The Consolations of Art: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards 24

As Jane Simpson pointed out in the comment to my previous post, the abolition of CDEP now due on September 30 already has art advisers “scrambling to find some way to stay open, going begging to their governments.” Miriam Cosic gave a few details in her article on the NATSIAA and the fallout of the “emergency” for the report of the Senate Inquiry on the indigenous arts sector (“Culture Caught in the Crossfire,” The Australian, August 16, 2007). Buku-Larrnggay Mulka in Yirrkala and Maningrida Arts and Culture are facing the loss of half a dozen positions each. At Maningrida, Apolline Kohen has spoken of the pressure that the loss of CDEP and the constriction of cash through the garnishing of welfare payments will place on the art centres. The Senate Inquiry made it clear that the sale of art is the primary source of money in many remote communities. Pressures on artists to produce more income in the coming months (and years) will lead to more humbugging. If poverty leads to violence, then what can we expect in the future? How will this intervention makes communities safer? 

But in my last post I also promised to offer some uplift, some positive thoughts, and although Cosic’s article spoke of the intervention as a cloud hanging over the celebrations in Darwin last weekend at the 24th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards, there is still cause for rejoicing, however muted the celebration might be.

So first of all, kudos to Franchesca Cubillo and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory for bringing the 104 works of the 24th NATSIAA online for all the world to see. Having often lamented the loss to art history that the lack of good catalogs for the NATSIAA represents, I am delighted at this critical moment in the history of indigenous art to see this glorious display of the state of the art published. MAGNT has also provided online editions of the brochure that celebrates the winners and the sales list for the exhibition. And if I can voice one small complaint here, the sales list still lacks the dimensions of the works. While this omission may not mean much to those fortunate enough to attend the Award ceremonies, it is still a critical oversight in the documentation of the art for future historians (and online viewers!), and should be remedied next time around.

The Award brochure reveals that this year the judges have resumed the practice of presenting a list of works Highly Commended: runners-up of sorts. As these commendations have not been otherwise reported, I’ll repeat them here. In the General Painting category, Agnes Armstrong and Vincent Serico. For Bark Painting, Glen Namundja, James Iyuna, and Banduk Marika. For Works on Paper, Thelma Dixon. For 3D work, Danie Mellor.

Additionally, ABC Radio National’s program Awaye! featured this week a twenty-minute segment on the NATSIAA that included interviews with judges Fiona Foley and Djon Mundine and overall winner Dennis Nona and General Painter prize recipient Angelina George. You can listen to the interview at the Awaye! website, or download it for free from the Australian iTunes store for the next four weeks.

The Awaye! broadcast offers a few interesting insights into this year’s winners, and to the judges’ logic in selecting them as well. Although I’m familiar with Dennis Nona’s lithography, I was unaware of his earlier career as a wood-carver. His winning entry, “Ubirikubiri,” combines elements of the two media, as the body of the crocodile is decorated with vignettes in Nona’s graphic style telling the story of a succession of pets a man offers to his young daughter with finally fatal results. The National Gallery has offered to acquire the $193,000 bronze, and has plans to celebrate Torres Strait culture with the performance of ceremonial dance from the Islands at the upcoming Culture Warriors, the National Indigenous Art Triennial opening on October 12 in celebration of the Gallery’s 25th anniversary.

Angelina George, winner of the General Painting category for the vast canvas “Near Ruined Cities” suffers from failing eyesight, “smoky” vision as she describes it. Painting from memory the country of her grandparents, she works in a realistic style and on a scale that allows her to visually recreate that country with startling shifts in point of view that shimmer between the intimate and the panoramic.

Foley and Mundine say that they were looking for work that would “take the eye” and “capture the heart” this year. They also stated that they were looking for work that was “not prescribed.” This last condition explains a field of winners in which only the bark painting prize reflects what many would call the traditional mode of representation in Aboriginal art. They seem to have taken for granted that there will always be brilliant work from Papunya Tula in the dotted desert traditions, and that even the revolutionary designs that have emerged from Yirrkala and Maningrida in recent years have become canonical.

As Cosic notes in The Australian, the field of winners this year includes three Queenslanders, all tertiary-educated. No doubt the neglect of the acknowledged masters of traditional painting styles has been generating commentary and abuse at venues around Darwin all week. And while I would have liked a decision this year that paid homage to the importance of art centres that are threatened by the intervention, I also know that a year without controversy over the selection of the winners would be a very dull year indeed.

More to the point, though, is the field of entrants. Whether or not one approves of the judges’ selection, you would have to be aesthetically anesthetized not to have your heartbeat elevated by the brilliance of the works assembled for the show this year. Winners or not, the paintings from Papunya Tula are most assuredly prize-worthy. The seemingly antithetical visions of George Tjungurrayi’s subtle minimalism and Patrick Tjungurrayi’s explosive color and bombast (and I mean that in the most complimentary possible way) demonstrate why the continued vitality of Papunya Tula Artists keeps them in the forefront of artistic achievement in Australia.

Similarly, the work from Yirrkala continues to testify to the aesthetic intelligence of the community. Banduk Marika’s entry this year certainly deserved its High Commendation, and might well have been a winner again. The same is true of Gulumbu Yunupingu’s exquisite stars, and Gawirrin Gumana’s elegant, iconic Dhapuyngu design. The urge to repeatedly honor these artists must be difficult for any judge to resist.

The works from the Tiwi islands also testified to continuing exuberance in the far north. Timothy Cook’s ceremonial funeral pole, topped by the upended and painted bark basket that symbolizes that the deceased no longer needs food and water has an elegance to it that could challenge Gulumbu’s seeming monopoly on celestial subtlety. Nina Puruntatameri from Munupi Arts gives an electric, vibrating excitement to the traditional Kulama design. Pedro Wonaemirri and Raelene Kerinauia’s paintings continue to thrill me in their ability to improvise and innovate within what appears to be a narrowly circumscribed visual vocabulary. Seeing these paintings is the visual equivalent of hearing infinite changes rung on half a dozen church bells in a small European town. The effect accumulates over time into a density of delight that is almost overwhelming.

The other standout representation from a community art centre comes from Injalak Arts and Crafts. Had I been asked to award the prize for bark painting this year, I would still be hesitating among the three works out of Gunbalanya. To see a new work on bark by Lofty Bardayal is a rare treat in itself. Glen Namundja (brother to Samuel of Maningrida fame) has produced a portrait of Ngalyod whose influence is sure to be seen in the community in years to come. 

But I think in the end, I might have given the prize to Gershom Garlngarr for “Kuluban – Flying Fox.” There is the utter simplicity of the composition, and the way in which the background ochre allows the feel of the wood to breathe through the paint. The rhythm of the v-shaped designs that call back and forth between the wings of the flying foxes and the flowers that they feast on perfectly captures the necessary interrelatedness of the two species. It’s the kind of painting one could easily walk right by in a quick survey of the room, and yet it commands protracted attention once noticed.

While I’m commenting on community contributions this year, I have to wonder aloud where the works of the ochre artists of the Kimberley are. Jirrawun has gone missing this year, as has Warmun, and Waringarri too, save for Agnes Armstrong’s commended painting. And, with the ascendancy of Queenslanders this year, what of Lockhart River, too? And Aurukun?

Before leaving my consideration of the traditional element in this year’s show, I think that there are a couple of woven pieces that deserve special notice. Dorothy Dullman, representing Mimi Arts and Crafts from Katherine, contributes a splendid butterfly fishing net. My favorite, though, is the coil weave basket by Marley Djangarri from Bula-Bula Arts in Ramingining. I’m particularly taken by the manner in which she manages the transitions in color and design from one section of the basket to the next. The accumulating spiral motion of the basket’s manufacture is skillfully offset by an architectural blockiness (again in the nicest possible sense) that gives weight and bulk to the design, but somehow also gives it spin. There is perfect tension in the basket’s equilibrium, expressed even in the off-centered angle of the handle.

And then there are the “non-prescriptive” works: the “contemporary,” “urban,” “cutting-edge” Aboriginal art. Much of it really is superb this year, and I can understand why the judges chose to highlight new directions in indigenous work this year. Shane Pickett’s multi-panel entry, “Calling for Rain” is a knockout from a painter who has presented one smashing show after another in the past two years. The new works look like a hurricane has stripped the surfaces from a set of paintings by Franz Kline, the electric shock of the storm transmuting paint and canvas into an organic being whose traces Pickett captures for an instant before they dissipate, transform, escape. Each of the individual paintings is beautiful in its own right; the eight in combination constitute nothing less than a masterpiece.

Caroline Oakley’s “Nocturnal Observation” is gentle and seductive; Adam Ridgeways’s ceramic “Journey Series 2” feels hard and bold: both ultimately lead me, via different paths, to pondering the fragility of life. I look forward to the day when at least clips of the video entries to the award can be seen on the web. The entries on DVD from Jenny Fraser and Richard Bell are tantalizing even in the single still that represents them now (and interestingly, they seem to be finding a temporary home in the “3-D” award category).

In the end, I’ve come to believe that questions of winners and awards has become secondary, even in this premier competition. The Art Award works best when it allows a broad range of indigenous expression to come together, to open up awareness of the many ways art is made in the cities and suburbs and hinterlands of Aboriginal Australia. It is this richness and plentitude we are celebrating, as long as it lasts.

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