This is how I began my first, impressionistic report from the Telstra Prizes last week:
Bold’ was the word that kept springing to mind as I viewed the 2015 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (the NATSIAAs) in Darwin and considered the winners selected by a triumvirate of judges. Could there be a recovered confidence in the Indigenous art world after recent lows in both price and artists’ enthusiasm “ a not unrelated conjunction?
For here were Dolly Snell, Hector Burton, Betty Pumani, Barbara Moore, Brian Robinson, Rusty Peters, Bobby West, Glen Mackie and a whole fleet of Yolngu artists from the Buku Larrngay Art Centre thinking big and complex and expanding their horizons.

“And only two of those names could actually be winners “ Jukuja Dolly Snell taking out the $50,000 ‘Big Telstra’ for a work that encapsulates her oeuvre of many years which seeks to bring her country around the Kurtal waterhole in the Great Sandy Desert up into the Kimberley and her Mangkaja Art Centre; and Betty Kuntiwa Pumani from Mimili whose clear red, white and grey canvases are so recognisable, winning the General Painting Award for a work that’s bigger and more striking than usual.

Subsequently, I toured around the rest of the Aboriginal art industry’s ecosystem, a reef structure of organisations fringed around the mother island of the Telstra/National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, as Nicolas Rothwell put it so colourfully in The Australian newspaper. His poesy was but the prelude to another chapter in his consistent criticism of this ecosystem as a pure product of public funding, a vast and serried GONGO, or government-organised non-government organisation, which he fears, inevitably, must diminish the purity of the unique art product of tribal Australia.

This reef structure on display in Darwin is certainly now a mighty battalion. There are academics out at the Charles Darwin University examining the entrails of Warlpiri Drawings from the 1950s; there are highly commercial projects such as the women’s fabric designs from Injalak in Arnhemland, shown at the long-established Framed Gallery, which finds it hard to sell actual Aboriginal art today; there are spaces hired by art centres like those from the Tiwi and Elcho Islands to brand their product; there are commercial galleries choosing to highlight certain artists “ presumably in consultation with their art centres; there’s the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) with more than 50 stalls “ 90% run by individual art centres who pick their markets so differently “ their offerings ranging from tourist tat to a $25,000 canvas by Lily Nunguurayi Hargraves; there are book launches and cocktail parties; and there are at the heart of it all, the now-linked Telstra NATSIAAs showing 65 of the last year’s ‘best’ Aboriginal artworks selected from 290 entries, and the somewhat sweatier Salon des Refuses offering another 61 which failed to make the cut.

What happened to the other 164 hopefuls? The selectors may be getting more choosy, but the artists are still keen to be in the NATSIAAs, and are certainly incentivised to create their best and boldest work for it. Some, of course, will have decided not to be seen as rejects and therefore refused to appear in the Salon. But it looks as though we may need a second Salon to put the work which the artists and/or their art centres rated so highly to market.

For, despite the high pedestal upon which Rothwell places Indigenous art, it is still a business. One of the key factors in recent years “ as I revealed in my story about John Mawurndjul “ is that the failure of an art centre has a catastrophic effect upon its artists. Whether this is a purely psychological effect, or one rooted in the consequent financial hardship is unexplored. But art “ and certainly not great art “ simply isn’t made.

The work in Darwin which Rothwell heaped his highest praise on was in the Papunya Tula Artists branding exhibition at the Paul Johnstone Gallery. It was by Nanyuma Napangati, evoking the sandhill reaches of the northeastern Gibson Desert ” austere and subtly varying country, much like the canvas itself, a composition in muted colours that capture the dunefield realm of light and heat and haze, a masterwork that conveys at once a way of seeing and a world, as Rothwell puts it so poetically. The market agreed “ Johnstone telling me he could have sold it five times over at $16,750. In the recent past, dealers have complained of a resistance point at $10,000. Well Darwin revealed that point seriously blitzed on many occasions.

At the Telstras there were 5 works at $20,000 or over, and another 15 over that resistance mark. At the Salon, almost all the works I’d be prepared to argue should have been in the NATSIAAs were sold before the Opening; Sonia Kurrara’s multi-coloured riverscape for $15,300 and Kitty Malarvie’s trademark ‘Milkwater‘ for $17,500. Also sold were Candy Nelson Nakamarra’s dense canvas from Papunya, Lisa Uhl’s bright diptych from Fitzroy Crossing, Betty Morton’s golden-hued desert flowers from Ampilawatja, and Pepai Jangala Carroll’s mighty vase from Ernbella “ though, arguably, more interesting work by him seems to be on offer at Raft Gallery currently. Several commercial galleries around the country seem to be tapping into the Darwin vibe by showing artists prominent in that sunny city. Short Street in Broome, for instance, has a significant Tiger Yaltangki show of his hilarious goolies and ghosties.

You might say the market is speaking!

So, where’s all the government funding in this pretty commercial picture? Well, the Australia Council is involved in funding the NATSIAAs “ but it must be peanuts compared to Telstra’s involvement; 24 years now and counting, if CEO Andy Penn’s enthusiasm over the weekend was anything to go by. In Nicolas Rothwell’s eyes, the real problem lies with the Federal Arts Ministry and Minister Brandis who went to the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair to announce (in Rothwell’s words) $22 million in annual funding for 97 organisations to support and develop professional indigenous arts practice and ” an amusing phrase ” further strengthen the sector by measures such as employing 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait arts workers in communities: men and women who are thus transformed into salaried, state-paid artists. Culture thus becomes a certified welfare activity.

Of course, such a sum is peanuts compared to government subsidy of the coal industry or Aussie agri-business, but I guess it’s the proportion of the unknown annual turnover of Indigenous art (when is someone going to do a proper analysis???) that worries Rothwell.

Could it be that at 97, there are too many individual art organisations, just too many fingers in the Aboriginal art pie? According to their maps, there are 83 art centres under the aegis of Desart and ANKAAA “ 43 of whom made it to DAAF in order to offer everything from T-shirts and tea-towels to fascinating publications such as ‘Garnkiny‘ digging deep into Gija mythology and mindset, and ‘Milpirri‘, motivating the Warlpiri kids at Lajamanu to enter into their culture.

And then there are further uber-bodies such as the Indigenous Art Centres Alliance and UMI Arts in Queensland, the Western Desert Mob in WA and Ku Arts in the APY Lands. Are they all relevant and worth funding? What is their role in supporting, say, remote desert communities with just a handful of old people who are determined to live on their Country and desperate to paint and so seem to need their own arts coordinator to facilitate dealings with the world. Should they be denied?

And then there’s Gangan. It’s just 10 houses in the Stringybark forests south of Yirrkala in Eastern Arnhemland. Writing in the current Annandale Galleries catalogue for two more artists from the prolific Yolngu world, Buku Larrngay Mulka Director, Will Stubbs “ who’s art centre somehow manages that facilitation whilst being 4 hours away by either dusty or flooded roads “ there are no fewer than seven Telstra prize-winners living and working there. But most such remote outstations are not self-sufficient in art, but are reliant on funding (it used to be the CDEP) for those 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait arts workers, who aren’t star artists and who are being trained up by ANKAAA to play facilitating roles in the business. Outstations subsidised like that are also the nurturing ground for future generations of Indigenous artists “ watching the painting and hearing the songs and stories as kids, adding dots or rarrking as young adults.

Maintaining a remote outstation is not cheap. But is it welfare to keep the culture alive?

Back to Darwin, and the final thoughts in my original report from the NATSIAAs on the quality of the times, as revealed most potently by the nine artists most definiutely not on welfare in East Arhemland. Those fertile Yolngu artists just keep on keeping on! Quite rightly, Nonggirrnga Marawili won the Telstra Bark Painting Award for her outsize work, ‘Lightning in the Rock’, a reconsidered version of the bark she entered in 2014 that was very nearly rejected as below par! It was outstandingly different, with an almost out-of-control expressionism to match its subject-matter “ sacred lightning hitting the sea-spray rising from a rock a wave has just smashed into. This year, judges who included the Martu artist Daniel Walbidi belatedly recognising the freshness of her imagery, though perhaps they were just overwhelmed by the plethora of finalists from the same art centre “ four having the same surname “ Munungurr!

Will Stubbs modestly puts this profligacy down to the influence of Gunibi Ganambirr (not an entrant this year) who re-wrote the definition of ‘land’ a few years back to include anything abandoned on the land. For ancient Yolngu rote had declared that sacred stories could only be committed to permanent reproduction on the products of Yolngu Country such as bark. So the Wanambis, Wukun and Garawan have availed themselves of perfectly formed boards (Wukun’s covered in foil to add extra shimmer to his fish-in-the-water work), thus overcoming the imprecision of bark. And of the Munungurrs, Barayuwa has added hanging whalebones to his watery bark, while Rerrkirrwangarr offers a trilogy of delicate barks encapsulating outstation life and myth. Guykuda has produced a bolt from the blue after many an animal sculpture with the carving of a ‘Yolngu Angel, wings and all; and Marrayula has conceived a grid of 168 tiny barks “ conjuring memories of the Yirrkala Drawings Project “ which tell of fish-traps, capturing catfish and failing to net the scared shark.

I think my favourite from Buku, though, might be Mulkun Wirrpanda’s almost abstract woodblock print,’Rakay #4′ which evokes the texture of bark but is, once more, unfettered by the old bark rules that say he has to cover his ground from rim to rim