Call me old-fashioned, but I think that settling in to watch an awards show already knowing who’s won would feel like a bit of an anti-climax. Maybe it’s the thirst for something new every year that prompted the change; maybe it’s another capitulation to the relentless reporting that surrounds us (says a marginal member of the media). But I think that had I been there on the shores of the bay, I would have felt a little cheated.
The other innovation in this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards was the category of New Media, which was first rumbled two years ago when Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s bark-and-video ensemble was entered in and won the 3-D award, perhaps for lack of a better way to classify it. I was eager to see the entries in this new category, and a little disappointed when they turned out to be mostly digital photographs, refugees from the Work on Paper category of years past. I was not at all disappointed to learn that Buku-Larrnggay Mulka captured the prize with Nawurapu Wunungmurra’s sculpture-and-video Mokuy. Neither sculpture nor film is exactly new media, but the two in tandem, with the projected images of ceremony casting truly ghostly flickers over the carved frames of the spirits, testify once again to the uncanny ability of these Yolngu artists to reframe the old ways to startling effect.
Aroha Groves’s Connections2 really is a work of new media. It’s a little hard for me to comprehend the work from the brief Flash video that’s available on the NATSIAA website, but the debt to video games is obvious and intriguing. [Update, Aug 22: Connections2 is a virtual world inside Second Life. More information about Groves’ entry is available from the Australian Centre of Virtual Art; check out the YouTube video, too.]
The other astonishing work in this category that captures old traditions reinterpreted is Bindi Coles’ Laura, from the Sistagirls series that was recently on view in Melbourne’s Nellie Castan Gallery. Like many Indigenous photographers, Cole is concerned with the way in which Aboriginal people are portrayed and the ways in which they present themselves to the non-Indigenous world. Sistagirls is a tour-de-force in this respect. It takes as its starting point the artfully composed studio depictions of Indigenous life that were the stock in trade of nineteenth-century photographers like J. W. Lindt. But the subject matter of these portraits, transgendered Tiwi Islanders traditionally known as yimpininni, opens up a view into the role of sexual minorities in Aboriginal society that I’ve never seen examined before. The photograph itself envisions the collision of traditional Tiwi burial practices and the Roman Catholic cemetery that has partially subsumed the old pukumani ceremonies; the man who presents as “Laura” evokes traditional Tiwi mortuary traditions of disguise; the nineteenth-century photographic convention is transformed into twenty-first century digital media. The work is an amazing portmanteau of old and new. It gives new resonance to Stanner’s description of the Dreaming as “everywhen.”
If Buku-Larrnggay Mulka didn’t win the Bark Painting Award this year, it dominated the category otherwise, with eight of ten entries. I’ve already raved about Djirrirra Wunungmurra’s Yukuwa paintings elsewhere, and if Brice Marden were to see these masterpieces, he night abandon abstraction for realism. Guny’bi Ganambarr’s incised barks remain astonishing creations; you need to watch the film of the installation in the Virtual Gallery to appreciate how good it really looks (unless of course you can be in Darwin and see it in person).
The Virtual Gallery film is the only way to really begin to appreciate the sculptural works as well, if you’re not in Darwin. In recent years I’ve been grateful to makers of these short films for giving me a sense of what the hang looks like. This year, not only does the video demonstrate the superb job the installers have done, it also greatly enhances my appreciation for the quality of the 3-D work. Mavis Warringlina Ganambarr’s woven pandanus Mana (Shark) looks glorious floating in a perspex cube and the awesome impact of Clara Nganjmirra’s 3.7 meter long Yawk Yawk can’t be captured in a still photograph. Ellarose Savage’s Highly Commended ceramic Zab and Koki is another spectacular foray into new forms for the Award. There are a lot of strong entries in this category; but the sheer beauty of Wukun Wanambi’s winning Bamurrungu makes it stand out, as does his extra attention to form in the choice of his hollow log and his understanding, perhaps derived from Guny’bi, of how to enhance the natural form through carving.
Stripped of photography, the Work of Paper category felt the weakest to me this year. I had a sense of dejà vu on learning that Dennis Nona was among the winners again this year, but honestly, I don’t think anything else in this category stands up to the beauty and presence of Saulal.
And finally, the mainstay of the General Painting category. The winner, Jimmy Donegan’s Papa Tjukurpa, Pukara strikes me as a breakthrough for the artist, a mature, nuanced, and dynamic work, vibrant, full of incident, and superbly executed. But there are several other works by established artists that completely knocked me for a loop in this year’s selection.
The first of these is Timothy Cook’s monumental Kulama. I’d read with appreciation Nicolas Rothwell’s recent assessment of Cook’s magisterial new work (“Airy Geometry of Heaven and Earth,” The Australian, July 1, 2010), but was still unprepared for the grandeur of this painting. Mabel Juli has been working variations on the moon and star story of Garnginy Narranggarni for at least a decade now, but I’ve rarely seen an example of the story painted with such delicacy and balance as the one that graces this year’s show.
Likewise, though I’ve long enjoyed following Judy Mengil’s career, this Waringarri artist has outdone herself by leagues with Binjin to Kumburumba. The pendant weightlessness of the central figure of white and red dotting; the vast blackness of the field that covers four-fifths of the canvas poised against the dollop of even blacker black above; the rhythmic repetitions of yellow ochre lines swinging the breadth of the canvas, top and bottom; and finally, the punctuating equilibrium of the two small yellow circles set against an earth-brown field all together leave me shaking my head in wonder.
I have other favorites: Yukultji Napangati and George Tjungurrayi continue to demonstrate the qualities that set Papunya Tula Artists apart from the mob, and Johnny Yungut continues to paint with an astonishing vitality. From Utopia Angelina Pwerle is in fine form, beautiful in monochrome. I often can’t resist comparing Aboriginal work to American, and this time around Cory Surprise invokes the spirit of Helen Frankenthaler while Lydia Balbal channels for me (not inappropriately) Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. Nancy McDinny surprised me this year, and brought back memories of Butcher Cherel with Honeybee Warjili at Sunset. No surprise, though, that Ian Abdulla charms me every time, and This Whiteman Came Into the Church is no exception to the rule.
I’m going to have a very hard time casting my vote in the People’s Choice Award this year.
However, if I can cast a vote for “Highly Commended,” it would most certainly go to the designers of this year’s web site for the Awards. The presentation has gotten better every year since they went online, compensating for the lack of published catalogs. (I sincerely hope the NLA is archiving these outstanding productions). This year, the Flash version of the site is incredibly rich. From the opening screen with its clever logo representing the five categories, it’s a delight. (I’m a little mystified by the arrangement of entries within any single category, neither alphabetical, by community, or in any other discernible order, but the search feature more than compensates, allowing me to find any entry with ease.)
Within each category, you can click on the thumbnail to see a larger image of the artwork. Click on the triangle below the image to hear the story about the painting. The magnifying glass (or a click on the image itself) takes you to a full screen devoted to the work, with a larger image and the text of the commentary printed out. A slider bar to the right allows you to zoom in close enough to examine individual brushstrokes. Barring actually being in Darwin, I can’t imagine a way to experience the exhibition more fully. Kudos to all involved.
Also, if you haven’t been following Bob Gosford’s Darwin diaries this week at The Northern Myth, you’re missing some of the best reporting on the NATSIAA and the Darwin Festival going, including notices of Therese Ritchie and Chips Mackinolty’s show, Not Dead Yet, at Charles Darwin University Art Gallery and the extraordinary Goose Lagoon. Gosford’s latest story offers a look at the opening of Djalkiri: we are standing on their names, Blue Mud Bay, presented by Nomad Art at 24 Hour Art. Printmaking from Yirrkala is a perennial highlight of the Awards season. This year, the Djalkiri project, updating the work that began with the epochal Saltwater exhibition more than ten years ago, brings together Madarrpa artists with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists for a fresh new look at the country that forms the focus of an important sea rights claim.
Photographs of Nawurapu Wunungmurra (top) and Wukun Wanambi (bottom) courtesy of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory © 2010.