Nicholas Rothwell from the Australian discusses the Telstra Art Awards and talks about what else is happening in Darwin at the moment. He makes the case that the Aboriginal art industry has outgrown NATSIAA and that some of the best works are actually shown outside the awards:

Given these absences, the choice of winners made by the two finals judges, Art Gallery of NSW curator Hetti Perkins and prominent Queensland artist Judy Watson, was almost inevitable. The overall prize went to Papunya Tula artist Makinti Napanangka, for a trademark work, all ochre-y yellows, lilacs and slashed salmon pinks, and the general painting prize to her Papunya Tula colleague, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, for a lovely, fine-grained desert topography, so subtly calibrated it seemed to have the resonance of a spreading soundwave. The 3-D award went to Nyapanyapa Yunupingu from Buku Larrnggay in North-East Arnhem Land, for a charming narrative piece and accompanying video, Incident at Mutpi (1975) while the bark-painting award went to Terry Ngamandara Wilson, from Maningrida Arts in North-West Arnhem Land, for a small, rigidly classical design, Gulach – Spike Rush. The final prize, the award for work on paper, was given to master Torres Strait print-maker Dennis Nona, the winner of last year’s overall prize, for Dugam. These are strikingly conservative picks: four of the five prizes were given to artists from the nation’s three best-known and most successful art centres.

Alongside these stand-out works, the remainder of the field seemed fairly thin: amid the riot of large-scale, fiercely coloured canvases, it was mostly the other pieces from Papunya Tula, Maningrida and Buku Larrnggay that emerged to intrigue the eye, as did a couple of strong Kimberley carvings: Shirley Purdie’s Ngalangangpum (Mother and Child) and Pampilla Yankarr’s Two Lawmen: wooden busts painted with ceremonial regalia.

In fact, there was a range of hectic, overtoppling work on view: the NATSIAA is always an affair of hits and misses, and much of the show’s odd, enduring appeal stems from its slightly jumbled, arbitrary, uneven tone, but the heart turns over before such ill-conceived work as the vast, blackish, monotonous Country West of Kintore painted at Mount Liebig by the famous Wintja Napaltjarri, or Artetyerre, a wild, enormous vista made by Billy Benn Perrurle, the past master of nostalgic desert miniatures.

The exhibition’s central section holds a set of canvases from Wingellina, entered by Irrunytju Arts: and it was controversy over these pieces that did so much damage to this year’s award. The curators and director at MAGNT, despite their loyalty to the cause of publicly funded art centres, bravely stuck to their mandate that all artists can enter the NATSIAA, and exhibited these works, by well-known painters Tommy Watson, Wingu Tingima, Tjayanka Woods and Kuntjil Cooper. This persistence led to the protest withdrawal by rival art centres locked in a dispute with Irrunytju’s manager. But all the Wingellina pieces are somewhat short of the best work by these well-established artists. How much more potent might the case of the rejectionist art centres have been, had they allowed their work to go forward, and hang alongside in comparison, and make the case for the particular care and softness some art centre co-ordinators can bring to their tasks? We will never know.

Given this background, it is not too surprising that the finest art on view this week in Darwin was outside the NATSIAA, in three private gallery exhibitions. They were all from blue-chip artists and schools. At Karen Brown Gallery, Angelina George, last year’s NATSIAA painting prize winner, and highly commended again this year, shows her lovely new sequences of imagined country: Faraway Places. At the Framed Gallery, a refined and complex array of barks from Buku Larrnggay, Yarrpany Honey, all made by members of the Marrakulu clan, offers a tight consistency and intellectual satisfaction. And at the Cross-Cultural Art Exchange Gallery at Harriet Place, Paul Johnstone is showing a dazzling selection of desert work: the source, inevitably, Papunya Tula. This is a display of jewels and fully realised gems by artists as diverse as Jackie Giles, Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula, Ray James Tjangala and Naata Nungurrayi. To underline the point that the Aboriginal art world now stretches far beyond the confines of NATSIAA, the canvases here by Makinti Napanangka and Doreen Reid Nakamarra, the two top Telstra prize winners, were much stronger than their entries in the award.