In the wash-up to the 31st National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, it seems possible that the man who lead the charge to free MAGNT (the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory) from the unenthusiastic hand of the NT Government “ which took effect on July 1st “ may also be trying to initiate a major philosophical change in the way the NATSIAAs (and Aboriginal art more widely in Australia) is viewed. For Chairman Allan Myers (also Chair of the National Gallery in Canberra) is questioning the current criterion for all Awards entries as simply being created by a person who identifies as Indigenous.

It would seem that the eminent QC is thinking particularly about the last two years’ winners of the Big Telstra “ Jennie Kemarre Martiniello in 2013 with a Canberra-made glasswork, and Tony Albert, this year’s $50,000 prize-winner, for a panel featuring 20 photographs of Aboriginal boys all bearing a target on their bare chests. How could these works, the product of Western art training and technology, be rationally judged beside ‘art’ by untrained people that sought to transmit the maps, myths and mnemonics of a traditional Aboriginal group on a medium acceptable to a non-Indigenous market-place?

The nature of art, Myers explained to me, is the expression of personal experience, and bridging the gap between the inner-city experience and the far reaches of Arnhemland may be too much for one competition. Instructively, Tony Albert also won the recent Basil Sellers Art Prize for a work tackling a sporting subject where he was recognised simply as an artist on a par with his contemporaries in the wider art world rather than being pigeon-holed as an Aboriginal artist.

In a sense, Albert and many of his fellow Blak artists get the best of both worlds “ the right to enter exclusively Indigenous events and the freedom to fly clear of any language group identity when they want to.

It may well be that Chairman Myers will have to go into battle with MAGNT Director, Pierre Arpin, who was clear on an ABC Radio feature about the Awards that Art is not fixed in time, and therefore must be allowed to move with the times “ 32 years after the Awards were first conceived as primarily for the bark artists of the Northern Territory. Myers admits he’s just thinking out loud. But he may be better tuned into a situation which has seen many Blak artists fail to enter the NATSIAAs in recent years and even those who have won in Darwin “ like Tony Albert and Danie Mellor “ doubt whether they really want to be seen only as ‘Aboriginal artists’.

Perhaps it doesn’t help that judges who are mainly educated in the Western art tradition clearly find it easier to agree on a fine work made in familiar territory rather than attempt to dig beneath the surface for meanings in an APY canvas, a Torres Strait print or an Arnhemland bark. Look at the recent ‘Art+Soul 2’ TV series. Even an experienced curator like Hetti Perkins finds conversations with urban artists so much easier than tribal ones.

So, could this gulf play a part in the diminished status for barks evident in this year’s Awards? Only five were selected, and the judges assured me that the best were all there. Yet, when I went to the Salon des Refuses (now in its second year in Darwin) it was evident that at least three more barks “ works by Fiona Mason and Antonia Pascoe from Maningrida and by Napuwarri Marawili from Yirrkala “ were worth considering beside the winner. And well-informed judges might well have seized on those two from Maningrida “ an art community that’s been in strife of late, just returning to serious production, and therefore well worthy of recognition.

The judges suggested that they’d been primarily looking to reward innovation, and they were undoubtedly assisted by the new Telstra Youth Award which brought unknown artists like the winner Kieren Karritpul, Myria Demouilpied, Bonita-Marie Mabo and Jessie Victoria Bonson to public attention. But again the Salon challenged their ‘innovative’ choices with works like Mark Nodea’s ‘Lost Souls‘ “ a philosophical canvas in the mode of fellow Warmanite Rusty Peters; or Iluwanti Ken’s ‘Eagle Jukurpa‘ “ throwing the wildness of Tjanpi weaving on to a wall hanging; or Agnes Napanangka Donnelly’s Abstract Expressionist canvas from Lajamanu; or some surprising Central Desert excitement from Iwantja artists Rene Sundown and Whiskey Tjukangku.

But then again “ more debate for MAGNT “ how do you handle a former winner like Jimmy Donegan? Rejected by the NATSIAAs, his 2014 work in the Salon begs the question as to whether an Old Master like him can be expected to innovate in either story or imagery?

The Tiwi seem to be innovating, but. Their annual Darwin show from the Islands’ three art centres offered a profusion of 124 works on canvas, paper, silk or carved, with artists such as Maria Josette Orsto, Cornelia Tipuamantumirri and Romolo Tipiloura clearly playing with their talents. At the annual Papunya Tula Artists show “ ‘Kiwirrkura Women’ “ only Katarra Butler Napaltjarri seemed to be pushing boundaries.

At the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair “ bigger than ever but not quite there yet in using the potential of the crowded hall to educate potential punters in key aspects of Aboriginal art “ the art centre consensus has clearly come down to T-shirts, cards and other artefacts rather than fine art. Only Buku Larnggay and Mankaja really offered small but substantial artworks.

Absolutely lacking in substance but oozing with delight, Alice Springs’ Beanie Festival was transported to Darwin to awaken the northern city to one of the unique delights of its little sister. Maybe they already know “ for wild and wacky beanies were displayed from all over the country, and somebody’s obviously collecting them for a most justified posterity.

Ceremony seems to be diminishing around Darwin. Yes, the Fair and the Tiwis put on a bit of dance; but the Telstras themselves have gone from OTT to almost perfunctory in delivering its important results. My worry is that the series of mostly non-Indigenous prize-givers removes the former sense that Indigenous people were honouring their own through song, dance and ceremony.

But perhaps this was all just in comparison with the intensity of ceremony brought in from Yirrkala to the CDU Art Museum to greet the first sighting of the ‘Yirrkala Drawings’ from the University of WA since they were created in Arnhemland in the 1940s. Offspring of the artists were there en masse and duly painted up, and both song and dance were at their most vivid for the occasion. Definitely a highlight of a weekend that defiantly remains a highlight of the Indigenous art year, attended by so many major players and artists that it really can’t be ignored.

View the catalogue —- and just a warning, it’s a large pdf file (19mb) but worth it. It will open in another tab


Artist: Maria Josette Orsto, Cornelia Tipuamantumirri, Romolo Tipiloura, Jimmy Donegan, Rene Sundown, Whiskey Tjukangku, Kieren Karritpul, Myria Demouilpied, Bonita-Marie Mabo, Jessie Victoria Bonson, Mark Nodea, Rusty Peters, Iluwanti Ken, Agnes Napanangka Donnelly, Fiona Mason, Antonia Pascoe, Napuwarri Marawili, Tony Albert, Danie Mellor, Jennie Kemarre Martiniello,

Category: Art Fair , Art Prize , Australia , Blog , Event , Exhibition , Festival , Industry , News ,

Tags: Allan Myers , Big Telstra , Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair , Jeremy Eccles , MAGNT , NATSIAAs , Pierre Arpin , Salon des Refuses , Yirrkala Drawings ,

Gallery: Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory ,