The political flavour of last weekend’s Garma Festival has swept across Arnhemland to Darwin and crept up in the background for this 36th iteration of Australia’s major Indigenous art event. Several of the 68 artworks chosen as finalists – including the Big Telstra winner, Djambawa Marawili’s 2.7-metre bark – spoke quietly or fiercely of politics. And the Museum & Art Gallery of the NT’s Curator of Aboriginal Art, Luke Scholes made ringing reference to his artist selections: “We value your hard work, we acknowledge the difficulties in your lives and we – like you – wait. We wait for the day when we as a nation come to terms with what it means to be Australian. Art – this art – shows us a way”.

To be fair, only Marawili and his fellow Arnhemlander, Titus Nganjimirra, who took out the Emerging Artist award, had politics at the forefront of their minds. The rest had Culture with a capital C. But Marawili – described by Scholes as “a ceremonial leader, activist and diplomat” – was bypassing Australia in his work, ‘Journey to America’ by showing himself morphing into the fire of Baru, the Yolgnu sacred crocodile, crossing the five different states of seawater identified by Yolgnu, and arriving at the Statue of Liberty carrying the “patterns of my Country, written in my soul to the world”, as the artist put it himself.

This is his personal seal upon the project he initiated to hold a big sacred barks show in the increasingly receptive US in 2021, placing new commissions beside historic works from the Kluge/Ruhe Museum.

Young Titus, meanwhile featured ‘Queen Elizabeth’ in an appropriately bold golden frame, her colonial royalty somewhat diminished by the symbols of the artist’s Kunwinjku stone country that surround her, giving her rarrked face a look of polite surprise.

Wittiest of the other winners was Kaylene Whiskey’s ‘Seven Sistas’. Those of us lucky enough to experience the National Museum’s ‘Seven Sisters Songline’ show will be aware of the seriousness of this story for Desert women – emphasising strength in sorority and identifying many sacred sites across the deserts. But Whiskey’s General Painting winner features seven comic sistas – no less than Tina Turner, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Dolly Parton, Dorothy in the land of Oz, Catwoman and Wonder Woman! Still female empowerment – though the sisterhood does seem to need a boost from that desert stimulant mingkulpa/pituri – just a more televisual one.

Most moving winner (literally) was Gutingarra Yunupingu’s Multimedia Award winner, ‘Gurrutu’mi Mala’ – My Connections. For the artist was born hearing impaired and therefore learnt the traditional Yolgnu sign language as his first language. It’s not just for the deaf, but also a way of both communicating at a distance and silently while hunting. Yunupingu has filmed himself in 10 different gestures on a single screen – clever stuff technically. And reminiscent of his elder, Nyapanyapa’s first appearance at the NATSIAAs telling the personal drama of herself being attacked by a buffalo.

A thinnish year for barks – though I liked the work of yet another Marawili, Wurrandan – saw the ever-inventive Nonggirrnga Marawili take out the Bark Painting Award. Maybe the judges – Rhana Devenport, Director of the Art Gallery of SA, senior Tiwi artist, Pedro Wanaeamirri and Zoe Rimmer, Indigenous curator at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery – hadn’t seen Nonggirrnga’s recent solo show in Sydney. But there was much stronger work by her there.

Two artists who have died delighted – and one won the Works on Paper Award. Nyaparu Gardiner has made a speciality of portraiture in South Hedland. How ironic that his final, award-winning panorama was of ‘Our Old People’. Meanwhile, at Yirrkala again, Mr B Yunupingu completed a touching collection of ink drawings of boys undergoing initiation. The drama and importance of this ceremony is all there in these simple works.

Finally, the Wandjuk Marika 3D Award – going rightly to Maluba Gumana (also from the dominant Buku Larrnggay art centre like the Marawilis and young and old Yunupingus) for three mighty 3-metre larrikitj poles which she describes better than anyone: “This is the oldest story. Rainbow serpent at Garrimala, a snake in motion disturbing the water, causing ripples and rainbows. Lightning hiding in the rainbows. The arc of the iridescent scales. The swathe of the cyclone”.

All achieved from a wheelchair, strong young men turning the giant poles for her! And perhaps doubtfully, part of a swathe of gigantism infecting the NATSIAAs this year. The works weren’t failures, and no doubt many at MAGNT will claim that artists’ enthusiasm to send in their finest works justifies a size that’s well beyond my living room walls. But, when you add them all up, there’s previous Big Telstra winner Danie Mellor hitting 3 metres of blue rainforest, Betty Pumani stretching it across two canvases, Lena Yarinka weaving at least eleven critters, Fred Grant and Bob Gibson hitting 292 cms each, and Yimula Mununggurr hitting the ceiling with 5 splendid poles. Yaritji Young must have needed a house painting brush for her 3-metre canvas – though the boldness of her strokes behind her more delicate Honey Ant tjukurrpa marks more than justified that effort.

Compare them with the often-gigantic Owen Yalandja’s curvaceous 1 metre Yawkyawk sculptures and their sensuous shadows, and you simply admire his restraint. Tiniest of all is Damien Shen’s 10 x 12 cms miniature of his great-grandfather’s face. Sadly he’s used this to heap calumny on Norman Tindale’s anthropology, which did so much to record Aboriginal family lines and languages at a time when the rest of country still believed in Terra Nullius.

Who else stood out? For the politics of the Murray/Darling, look no further than Nici Cumpston and James Tylor’s photographic works. For cultural riches look no further than Witjiti George and Nyunmiti Burton’s paintings. For constant innovation, there’s last year’s Big Telstra man, Gunybi Ganambarr engraving a discarded satellite dish. And for conceptual work from a surprising place, John Prince Siddon recognises his people’s violence against women in Fitzroy Crossing most dramatically. Lynette Lewis’s fencing wire and feather necklace was deliciously desirable.

But last, some questions. How did a year with an eminent Tiwi judge end up with no Tiwi art? Two decent Tiwi works appeared in the Salon des Refuses. Where there was also a significant work by Garawan Wanambi. How on earth did the pre-selectors miss that? It could have taken out the Big Telstra.

Which leads me to a bit of politics. The pre-selection pair of Hetti Perkins and Clothilde Bullen will move on after three years and MAGNT Director Marcus Schutenko intends to call for expressions of interest to replace them. More significantly, Schutenko is confident that the indebted NT government will proceed with a new art gallery for Darwin in the city centre State Square. Eight galleries and parkland for the traditional NATSIAA opening ceremony- which will definitely move from the waterside Bullocky Point. And Telstra has committed to be there in 2022 when this should happen.

But the timing may be different. Events of national Indigenous importance like the NATSIAAs, the National Indigenous Music Awards, the Garma Festival, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and new Indigenous Fashion Awards want to separate themselves from the currently coinciding Darwin Festival and Darwin Cup.