Desert Mob. He discovered the ‘mystery of artistic transmission’ being captured by ‘the masters and their strikingly assured descendants’ from dynamic art centres in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands, some of whom also appeared in Darwin. The teeming walls of this uncurated, three hundred-work event seem to have fired the writer to a virtual Calliope of dramatic writing, despite which he was able to distinguish between ‘what has permanence and what is passing fashion in the Aboriginal art bazaar’!

Could a change of government in the Northern Territory (NT), bringing in a number of Aboriginal MPs, including Rothwell’s partner, Alison Anderson to government, have helped to fire him up? For he enthused about their dedication to ‘strengthening remote communities and outstations, the places that make up the heartland of the desert painting movement’.

Sadly, I missed Desert Mob. But I found much more than Rothwell to like at the NATSIAAs.

‘It’s a really interesting year, I think—characterised by strong women. Where have artists like Cornelia Tipuamantumeri, Barbara Moore and Rhonda Sharpe suddenly come from? Pow!!’ The very new Curator of Indigenous Art at MAGNT, John Waight was summing up his feelings about the 29th annual NATSIAAs, which are, for many, the highlight of the Aboriginal art year. Waight only joined the party just in time to hang the rather scanty sixty-three finalists (from two hundred and eighty entries), but the judging was done by West Australian (WA) curator Glenn Pilkington (a powerful man, as he also selects the finalists for the now-biennial WA Indigenous Art Award), artist/photographer Bindi Cole from Melbourne, and Sydney academic Roger Benjamin.

New MAGNT Director, Pierre Arpin called Waight’s hang ‘beautiful and intelligent’. And, after a series of bureaucrats running this remote institution, it is good to have a team with previous art museum experience at the helm. Arpin’s praise for Waight is just. Far too often in the past we have had art ghettos at the NATSIAAs—rooms full of barks, urban art or hot APY desert canvases. For the first time in my experience, each work, especially the barks, was given its individual due.

Mind you, it is just possible that the positioning of the ‘Big Telstra’ winner (of $40,000), Kulama (Yam Dreaming) by Timothy Cook, so that it hit you in the eye as you entered the galleries could have contributed to its finding favour. For me, it was a fine work in a series that Cook has been tackling for many a year now. But just round the corner, out of sight, was my absolute ‘steal’, Barbara Moore’s (from Tjala Arts at Amata) Untitled (Fish Dreaming story) from the desert. Using a much bigger brush than her elders, like the great Hector Burton (also on show), she happily told me she ‘wants to make big marks—like being back at school’. And a combination of that infectious energy with her colour sense and the dramatic effect of sucking the eye into a vortex, won her the Telstra General Painting Award.

Do the judges, who usually include a State gallery director and a Blak artist, have enough on-going experience of contemporary artists’ work to know when they are being innovative, I wonder?

Another interpretation might have it that the judges, coming from three very different ends of the art spectrum, came to their consensus on the matter of yams! For, as well as Timothy Cook’s masculine view of the yam as a reflection of male coming-of-age ceremonies on the Tiwi Islands (triggered by a particular phase of the moon), the Telstra Bark Painting Award went to Djirrirra Wunungmurra’s self-portrait as a yam, Yukuwa—it is one of her tribal names. Her work offers the distaff side of the coin; the yam as food source, as prevention for diabetes and as symbol of Yolngu interconnectedness in north-east Arnhem Land, as seen in the complexity of the root structure—once a feature of the great Emily Kngwarreye’s work, of course.

It is almost unnecessary to say that Wunungmurra comes from the outstanding Buku Larrnggay art centre in Yirrkala, which had seven finalists in all. Two of them also maintained that male/female balance observed above—Djambawa Marawili and Liyawaday Wirrpanda, his third wife, hung barks of matching size and all-but matching quality.

It seemed, however, from hints by the judges (and a Highly Commended award) that the work which most threatened Wunungmurra’s win was yet another Buku bark by the artist of the past twelve months, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. As her once-dominant sister Gulumbu was sadly dying, she was stepping up to strike a quadrella at the NATSIAAs, the WA Indigenous Art Awards, the Sydney Biennale and the Australian National Gallery’s National Aboriginal Art Triennial. In Darwin she tackled the Seven Sisters Dreaming in the heavens with her own, highly personal mark-making, a bark covered in what can only be described as Expressionist flowers.

How interesting, though, to trace Indigenous respect for the heavens from Yirrkala across to Solomon Booth’s Torresian navigation story, back to Timothy Cook’s moon cycling, and then down to Sylvia Kanytjupa Ken’s desert story-telling. It can only happen at a national event like the NATSIAAs.

Which brings me to the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award—handed to Jack Nawilil’s mystic black pole, Namorroddo. He is from Maningrida in western Arnhem Land. The work is the Lightning Man from the Wet, created innovatively from bush string bound tightly round paper-bark, the string dyed a midnight purple, using a bush onion ‘from my country’ for the colour. A month’s dedication, reportedly, was required for the process.

What a contrast with old Anangu man Ben Holland. Here is artistic short-hand … fragments of complexity—like a kid’s work, bored by the niceties, concentrating on the essence—and only filling fifty percent of the canvas with bold colour. It must have taken courage by the pre-selectors (as with Nawilil’s pole) to pick this one from a photo, as they had to back in April.

Those pre-selectors, by the way, decided that the three New Media works offered did not justify themselves for the award category. Instead, a ‘conversation’ will be held later this year on ways to encourage more/better work. But do they need to look further than one ineligible entry this year—the work of totally unsupervised kids at the Buku Mulka Media Centre, who, hacking into its systems in order to show off their transgressive selves, produced wacky imagery that would have done any city kid proud. Nine screens hanging from trees at the Awards Ceremony revealed (almost) all!

Would Raymond Zada approve? The Telstra Work on Paper winner from Adelaide offered a computer-generated work, Racebook, which mocks the ease with which race hate is generated on Facebook, and the ease with which it is discreetly removed, while the hate lingers in the perpetrators’ minds. Let’s not forget the recent Sikh temple killings in the US. Complex ideas, though perhaps not an amazing artwork; the title word is built up from the microscopic words of the many scabrous comments found by this professional computer programmer. I think I would have turned to Brisbane photographer, Michael Cook, another Triennial star, with his funny/sad photo-montage of vehicular discrimination in practice—the Queen and a corgi lordly in one train carriage, a mob of Indigenous faces crammed into another!

So what of the other two new names lauded by curator John Waight, Cornelia Tipuamantumeri and Rhonda Sharpe?

Tipuamantumeri is a Manupi artist from the Tiwi islands, and hers is almost as radical a work as winner Timothy Cook’s in terms of re-writing the Islands’ familiar ochred dots and dashes. Her daring work captures the ebb and flow of the tides that play such a key role in an island’s culture.

Rhonda Sharpe, on the other hand is a Luritja woman from Larapinta Town Camp in Alice, who has simply stuffed three Night Birds then embroidered their skins and feathered their heads—such feminine tactics for such a bold masculine result—which was Highly Commended.

So much else I could talk about in the art and its selection But an intriguing sideshow emerged in the absence of any of the more loud-spoken urban artists from the show. It seems some of them may no longer consider themselves ‘Aboriginal artists’, and therefore boycotted the NATSIAAs.

But the NATSIAAs will survive both this and Rothwell’s attacks, especially as Telstra has come to this important party for another three years. That will make it a twenty-four year relationship—all too rare in the world of arts sponsorship—and a good excuse for some refreshment by the new professional team of Arpin and Waight. Rothwell as a judge, for instance???

Timothy Cook, Kulama. Natural pigments on linen, 150 x 220cm. Courtesy the artist and Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory. 

Barbara Moore, Untitled. Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 197 x 200cm. Courtesy the artist and Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory. 

Jack Nawilil, Namorroddo. Paperbark, bush string, natural pigments, beeswax, feathers, 185 x 8 x 8cm. Courtesy the artist and Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory. 

Djirrirra Wunungmurra, Yukuwa. Natural pigments on bark, 236 x 100cm. Courtesy the artist and Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory.