Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair

In a few weeks, starting on August 8, 2007, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair will open at the Holiday Inn Esplanade. The Fair will provide an opportunity for regional indigenous art centres to have a presence during the run-up to the weekend of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. While galleries national and local have celebrated the weekend with special shows in rented locations around town for years now, the art centres have had less of a direct, unmediated presence there. 

Buku-Larrnggay Mulka from Yirrkala has lately led the way, with their spectacular print exhibitions featuring works hanging from white-painted trees in the Botanic Garden. At night, the spotlights illuminating the works have given a spectral presence to the art in the park. In recent years, Maningrida Art and Culture’s Darwin shop has extended the Top End art centre presence and done a riotous business on Telstra weekend. Last year the Tiwi Art Network held an exhibition in town, and they will be repeating the event this year, opening at Shop 1/31 on the Smith Street Mall on Friday August 10 and running for five days. Likewise, the “desert mob” gained representation when Papunya Tula Artistshad its own exhibition for the first time in 2006, with long lines attending the 2:30 kickoff on Saturday and instant sellouts on the floor after the doors opened.

Prints from Yirrkala grace the Darwin Botanic Gardens by day…
… and by night.

The NATSIAA has received more than a fair share of criticism in recent years; I’ve contributed some of my own. Even the kindest assessments, like Cath Bowdler’s piece in Art Monthly Australia last October, are wistful in tone. There is no doubt that the NATSIAA has become focused on the show-stopping high end of the market. The change last year away from the Award being acquisitive in order to allow the winners to reap a fair market value for their work is the surest in indication of that. Like much else in Darwin these days, the sleepy small-town atmosphere of the Award show is a distant memory. Now the organizers of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair are hoping that the presence of the art centres in town before the event will foster a return to a more democratic and inclusive festival feeling, provide a boost to the centres themselves, and generate sales to new buyers or those priced out of the market on the Award weekend.

This year’s event is the brainchild of Apolline Kohen of Maningrida Arts and Culture. And there’s a special resonance to the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair occurring now, on the 25 years after an exhibition that was called Aboriginal Art at the Top. That show, in 1982, drew together the art centres from Yirrkala, Galiwin’ku, and Maningrida in the Top End, along with Tiwi Designs from Nguiu at Bathurst Island, Umbakumba on Groote Eylandt, and Mimi Arts in Katherine, under the sponsorship of the Museums and Arts Galleries of the Northern Territory. Two years later, MAGNT established the National Aboriginal Art Award. In 1992 Telstra began its sponsorship.

Since the announcement of this year’s Fair, I’ve been looking over the catalog from Aboriginal Art at the Top, which in itself was a landmark event. Short essays provide a who’s who of indigenous art scholarship and management in those early days: Howard Morphy, Steve Fox from Yirrkala and Peter Cooke from Maninigrida, Jon Altman, Luke Taylor and Chips Mackinolty all contributed to the documentation. The works reproduced draw heavily (but not exclusively) from Maningrida and Yirrkala and include giants from the past: Anchor Kulumba’s intricate fishtraps, George Milpurrurru’s canoeists hunting goose eggs, pukumani figures by Declan Aptuatimi, and ancestral spirits by Peter Marralwanga. Younger artists making a dramatic showing in 1982 included John Mawurndjul, whose Ngalyod figures were already beginning to stretch the limits of the bark frame. The work of Banapana Maymuru, who died the year of the exhibition, reminds us was a great loss Manggalili art suffered in those early days.

Some of the most incredible work included in Aboriginal Art at the Top came from the fertile imagination of Brian Njinawanga. The rich brown and black tones of his bark paintings offer a sensuous that sometimes outstrips the finest rarrk; the drawing of the feathers on one such bark, Emu and Fish Poison, is among the most exquisite draftsmanship I’ve ever seen. Whenever I see one of these paintings in person the urge to violate the dictum noli me tangere and to indulge in stroking the surface is hard to defeat. Most astounding are the sculptures of bone bundles wrapped in paperbark: skulls, articulated leg bones, broken spearthrowers and fishing spears that tell the stories of justice meted out to men who have offended sacred sanctions. 

Seen from the perspective of a quarter-century, Aboriginal Art at the Top offers most of all a sense of the sustained creativity and continuity in contemporary indigenous artistic traditions. None of these works would seem out of place at the upcoming Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, and one hopes that a goodly number of artists whose works graced this seminal Top End exhibition will return in 2007, to be joined by their fellows from the Kimberley and the Central Desert. Would it be too much to hope that the presence of the art centres themselves in Darwin would give a boost to the recommendations of the Senate Inquiry that seem to have been lost in the furor of the “emergency”?

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