The judges have been announced (artists Danie Mellor and Nici Cumpston, along with NGV Senior Curator of Indigenous Art Judith Ryan); 327 works have been submitted for judging; and it appears that news of the shortlist of finalists for the 28th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards is beginning to spread. What better time to look back over the history of the most prestigious and long-lived of Indigenous art awards?
A good place to start might be Cath Bowdler’s personal memoir of attending fifteen years of the award ceremonies, “The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin: yesterday, today and tomorrow,” which was published in Art Monthly Australia (194, October 2006). She remembera the dancing that celebrated Rover Thomas’s life and the Tiwi performances of the Aeroplane Dance: the days when the ceremonies were as much a party for the artists as anything else. She notes the growth in the visibility of the Awards over the years, especially once Telstra began sponsoring the event in 1992 and the growth in the art market around the turn of the century began attracting larger and larger crowds of dealers and collectors (a trend that no doubt contributed to Richard Bell’s 2003 assessment that “Aboriginal art: it’s a white thing”).
The commercial importance of the Awards, never negligible, was underscored in 2000 when Telstra increased the major prize award from $20,000 to $40,000 and again in 2005 when the Award became non-acquisitive. I was one of many who bemoaned the latter change as a blow to the collections of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and its archive of prize winners. But in the boom years of the early 21st century, a grand prize winner could potentially command far more that $40,000. Indeed, two years later, in 2007, the prize was won by Dennis Nona with his mammoth bronze sculpture, Ubirikubiri, which cost $100,000 to manufacture!
I learned that last fact from the beautiful new visual history, Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award 1984-2008: celebrating 25 years (CDU Press, 2011). Sarah Scott from the ANU provides a brief introductory essay that summarizes the “diversity, innovation and expansion” that has characterized the Art Award since its inception. The volume then provides a variety of chronicles, visual and textual, to chart the story of the Award.
The first section details “Prize Winners 1984-2008.” There is a list of major prize winners, followed by a separate list of the media category winners. I found this a rather disappointing editorial decision that occasioned a good deal of back-and-forthing if I wanted to see who all the winners were in, say, 1990.
It also makes it a bit more difficult to follow the mutations and sponsorships of the awards, which is a fascinating bit of cultural history in itself. Unless you’ve been around for a long time, you tend to think of the award as the “Telstra.” I keeping forgetting that the major prize was sponsored for several years by the Holmes à Court Foundation or that the Rothmans Foundation was also a key early supporter.
After its first year, the Rothmans Foundation Award was given consistently for bark painting, and the Museums & Art Galleries Award for general painting. Instituted in 1987 at the 4th annual award ceremony, the Memorial Award for Mawalan’s Eldest Son was originally given for a work on paper or in three dimensions, and it wasn’t until 1994 that the name was changed to the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award and until 1995 that a separate award for work on paper was established. That same year, for the first time, Telstra took on sponsorship of all four awards.
Following these lists of winners comes the set of plates reproducing the 25 first-prize winning artworks. This is a wonderful moment in the book. Despite a minor obsession with the Art Award that I’ve developed since the first time I saw one of the exhibitions, I’d not seen reproductions of many of these works, especially from the early years before the intermittent production of catalogs began. There was an extraordinary trio of First Prize winners in the award’s second year. Djawida Nadjongorle Nawura’s Dreamtime Ancestor is a high-water mark in bark painting from Oenpelli, Uta Uta Tjangala’s massive Tjanangkamurramurra an almost psychedelic desert masterpiece, and Kaye Haywood’s Untitled silk batik a refined, elegant example of the craft. Seeing this trifecta made me long to have all the winning works reproduced in this book, but I can imagine the constraints both financial and logistical that must have made such a dream impractical.
As I perused the pages of first-prize winners I was reminded how often in recent years the choice has been controversial: Richard Bell and controversy need no introduction; the Tjanpi Weavers’ Tjanpi Grass Toyota in 2005 was disparaged as “not art”; Ngoia Napaltjarri Pollard’s Swamps West of Nyirripi decried as pedestrian a year later. But the thought occurred to me for the first time that the list of winners shares something with the roster of Nobel Prizes in Literature: Joyce, Proust, Faulkner are all missing from it, and given the presence of Winston Churchill, John Galsworthy and Roger Martin du Gard, one has to wonder why. So how is it that Rover Thomas and Gawirrin Gumana and Emily Kngwarreye’s names appear not at all in these lists? Kitty Kantilla, John Mawurndjul, Bardayal Nadjamerrek have won category awards, but never garnered the top prize. There’s endless fascination in pondering the catalogue of winners, and the more I do so, the more I wish I could see reproductions of all the winning works. And I find myself wondering who the judges were who had the perspicacity to identify the late Shane Pickett as an outstanding painter in the 3rd Award round in 1986? The inclusion of a list of judges would add to the fascinations of this volume.
Following the section on prize winners, the catalogue offers a great surprise: reproductions of the posters that advertised the award exhibitions, beginning with the first in 1984, followed by the posters for the touring exhibitions that took place in the mid-1990s and for the twentieth anniversary in 2004. Beginning in 1995, the exhibition posters reproduce the first prize winner from the previous year, but the first decade’s worth of posters are graphic delights in themselves, some of which appear to be original commissions for the posters by artists including Sally Morgan, Fiona Foley and even Darwin’s own Chips Mackinolty.
The final (and longest) section of the catalogue comprises short biographies of thirty selected artists, along with reproductions of a pair of works by each. Many of the contributors have ties to MAGNT, among them former curators Margie West and Franchesca Cubillo, but a wide array of supplementary heavy hitters are among the authors, including Brenda Croft, Danie Mellor, Djon Mundine, Howard Morphy, Luke Taylor, and Stephen Gilchrist.
At first I was a bit puzzled by the selection of artists included in this section. They are not all first prize winners, and indeed some, like Thomas and Kngwarreye, are not prize winners at all. Most are artists with major reputations, although some, like Pantjiti Mary McLean, have faded since the glory days of winning awards, and others like Ernabella’s Nyukana Daisy Baker are artists I was unfamiliar with until reading their stories in these pages. I kept searching for a pattern to the selection until I realized that its very diversity is the unifying principle. Like the award exhibitions themselves, these selections showcase the very best in the wide and varied range of Indigenous art production from Ken Thaiday to Julie Dowling, from Banduk Marika to Willie Gudabi, from Bardayal to Bell.
I have spent twenty years studying Aboriginal art and the Art Award has been a major influence on my understanding. Although I’ve eagerly collected all the published catalogues and bookmarked all the online exhibitions, I’ve only had the good fortune to see the exhibition in person three times, the first just a decade ago in 2001. That show revolutionized my thinking and my appreciation: it was the first time I can remember seeing work by Abraham Mongkorrerre, Fiona Foley, Adam Hill, Djardie Ashley, Samantha Hobson, and Darren Siwes, the first time I saw art from Aurukun and ceramics from the Tiwi Islands and Tasmanian shell necklaces.
The NATSIAA has become something of a tall poppy in recent years: it’s accused of being bloated and irrelevant, of bad judging and bad judgement. But for me it remains a locus of excitement and discovery and although I’m guilty of complaints myself, I cherish the Awards and what I learn from them each year. And now I am deeply grateful to the folks at MAGNT and at CDU Press for gracing me with this superb reference book. If you care about the history of Australia’s Indigenous art, you should find a place for it on your bookshelves.