The 25th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award Ceremonies

The Silver Jubilee of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) was certainly an interesting affair this year as the ceremonies were scaled down and focused a bit more on the artists than on collectors, as art centres withdrew their entries in protest over the appearance of works sponsored by Agathon Gallery, and as judges Hetti Perkins and Judy Watson awarded four of five prizes to artists from remote communities in the Northern Territory, in sharp contrast to last year’s rout by Queenslanders–one of whom, Dennis Nona, returned to win again for a second year in a row. 

But I’m going to leave all that aside–mostly–for now. There’s plenty of thinking that needs to be done on the themes that the Awards raised this year. In the meantime I’m going to give myself an interval for consideration and instead try to complete my reportage before what little I still can recall falls off the memory shelf. I’m almost to the end of this year’s travelogue, and I’m staying on mission until I’ve completed it.

It’s not often that I get to see the Award show: this is only the third show I’ve seen hung, and only the second time that I’ve attended the Award ceremonies. However, last year, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory mounted a web site that provided excellent documentation of the entries that made it into the award show. This year they have outdone even that stellar job with a web-based presentation that’s nearly as good as being there.

From this Silver Jubilee web site, you can view a short film that takes you on a tour of the galleries, for the first time affording a sense of what the hang looked like to those who couldn’t be there. It’s far from perfect: mid-sized works fare the best in the 360-degree panoramas, smaller works can be invisible, larger works are suggested by just a slice of their full extent. Alick Tipoti and Craig Allen Charles’s works on the ramp have gone missing altogether, and you can’t really tell how innovative and gorgeous Marie Josette Orsto’s canvas is, or how truly awful Tommy Watson’s, from this quick video tour. But it is a revolutionary idea, and I hope that next year the production will be longer and more detailed. I’ll never forget this exhibition, thanks to the efforts of the MAGNT webmasters.

The presentation of the individual art works, though, is first rate. It comes in two versions: straight HTML for those with low-bandwidth connections to the internet, and a Flashversion that incorporates audio files for each work. This audio accompaniment reproduces the often extensive wall texts from the exhibition, texts that were in many cases authored by the artists themselves. This critical commentary is a rich enhancement to the documentation, surpassing even previous printed catalogs. 

Also available from the site are PDF’s of the sales information brochure and the “room brochure” that highlights winners as well as listing all the works in the exhibition. Taken together, these inventories constitute a veritable cornucopia of documentation, a production that deserves a “Highly Commended” in its own right.

For more media coverage, check out ABC Radio National’s Awaye! website in the next couple of weeks while Daniel Browning’s interview with curator Franchesca Cubillo and judges Hetti Perkins and Judy Watson is still available for download.

The Award Ceremony itself seemed more low-key, DIY, and relaxed this year than on my previous visit, in 2005. No blankets and bottles being passed out beforehand, no big party afterwards (although Nabarlek showed up to play for the artists’ barbecue). There were performances and speeches of course, and there was an undeniable strain of politics embedded therein. But the frenzy of previous years–well, maybe I just missed it.

The evening opened with a short set by the Kenbi Dancers from Belyuen, across Darwin Harbour from the Museum grounds where the sun set spectacularly over the course of the evening. They presented several short and humorous narrative dances, including a story of a buffalo hunt that would resonate later in the evening when the Wandjuk Marika 3D Award went to Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s retelling of the “Incident at Mutpi” during which she was attacked by a buffalo.

The Kenbi Dancers on a Buffalo Hunt

The second act, Ngarukuruwala, fused vocal performances by the Wangatunga Strong Women’s Group from Bathurst Island with a small band of jazz, blues, and reggae stylists playing a surprising assortment of Western instruments–not just your basic guitars and drums for this mob, but French horns and bass clarinets in the mix. The women, according to their web site, don’t think of themselves as a choir: they comes together to sing, and the accompanists are likewise free-flowing and somewhat improvisational in their approach. (Ngarukuruwala was honored at this year’s NT Indigenous Music Awards, announced on August 29, sharing Traditional Music Award of the Year with Muyngarnbi–Walking with Spirits.)

Ngarukuruwala, featuring the Wangatunga Strong Women’s Group

The sense of Ngarukuruwala as community performance was enhanced by the reactions of members of the audience, including this Tiwi lady, who got up to dance along with the songs, and a pair of young girls (one of them, as it turns out Will and Dhalulu’s lovely daughter Siena from Yirrkala) who improvised their own ceremonial dance steps on the sidelines.

Next came the formal speeches, led off by Allison Mill’s welcome to country and an a capella rendition of “The Arafura Pearl.” And here I must confess that my reporter’s instinct grew weak, and my memory will not redeem me honorably. Marion Scrymgour provided the official opening, addressing the history and importance of the Award. Rupert Myer, Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia, offered a keynote address for the Jubilee occasion, stressing the importance of Indigenous art to Australian culture as well as to Indigenous lives, and the important role that the NATSIAA plays in both spheres. Geoff Booth from Telstra Countrywide affirmed Telstra’s continued support for the Award.

Allison Mills Rupert Myer
Mawalan Marika Marion Scrymgour

But Banduk Marika, an entrant in the original 1984 competition and winner of the Bark Painting award three years ago, owned the speaking platform for the evening. She too spoke of the continuing importance of art and of the Award to Indigenous culture. She stressed the need that Indigenous people have always had to explain their culture, to assert it in the face of indifference. She spoke of art as the key curriculum in the bush university, and about its place in a society where books are not the vessels of cultural transmission. She ended with a rousing call for two-way education, for the recognition of the need for Aboriginal children to be schooled in the stories and secrets of both cultures to which they belong.

Banduk Marika

And finally, of course, there were the awards themselves. Mawalan Marika joined Geoff Booth onstage for the presentation of the evening’s first award, as mentioned above, to Nyapanyapa Yunupingu for “Incident at Mutpi,” a work of startling innovation, combining bark painting with a video in which she tells the story of a nearly fatal encounter in the bush with a wild water buffalo. Once again, the artists of Yirrkala have achieved a breakthrough performance, as Nicolas Rothwell aptly noted:

On a night when the judges opted for classical finesse in most categories, Yunupingu’s work stood out for its charm, verve and immediacy, as well as for its bold fusion of media. It is the first traditional northeast Arnhem Land bark to portray a personal experience, and the first explicit self-portrait in the form, which has been a byword for solemn religious symbolism until now. … Will Stubbs, co-ordinator at the Buku-Larrnggay art centre in Yirrkala where Yunupingu paints, praised her free-flowing style, and highlighted the multimedia Mulka studio’s video collaboration in the piece: “Why is this video so good?” asked Stubbs. “Because there’s a black hand holding the camera, editing, inputting the translation sub-titles” (“Bark and video work spans the ages,” The Australian, August 16, 2008).

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (behind the podium) accepts the Wandjuk Marika 3D Award

Dennis Nona’s win in the Work on Paper category for “Dugum” was surprising only in that I can’t remember an artist being honored two years running. I have to confess that I have never been a fan of Nona’s work, but in walking through the exhibition just prior to the start of the awards ceremony, I was struck by the power of this work, by is economy and clean lines: it was truly, as another viewer noted, “a jaw-dropper.” 

Geoff Booth looks on while the award to Dennis Nona for Work on Paper is accepted by Michael Kershaw of the Australian Art Print Network, Nona’s agent and publisher.

I was was surprised, too, to hear Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s name announced as winner in the General Painting category. Not because her six-by-eight-foot “Untitled” canvas isn’t a jaw-dropper even in this artist’s startling oeuvre, but because I’d not expected to see Papunya Tula given a nod. It’s been years since an artist from PTA was honored: if I’m not mistaken the last time was when Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa won the Major Prize in 2000. Given the regularity with which artists from the other leading community art centres, especially Yirrkala and Maningrida, figure in the top awards, the Kintore and Kiwirrkura mob has been unaccountably absent, and it was good to hear the drought had broken. Good also to hear Nakamarra affirm, “I paint only for Papunya Tula.”

Doreen Reid Nakamarra at the podium for the General Painting award

The most emotional moment of the night for me was the award of the prize for Bark Painting to Terry Ngamandara Wilson for the small “Gulach — Spike Rush.” I later heard that the old man had broken down in tears when informed of his selection, and I think there were more than a few moist eyes on the lawn when the decision was announced. An unassuming work, “Gulach” is refined even by Ngamandara’s polished and elegant standards. Given the monumentality–not to say excess–of many of the works in the Award show this year, it was doubly heartening to see this tiny gem recognized for it power and beauty.

Terry Ngamandara Wilson receives the award for Bark Painting

And finally, of course, the nod to Makinti Napanangka, the second award for the evening for Papunya Tula, and for many in the audience, the final affirmation of the art centre model (yes, my slip is showing), to which Paul Sweeney gave eloquent testimony in accepting the award on the artist’s behalf. The painting itself is another surprise: Makinti has been working through rougher and rougher variations on the hair string motif for several years now, injecting an astonishing sense of physical vigor into the design of her works, then lacing it with the sweetness of pastel highlights. The award-winner, rather than representation a culmination of that trajectory, tosses aside the simple striped patterns she has been working and thrusts large swathes of fervid brushstrokes into an uneasy equilibrium across the picture plane.

Paul Sweeney accepting the Major Prize on behalf of Makinti Napanangka

And then, suddenly, the program was over, winners lined up to have their photos taken and spectators lined up for admission to the Gallery to see the show. We decided to come back the following day and enjoy the work at our leisure, rested, and ready to devote a few hours to it. We decamped for the Botanic Gardens, some excellent curry for a late supper, and a tour of the startling new graphic work from Yirrkala that was on view at the Galuku Gallery of painted trees and spotlit lorrkons–but that, too, is a story for another time.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu Terry Ngamandara Wilson
Paul Sweeney Doreen Reid Nakamarra
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