Does that headline sound a bit pretentious? It’s the Museum & Art Gallery of the NT’s slogan for the Telstra NATSIAAs 38th iteration. Well, having seen and thought about its 65 offerings this year – admittedly online only, thanks to COVID – I feel the slogan can be justified. And the strength of the accompanying Salon des Refuses suggests that others amongst 248 entries were pretty strong too. “All these artists from different cultures”, mused Tiwi artist Pedro Wonaeamirri proudly.

Once again, though, Tasmania is missing from the nation. Could it be that the absence of community art centres there discriminates against the apple isle?

But there’s no doubt that without an art centre (and dynamic coordinators) this year’s Big Telstra winner would have found it almost impossible to create his masterpiece, ‘Lake Baker’. For Timo Hogan lives and works in T j u n t j u n t j a r a almost 650 kms from anywhere else, on the edges of the Great Victoria Desert and the Nullarbor Plain. The fragile community – of which Timo, in his late 40s, is one of the youngest artists – fought its way back to Spinifex Country after the traumas of the Maralinga years. The Hogan family (Timo is a step-son in Western terms) lead the way back to Country – grading 300 kms of road via senior artist Simon’s traditional memory of water-holes and sacred sites, and his son Bruce’s skills with a grader.

The Spinifex Arts Project began in the late 1990s with a series of community art projects and came into the spotlight as part of their Native Title claim, determined in November 2000. Note that the Spinifex People don’t claim a tribal affiliation – only a geographical one. The work has matured since then and the artists have refined their practice, with names such as Ned and Fred Grant – both finalists in the NATSIAAs this year – while Ian Rictor and Lennard Walker, both in the Salon, have become significant names in Aboriginal art. The subjects and the stories of their fiercely traditional art remain the same.

Timo’s birth father was artist Neville McArthur. It was from him that Timo inherited the custodianship of the distant Lake Baker/Pantjutjara, though when he revisited it with art centre coordinator Brian Hallett, he had to recall everything from his childhood.

“Timo spoke of the blind water serpent, Wanampiku ngura who still resides in the lake. The serpent who leaves his abode each day in search of food, is one who must be appeased by the ritual of washing under one’s arms. This is a narrative of prophetic proportions involving characters who created the moral framework for Spinifex People to live by for thousands of years. The energy radiating from Timo was tangible. The transference of knowledge and ownership seemed complete, and as he turned back towards the car, he looked at me and said “Lake Baker. I’m the boss now”.

Timo’s painting also surveys the Wati Kutjara Tjukurpa (Two Men Songline) and brings into focus how the Two Men encounter the powerful Wanampi on the two dimensional plane of his canvas.

Interestingly, Timo’s style of painting the salt lake is closely related to the late Carlene West’s imaging of a different Spinifex lake – using mainly black and white, so unlike older Spinifex paintings. “Somewhere between Francis Bacon and Paddy Bedford”, assessed the SA Museum’s John Carty in his writing about West.

“A masterful painting of international calibre, ‘Lake Baker’ heralds Timo Hogan as a remarkably confident artist with talent that exceeds his age and experience,” said the 2021 Judging Panel. “In a work of this scale, there is nowhere for an artist to hide: Timo’s restrained use of paint, texture and form not only demonstrates exceptional artistic instinct, but also his intimate connection to Country. ‘Lake Baker’ is a meditative, connected and assured master work by one of Australia’s most exciting up and coming artists”.

The Judging Panel in question was much affected by COVID. Plans to include a Melbourne curator and a Kimberley cultural leader had to be dropped; and Denise Andjurra Quall, a Larrakia artist, and Dennis Stokes, currently CEO of First Nations Media Australia in Darwin, heroically stood in. They joined Liz Nowell, Director of the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, who was able to get to Darwin for three intense days of judging. She began her arts life at Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, and worked as 2014 Big Telstra winner, Tony Albert’s studio manager in Sydney

The handing on of culture was an aspect of all the NATSIAA 2021 winners emphasised by Nowell. Bark Painting Award-winner Dhambit Munuŋgurr received her story of bees in the Arnhemland ironwood trees from her grandfather, Gawirrin Gumana. The fact that she paints the story on a giant two and a half metre bark in electric blue colours may not have been to Gumana’s taste, but shows how dynamic Yolngu art currently is.

More traditional, Pedro Wonaeamirri took out the Multi-Media Award for an energetic video of himself singing the Brolga song/’Jilarti‘ from his grandfather’s Country, fully accoutered in feather headdress, false beard (to disguise ceremonial dancers from evil spirits) with a feather ball round his neck, armed with a ritual spear and fighting stick – all elegantly made by him. Oh to see him dance the Brolga – as the judges did. For it’s less than 30 years ago that the Aboriginal Arts Board at the Australia Council dismissed the idea that they should fund any aspect of ceremony. For the contemporary mob in Sydney at the time, it had nothing to do with art.

Even the Brisbane-based Emerging Artist Award-winner, Kyra Mancktelow’s haunting work – an etching that shows the life-sized clothes that Aboriginal children were made to wear at the Myora Mission on Minjerribah in 1896 – is based on inherited stories through her Jandai clan. And Liz Nowell was particularly impressed that “she exploited the Tarleton material” of those clothes – also used to clean printing plates in etching – to make the point that both uses were acts of cleansing and assimilation.

Of course, all Hermannsburg painting is inherited from Albert Namatjira’s pioneering on canvas. But Hubert Pareroultja and Mervyn Rubuntja of the second generation have combined to create the 3D Award winner by painting the evocatively named ‘Through the Veil of Time’ on multiple layers of silk for the first time. “It allows you to weave your way through the work”, described judge Nowell. It’s also of a size that seems to have caught the judges’ eyes this year – and the NATSIAA pre-selectors.

Which is perhaps why the judges failed to notice third generation Hermannsburg artist, Charles Inkamala. You can see Namatjira behind his smaller acrylic painting, ‘Larapinta, go this way, Hidden Valley, Hermannsburg Road’, but he’s taking the style ahead in an individual way, showing us man-made features as well as mountains and trees. Personally, I see this as a more valuable way forward than adding Macdonalds signs to landscape, which was a variation on a theme attempted recently.

But, back to size, Works-on-Paper Award winner, the late Mrs M Wirrpanda fills a 77,000 sq cm space with her innovative, last-ever work. It consists of 70 sheets of fibre-tipped drawings meditating on the shellfish that inhabit Arnhemland mangroves. “A gift left behind” by the artist who died earlier this year, commented Liz Nowell. Her grandson, Ishmael Marika – also a Telstra finalist – added that she’d struggled through pain to produce it. For it’s also a tribute to Mrs Wirrpanda’s long collaboration with non-Indigenous artist John Wolseley. Much of his work reflects upon nature and is founded upon a base of drawing.

Nothing could be further from the detail of drawing than the General Painting Award winner by the very senior Bugai Whyoulter. Like her fellow Canning Stock Route, Well 33-born artist, Eubena Nampitjin, as age crept in, so detail went out of the window in favour of a glorious wash of delicate colours. Perhaps the view through increasingly rheumy eyes? However quiet Bugai’s work may seem, judge Nowell said all three of the assessors were immediately drawn to it as they walked into the gallery. “So subtle, so emotive”. Amazingly, ‘Wantili‘ is where the young Bugai first saw whitefellas, herding bullocks. “We were running away from those whitefellas, watching them from a long distance”.

Briefly, these were the other works that stood out for me from the rich selection:
Wally Wilfrid from Ngukurr has a work called ‘Mokuy‘,his skeletal figures given a delightful Modernism.
Dylan Sarra adapts a historic photo of Indigenous fishermen by adding a miniature ‘Endeavour’ and calling his work, ‘Catching Cook’.
Nola Campbell from the ever-creative Wanarn Aged Care Home, gives us another mythic desert lake in brilliant reds, pinks and salty whites.
Denise Brady offers a COVID work in darker than usual desert reds, emphasising that it’s just “passing through” for people who have been healed by the land for thousands of years and many a crisis.
Kaya Mununggurr entered the Emerging Artist section with a masterful print of meat ants massing to protect their nest – her first ever print!
And a new Nyapanyapa Yunupingu has emerged in the person of Djerrknu Yunupingu – her ‘Dream‘ bark fantasises surreally about her father’s dream of spearing a mermaid – which was in fact her, about to be born.

Of course, all this is online at and this year, you can vote for your favourite work without having to visit Darwin. That’s sad.

The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, extending the Art of the Nation massively, even to Tasmania/lutruwita, is also now online at