The cover of the catalogue for ‘The National 4’, the somewhat surprising fourth iteration of this underwhelming alternate to the Sydney Biennale, carries a magical photograph of the bamugora – a woven conical mat – made by Milingimbi woman Susan Balbunga. Inside the catalogue, an even more magical image finds her weaving it on a beach at sunset, where she’s quoted as telling her mat, “Yindithi – Grow bigger”.

It’s almost enough to make you cry, then to find this one work by Balbunga hanging in the vastness of a Carriageworks shed looking anything but the vital shelter that it would be in Milingimbi. Its status as an artwork has somehow diminished its perfection as a comfort and protector created from the pandanus fronds of Balbunga’s Country. Interestingly, the weaver even chose to reduce its artyness by failing to colour the fronds as she might well have done. It’s simply a monochrome ideal of womanly skill and persistence.

Of course it’s great that Sydney’s non-Indigenous curators – across Carriageworks, the AGNSW, the MCA and Campbelltown Art Centre – plus Quandmooka artist Freja Carmichael at Carriageworks, seek to include some 14 Indigenous-identifying artists in the 49 Australians selected for this national survey. Here’s the official line from the AGNSW’s Beatrice Gralton:

“The most vital contemporary art reflects the ever-shifting state of who we are, where we have come from, and what we want to talk about. ‘The National 4: Australian Art Now’ is an exhibition of kaleidoscopic perspectives that addresses this moment in time.
There is a concentration of artists whose work refers to the role of women as practitioners, teachers, warriors, subjects, mothers, matriarchs, collaborators and holders of knowledge. Australia, we need to talk, and The National 4 is ready for a conversation”.

Another time that this conversation involves First Nations people from the north is at the MCA where a sizeable room is dedicated to a four-screen film of Tiwi dancing on Country – and what a Garden of Eden it looks. It’s almost as though the place is more important than the dance – which is clearly not of ceremonial significance. For there’s little body paint or decoration worn, and surprisingly little energy in the dance. More power lies in the songs, from Jilamara community leader, Pedro Wonaeamirri. Perhaps a listening experience rather than a conversation.

A more layered story comes from Injinoo on the northernmost tip of Cape York where Angkamuthi man, Teho Ropeyarn is paying colourful tribute to his mother, Jennifer. His colossal wreath at Carriageworks is a detailed reproduction of the Cape York lily, though it is not a messenger of death. For it’s intricate beauty attests to the role his mother has played as a traditional community funeral celebrant – an onerous task wished upon those who’ve married into the Angkamuthi tribe. Ropeyarn now spends much of his time in that artistic ferment, Cairns, curating as much as art-making. Can one perhaps see some of the influence of another cross-over man, Brian Robinson?

Also based there is TSI print-master Glen Mackie, who is paying tribute to his maternal ancestor. With the assistance of facilitator Theo Tremblay, he’s produced a suite for the AGNSW, the finest of which is ‘Keiu Aka Kudin’ portraying his great-great-grandmother, Kudin. She took on and successfully tribalised his Yankee great-great-grandfather Ned Mosby. Mackie has also created a giant acrylic screen commemorating the latter – it dominates the entry hall at the Gallery, silhouetted against its end windows, though it might be even more dramatic if not slightly obscured by a fleet of model pearling luggers.

Justifying my earlier comment on the artistic ferment in Cairns, Carriageworks is showing a suite paintings by Wik & Kugu/Yidinji woman Heather Koowootha. The lore of the Cape has come with her to Cairns, for each landscape is accompanied by text explaining the scene’s significance. I couldn’t resist noting that one work offers details of the bounty to be found in nature to relieve the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases!

Also at Carriageworks, it’s been able to offer a generous wall to Yirrkala’s Naminapu Maymuru-White to continue her long appreciation of the sky and its many rivers of stars. For the stars not only guided her Manggalili clan to land there but their spirits will eventually be taken back to join their ancestors in those Rivers of Stars. As those stars trail across the sky, so her small barks trail across the mighty wall.

Back at the Art Gallery, as you stride towards Glen Mackie’s feast of Torresian history, you might just walk past a blackened wall covered with wet plate collodion photographs of Aboriginal women – a tribute by Brenda Croft to that spirited Cammeraygal fisherwoman Barangaroo. At that harbourside side site in Sydney larger versions of these images were first shown during the Sydney Festival this year, where I reviewed them, and where I suspect they looked rather more impressive. For the link to Barangaroo (the feisty person not the place), whom Croft memorably described as “the interface of irreversible change”, was so tangible in that place. This army of contemporary female warriors couldn’t be avoided there.

Downstairs at the AGNSW, works by the most worldly of Pitjanjatjara artists, Robert Fielding, is paying tribute to the least worldly – 20 keepers of traditional culture on the distaff side. Rather than simply portray them, Fielding has filmed the most communicative part of them – their hands holding pieces of wire to tell and illustrate stories in the desert sands. So we get a babble of multiple narratives while the illustrations are filmed in small separate boxes. On the wall outside this theatre, the wires themselves form a crazy calligraphy of shapes and shadows. As the catalogue puts it, Fielding is “capturing the beauty and the essence of his Anangu mayatja; wati, minyma and kungka – the elders, the men, the women” of the APY Lands.

After all that, it was hard to raise an enthusiastic sweat. Familiar paintings from Daniel Boyd and Thea Anamara Perkins, a loud film demanding “Equality” from Reko Rennie, which at least made sense compared to the extraordinary filmed play by Brook Andrew performed by African Americans in Berlin. Finally, I was introduced to the lovely paintings of Christopher Bassi, a Meriam man born in Brisbane and obviously well instructed in the Western way of art-making. Yes, his settings could be Torresian, but little of Glen Mackie’s cultural references would seem to have travelled with him to Briso.

For the non-Indigenous contribution, a significant aspect would have to be Pacifika artists – an intriguing curatorial selection.

I’m naturally delighted to see a range of First Nations artists considered to be “addressing this moment in time”, but it’s perhaps inevitable that I’d question the primacy of that ambition. It’s not for nothing that the word “everywhen” is increasingly used to explain the timelessness of traditional Indigenous culture. Something to be inherited from their elders and passed on intact to their children.

And that’s surely what Sebastian Smee – the pre-eminent Australian art critic now with the Washington Post – had in mind when he wrote recently: “Meanwhile, connection to land, on a deep, often awe-inspiring level, is at the heart of Aboriginal art, one of the most fascinating, disruptive phenomena in global contemporary art over the past half century”.

Lots of people have claimed that the late Robert Hughes declared that Aboriginal art was “the last great art movement of the 20th Century”. No one has managed to find the source of that statement. Now Smee has come up with a certified quote to replace it.