Sometimes the right result emerges from the strangest circumstances. Melbourne’s Kate Challis RAKA Awards at the Ian Potter Museum of Melbourne University were the creation of the art historian Bernard Smith, whose career until he died in 2011 failed, as far as I know, to respond to Indigenous art (though he did write about Aboriginal genocide). Perhaps his wife Kate Challis was more engaged “ for the RAKA Awards in her name run through the artforms to select an Indigenous visual art winner once every five years.

Being an academic himself, Smith then chose a panel of academics and family friends to make the final selection. However, the finalists “ in this case Teresa Baker (WA), Daniel Boyd (Qld/NSW), Hector Burton (WA), Timothy Cook (Tiwi/NT), Mabel Juli (WA), the late Kunmarnanya Mitchell (WA), Alick Tipoti (TSI/Qld), Garawan Wanambi (NT) and Regina Wilson (NT) “ are pre-selected by Potter curators Suzette Wearne and Joana Bosse.

While there’s no thought yet in Melbourne regarding the current debate as to whether remote artists should be separated from their urban cousins in such contests, it is noteworthy that the first three RAKA painting awards went to urban artists (headed by Melburnian Lin Onus), while this one offered only Daniel Boyd from the cities “ and his works were very much concerned with his Vanuatu heritage and thoughts about primitivism rather than Blak politics.

And the winner was the thoroughly deserving Mabel Juli from remote Warmun in the East Kimberley.

Oddly, though the curators offer up three or four works by each artist held to be at the top of their game “ like the WA Indigenous Art Awards – the prize goes to a single artwork. And from my viewpoint, the winner was less successful in its courageous use of empty space than either of Juli’s other works. But as curator Wearne pointed out, It takes a universal art technique to achieve a convincing moon to hang in the sky like that, maintaining the perfect tilt in relation to the star and in tension with the hill. A very Western standard of judgement, one might argue.

80-year old Juli herself clearly sees the story and its relation to her Country as the essence of the work rather than the technique that she’s refined. For the painting is an illustration of the law against fancying your mother-in-law! Returning from the hunt, Mabel explained to me, Karngin saw his long black-haired mother-in-law from behind and fell in lust. This was and is against all the rules – he was a naughty boy – and though he cursed the elders who exiled him and boasted that he’d become immortal, Juli’s interpretation of his omnipresence today as the Moon is that his punishment remains a constant reminder of the law.

Juli started painting the stories of Springvale Station that her parents had shared with her more than 20 years ago when her Auntie Queenie Mackenzie suggested, Try painting, you might get something. And painting has pulled us together, she assesses, even though floods in 2009 washed many archival works away and briefly exiled the community. The subsequent conservation work has brought Warmun Art in contact with the expert conservationists at Melbourne University “ which just might have worked in Mabel Juli’s favour. She herself sees it differently. I haven’t won any prizes before “ perhaps they’re getting smarter in Melbourne to recognise me!

I have a suspicion that I might have recognised elsewhere. There were three dramatic works by Hector Burton which were a true reflection of the APY Lands primacy today “ making up a third of the RAKA selection. They showed Hector’s personal development over 2 years in telling his Tree story “ which is such a vital statement of the prevailing Pitjanjatjarra view that outsiders should not look too closely into the culture that he’s painting “ just see the dynamic art. Or one might have admired the perfect harmony in Regina Wilson’s trio “ paintings of fish net and dilly bag patterns and a magnificent, woven sun-mat. Or be astounded by the exoticism of Alick Tipoti’s varied mask-making from the Torres Strait.

The curators certainly achieved one ambition which was to give Melbourne viewers the best exhibition possible that reflected developments over the past 5 years in Indigenous art. Oddly, the was something the NATSIAA judges also set out to achieve. Perhaps the future lies in intelligently curated Gallery shows rather than competitions?

URL: Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne Uni