For the first time in umpteen years, I haven’t been in the balmy night in Darwin attending the opening of the Salon des Refuses – Aboriginal art’s response to the 19th Century French Impressionists’ rebellion against rejection by ‘official’ art nobs; and its pale reflection in Sydney for those dismissed by judges for the Archibald and Wynne Prizes. Is Darwin’s Salon (in the Charles Darwin Uni’s gallery) a rebellion; or is it just a reflection that judges just can’t always get it right in matters of aesthetics??

Who knows? I certainly don’t this year because I’m sitting in the crisply moonlit night of Sydney and haven’t yet had an opportunity to compare the Salon’s selections with the Telstra NATSIAA judges’ choices for the competition which all the artists entered. I can tell you though that the Salon has just 31 selections this year (by local gallerists Paul Johnstone and Matt Ward) plus an extra section for art which arrived too late to be considered for either exhibition. For, quite rightly, some artists and community art centres thought that the health of their remote artists was more important than winning a prize.

Clearly some art centres, though, were on to the potential for exposure. And, having hit the limited world of the avant garde in this year’s on/off/on Sydney Biennale, the previously unknown Nyinkka Nyunya Art Centre in Tennant Creek has no fewer than three selections in the Salon. It’s a style of art that most won’t immediately identify as Indigenous (see the image), but clearly the notion of payback expressed in ‘Punishment‘ by Fabian Brown, Jimmy Frank and Joseph Williams isn’t part of the Westminster legal system. And the totally different effort by Marcus Camphoo in which he’s exploring the nuances of the grid seems to me to be part of an increasing trend towards deliberate non-Indigenous abstraction in the works of young artists.

Clearly the Telstra pre-selectors didn’t see inherent Indiegeneity “ they chose no works from the Tennant Creek mob.

I was going to move on to the other unknown names appearing in the Salon when it struck me that perhaps more significant was the appearance there of two previous ‘Big Telstra’ winners, rejected from the main game this year. And it’s hard to imagine that Gunybi Ganabarr’s work ‘Buyku on the Gangan River’ wasn’t in the same class in terms of its technique and its shimmer of water movement as last year’s Award winner. I guess if you set the bar so high, it’s hard to follow up successfully.

Jenni Kemarra Martinello’s glass-working gets more complex all the time – and her ‘Gallipoli Shield’ is a major advance on the simple fish-trap which won her the Big Telstra several years ago.

Another familiar name, Marlene Rubuntja, is taking the Yarrenyiy Arltere model of recycling of old blankets out of reach. Her 3 metres of sewn landscape with hovering butterflies is a ripper.

So, who’s new? Dennis Hatches, Polyanne Smith and Mantuwa George from Kaltjiti in the APY Lands are all unknown to me. But, presuming only recently started painting careers, there’s nothing unexpected about the subject-matter of Hatches’ finely dotted ‘Goanna Dreaming’, or the ladies’ secret women’s camp. Mind you, their interpretation seems to be more a fantasy of planets in outer space than anything earthly! Taking an opposite tack, Warrmun’s Mark Nodea offers an apparently traditional East Kimberley ochred work, except his work, ‘The Black Dog‘ is evoking his depression brought on by the booze, which Rover Thomas or Freddy Timms would never have considered as a possible subject for their art.

Meanwhile, the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre at Yirrkala continues to produce talent. Wurrandan Marawili may have hit the NATSIAA final last year, but is still youthful enough to tell an ancient story of the Madarrpa clan’s waters in a refreshed way. Meanwhile Dirrpu Marawili seems to have taken a leaf out of the Marrenyula Mununggurr playbook in her ‘Wanduwuy‘ work, telling a complex story in tiny coloured squares.

Finally, Lorraine Kabbindi White surprises with a bark from Melbourne! But it shouldn’t be a surprise that this scion of the great Lofty Bardayal’s family is painting on bark, just the determination with which she’s taken her culture so completely with her to Victoria, telling the story of the Moon’s insistence on immortality in the heavens versus the Quoll’s acceptance of the inevitability of death on Earth “ like far too many of the artist’s fellow Melburnians currently.

That very sickening problem may have brought down the numbers in the Salon this year. But how very though-provoking First Nations artists are becoming!

Despite all this year’s difficulties, the Salon Project also has three more shows on in Darwin:
‘Old Man Painter‘ – a tribute to the late Nyaparu William Gardiner – on at the Tactile Arts Gallery at MAGNT until 15th August

Gundirr‘ – works by Mulkun Wirrpanda responding on bark to the Magnetic Termite Mounds in eastern Arnhemland at Parap’s Outstation Gallery until 29th August

‘We Are Painting for our Children’ by artists from Kaltjiti – mainly Tjangili George (the great Witjiti’s wife) with a field of wildflowers at Paul Johnstone Gallery until 29th August