Talking About the Art Award at Twenty-Three

I’m once again amazed that, if it weren’t for The Australian, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award would get virtually no coverage in the Australian press. Miriam Cosic wrote three articles in the space of a week, Rothwell contributed his usual trenchant analysis, and the Sydney and Melbourne papers had nothing to say? What’s the deal here? ABC Radio chipped in with a good pre-show interview with Franchesca Cubillo and a rather pointless piece last Friday with Djon Mundine, both on Awaye! TheNational Indigenous Times had a short profile of Ngoia Napaltjarri along with a notice of the other winners. And that’s all they wrote.

I find all this more than a little frustrating, stuck over here on the far side of the Pacific. I don’t know exactly where more extensive commentary could be published, especially given that MAGNT, as Rothwell points out, is an underfunded institution. But in the end, NATSIAA winds up being treated as a news story, with commentary largely reserved to an enumeration of the winners, and reproductions of the work restricted to the photographs that appear in the twelve-page brochure published to accompany the announcement of the Awards and distributed at the Museum. 

The inadequacies of the brochure and price list don’t help much. Given that the selection of works seems this year, as one visitor observed, to be slanted towards giving artists from newer art centres a chance at wide exposure (no works from Balgo or Yuendumu and only three from Papunya Tula), the documentation that is provided is almost laughable. No installation shots, no selections for reproduction among the works that didn’t make the ultimate cut. The price list, even for those in attendance, is infuriating. Artist. Title. Medium. There’s no mention of home country, or community, and dimensions are totally neglected, even for the winning entries. If, as Cubillo indicated in her interview on ABC Radio, she hopes to represent the breadth of indigenous artistic endeavor, surely a way can be found to present that variety in a little more detail, and to publicize and document it for the portion of the community engaged with the art–galleries, collectors, and other artists–who don’t travel to Darwin each year. This is especially troubling given that even the partial catalogues published between 1995 and 2003 (and not even annually at that) seem to be a fading memory. Much was made of this being the 23rd year of the awards; it’s unfortunate that in all that time there have been only seven catalogs, only one of which (in 2001) documented every work chosen for inclusion in the show. The loss to history will probably not be overcome. NATSIAA has managed to produce some excellent catalogs in the past–far too few of them–but at least when they do come out, especially the larger productions that fill in for years when none appeared, they contain some serious writing and well as excellent photographs. But I still want more. 

For just a single example of the interpretive possibilities opened up by these catalogs, let me note the following irony. Rothwell and Cosic both comment on the strength of the exhibition’s focus under Cubillo’s direction this year on works from traditional communities. Cosic in particular notes the complaint that “urban artists” were over represented last year. It’s only by having the catalogs from previous exhibitions to hand that I know that perhaps the most controversial award to an urban artist (Richard Bell, for Scientia e Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem)) came the year that Cubillo was one of the two judges, along with Brian Kennedy.

But the central problem remains, where would serious critical discussion be published? The most consistently good critical writing on Aboriginal art to appear in a timely manner is Rothwell’s own series of commentaries in The Australian. The glossy magazines rarely do a good job of presenting informative–or more importantly interpretive–writing. And the academic journals are almost hopeless: the long time to publication that afflicts their schedules and the refusal to publish authors unaffiliated with academic institutions limits the scope of writing that can appear in them severely. Their general unavailability outside the specialized market of academia also dooms any hope for help from that quarter.

The most encouraging signs I’ve seen lately are on the Web–which I guess should come as no surprise. I wrote a few weeks ago about the terrific presentation of the NGA’s Michael Riley retrospective, and especially the conjunction of essays and reproductions of the work. I find this especially impressive as there must be inherent tensions between making this material available for free on the Web and selling it in a catalog in the Gallery Bookshop. Wooloongabba Gallery in Brisbane has made available PDF versions of their catalogs for the Mornington and Bentinck Island mobs. But there should be more. Henry Skerritt has written some brilliant essays lately–his catalog for Shane Pickett’s show in February 2006 leaps to mind–but unfortunately, they are not to be found on the Indigenart website.

Both Rothwell and Cosic dwell on the appointment of an Aboriginal curator for MAGNT and the Telstra show. In Cosic’s case, at least, this seems to have been occasioned by Cubillo’s remark in the ABC Radio interview about the negative reaction to the Tjanpi weavers’ grass Toyota capturing the big prize last year. She said, “When you look at the non-indigenous critique on indigenous art, I feel there’s really not a good understanding of where this art comes from.” In the American South we have a phrase for sentiments like that: “Them’s fightin’ words.” And Cosic steps into the ring, pointing out the general lack of indigenous critique of indigenous art. Rothwell takes a broader view, and I think rightly suggests that indigenous curators will play an increasingly important role in mediating between indigenous artists and the largely non-indigenous market for the work.

And I don’t agree with Cubillo’s notion that white people don’t understand where this art is coming from. The notion as repeated in Cosic’s piece that “white critics were entitled to discuss the aesthetics, she [Cubillo] said, but only indigenous people could really talk to the emotional content of the art” is bullshit. Such a statement is even more insulting to indigenous artists than it is to white people, for it presumes that all the effort of communicating culture that lies behind the production of this art is wasted on its audience. Again, I think Rothwell was nearer the mark when he said that “there is much politics in NATSIAA”: the displeasure with the Tjanpi prize winner lay more in the fact that it smacked of craft rather than high art and thus may have endangered some pocketbooks more than it offended aesthetic sensibilities. If non-indigenous people have emotional problems relating to indigenous art, I suspect the worst of them in this case stem from the art world’s lack of a sense of humor: if art can make you laugh or smile, then it must not be “serious.”

The 23rd National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Print:

Churchman, Fiona. Art, Art, Everywhere You Turn. ABC Radio Darwin, August 10, 2006. 

Cosic, Miriam. Swamp Painting Has Artist Inundated with CashThe Australian, August 12, 2006.

—. The Saga of Life in Three Hollow LogsThe Australian, August 14, 2006.

—. Towards an Inclusive DebateThe Australian, August 14, 2006.

Emerging Artist Captures Indigenous Art Award. Arts Hub Australia, August 14, 2006.

Indigenous Artist Inspired by Old Native Affairs PaperworkMessage Stick, August 12, 2006.

Michelmore, Karen. Indigenous Artist Gets Her Wish — And Wins Top Art AwardNational Indigenous Times, August 14, 2006.

Rothwell, Nicolas. Lessons from a Vanishing WorldThe Australian, August 14, 2006.

23rd Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award . Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, 2006.

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