The Art Award, Backwards and Forwards

If you missed the October issue of Art Monthly Australia, you should head for your local library or visit the magazine’s website to pick up a copy (back issues are only A$6.00). Catherine Bowdler’s essay, “The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin: Yesterday, today and tomorrow” is well worth the effort. Bowdler, a Darwin based artist and curator who spends much of her time in Canberra where she is a Doctoral candidate at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research at the Australian National University, has gone beyond merely writing a review of this year’s show. She has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on the history, growth, and possible future of the NATSIAA.

The historical component of the essay is based on her own personal experiences in attending the award ceremonies for the past fifteen years. I attended for the first time in 2005 (I saw the 2001 show months after the opening), and hadn’t really heard much about the ceremonies themselves: reports I received focused more on the selection of artworks and frenzied competition for the superstar paintings. So I was surprised and fascinated to see the Gunbittiji Dancers from Milingimbi salute the winners with their ceremonial rompoles (and, to be honest, I was less fascinated by the extensive performance of the dancers from Sulawesi), delighted to see that the physical manifestation of the award was a dilly bag, and knocked out when the speeches and presentations were over and the Saltwater Band took the stage and got dozens of people bouncing to the beat.

Bowdler supplies a fascinating look at the history of performance at the NATSIAA, including a tribute to Rover Thomas, organized by Queenie Mackenzie after his death, in which the Gurirr Gurrir dances were recreated and a performance in 1994 of the Tiwi Aeroplane Dance. (If you missed that, as I did, there is a film of a similar performance by the Yanyuwa people available from Film Australia. Torres Strait Islanders likewise have their version of the story.) But the story that is perhaps most telling comes from the late 1980s when dancers from Yuendumu generated a spontaneous response from the Lajamanu community, who rose to their feet to perform their section of the Dreaming that had just been presented. 

One lesson that emerges from these examples is not simply the survival and celebration of indigenous culture that the NATSIAA represents, but the potential for cross-fertilization and cultural exchange that can occur in Darwin. But Bowdler is right to lament the fact that the official business of speeches and large-screen video presentation robs the event of some of its spontaneity and focus on just that kind of creation of community among the indigenous participants.

We came to Darwin in 2005 from Broome, where we’d been visiting with Emily Rohr, who had just fetched up a number of artists from Bidyadanga prior to their departure for the award ceremonies; Bertha Linty was seated in front of us on the plane ride. Emily had just been telling us how the younger artists, especially, pore through her collection of art books–and not just Cubillo art catalogs–when they are visiting with her in Broome. Similarly, when we visited Maningrida a few days after the festivities, Apolline Kohen had us grinning in amazement as she recounted John Mawurndjul’s assessment of Picasso’s accomplishments. What an opportunity the Art Award must represent for those artists who travel to Darwin to see the work of their contemporaries and gain inspiration from it. The history of aboriginal art in the 20th century is often a story of innovation in techniques and manners of representation, as any retrospective of Papunya Tula art will show, or as the continuing influence of Macassans (hence the appropriateness of the Sulawesi dance troupe’s appearance in 2005) on communities as diverse as the Yirritja people on Elcho Island or the batik-makers of Utopia will attest. 

For this reason, curator Franchesca Cubillo’s call for inclusiveness in the Art Awards and her encouragement of submissions from underrepresented regions like the Torres Strait and Tasmania is well founded and timely. And this brings me to the second part of Bowdler’s essay, her musings on the future of the Art Award.

Bowdler observes that the Art Award is at something of a crossroads. And it’s clear that this has nothing to do with the “changing of the guard” at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), with Cubillo’s appointment as curator, or with arguments that have been made in recent years (especially following Richard Bell’s controversial win) that somehow the Award should concern itself with art from “traditional” communities and artists. (In regard to the last, Bowdler makes the excellent point that “[t]he Award has had a significant role to play in the now generally accepted view that all Aboriginal art made today is contemporary art and that it should all be given equal weight and value.” )

Rather, there seems to be a lack of clarity on the issue of inclusiveness and broad representation versus selection of the best works, regardless of origin. There was much noise this year about the fact that no works from Balgo were selected, and only a few from Papunya Tula. The reasons for decisions like these are unclear, and Bowdler makes a good point in calling for some clarification of the criteria for selection among the works that are submitted. Is regional representation in the selection (as distinct from Cubillo’s call for more submissions) a factor? Is the purpose of the show to give exposure to emerging or mid-career artists rather than to celebrate the achievements of masters like Eubena Nampitjin and Elizabeth Nyumi, whose submitted works were not selected this year? And if so, where were the mid-career artists from Balgo like Christine Yukenbarri? Indeed, is the issue at hand focused on communities or on individual artists? (Of course these debates are not unique to NATSIAA: the issue is rehearsed every two years in New York City when the Whitney Biennial of American Art opens. This year, the debate even escalated to asking the question of who is an American.)

Another question that looms is whether the market value of artworks beginning to determine both what is submitted and what is selected. Bowdler notes that some advisors are holding out the best works, unwilling to keep them off the market when there is a good chance they will not be selected for inclusion in the show. She notes by example that the works from the Tiwi communities on display inside MAGNT were not as accomplished as those seen in the commercial space on Smith Street. Papunya Tula fielded a commercial venue for the first time this year, and it sounds as if the crowds were as enthusiastic and aggressive in seeking out work there as they usually are the moment the doors are opened to the Award show itself. Bowdler tells us that it was most certainly the market value of the best artworks these days that led to the abolition of the acquisitive nature of the prize this year. While the $40,000 purse for the overall prize is certainly generous by today’s standards, the $4,000 prize for the individual media awards is indeed paltry for any established artist.

While I applaud the recognition that the best works deserve their fair market price, and that the prestige of winning only partially offsets the loss of income, I have to lament the fact that it is the collection of MAGNT and its role as a repository–a keeping place, in indigenous terms–of the best works from each year that suffers from this change in policy. Just as thrilling as seeing the award ceremony itself last year was the opportunity to spend a few hours later in the weekend wandering the exhibits on the floor below the current NATSIAA exhibition among the works that have won in decades past. If the commingling of works from across the country is one of the great benefits of the Award each year, how inspiring might it be to have the chance to chart the changes in style and technique at Yirrkala over the last two decades, or to ponder the role of “urban artists” by viewing a (so far hypothetical) installation of the works of past winners Ian Abdulla, Jody Broun, Christopher Pease, Ian Waldron, and Richard Bell side by side? And forgive me for mounting a tired old hobbyhorse atop a soapbox one more time, but this loss to the collections of MAGNT is all the more frustrating given the shabby state of published documentation on the works selected for the show. Whatever the economics of the marketplace are, the support for the award process itself is demonstrably inadequate. 

Bowdler rightly recognizes that the very success of the Art Award, its increasing visibility and popularity, its timing coincident with the Darwin Festival and right after Garma, have all combined to create fundamental changes in the event itself. It is more organized, more “corporate” in feel (she notes the “inescapable”–I would say “trenchant”–irony of the largely white audience being given “a blanket a year” by Telstra), less spontaneous, less focused on celebrating the artists and communities themselves and more on the buying and selling of artwork. Her essay is a call for those involved to remember the past: “it is important for MAGNT and its major sponsor Telstra to ensure that [NATSIAA’s] uniquely creative and egalitarian roots are honoured rather than diminished.” She likewise calls upon “arts centres and dealers to continue to submit their best work in numbers,” which will ensure its continued vitality and relevance. 

To this I would add, let us remain mindful of the dangers of colonization, of making the awards too much about money. As a collector, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to purchase works from the exhibition in a couple of years gone by. Seeing those exhibitions has also been a profound education in the varieties and possibilities of Aboriginal art. There is, however, the risk that commercialization of the whole event can shift its center of gravity. Even as optimistic and appreciative an observer as Bowdler remains, she can write of recent years, “Everything is focused on the stage where the dignitaries sit and the artists make their speeches. It has been overly managed, hierarchical and corporate in feel. Its really does feel like a ‘white thing.'” It would be a shame if Garma were to become the only ground in August for Aboriginal people to meet with members of communities outside their own (including the white community), while the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award turns into a three day aesthetic version of the pub crawl. As Bowdler says, “It is useful to look back occasionally, to glimpse the things that made an experience unique and valuable.” Reading her essay is an excellent way to be reminded of those things. Check it out for yourself.

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