I might as well say it straight out, up front, and get it off my chest: I was sorely disappointed by the showing at the 28th National and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards this year.
Not that it wasn’t a beautiful show with very fine works on every wall. Not that I disagreed with the judges’ selections for the award winners (too much). Not that it wasn’t beautifully hung.
I’ve seen the NATSIAA in person four times since 2001. I own every published catalog and have thumbed them through to the point where I think I’ve memorized half their contents. I have the websites for recent shows bookmarked. I bought the retrospective, 25th anniversary catalog.
But this year there was no magic.
For me, the Award, above all, is a chance to see, in one place, the broad spectrum of what is happening in Indigenous art across the entire continent, from the tiniest community to the largest metropolitan centers. It is a chance to discover artists whose name or reputation has escaped me in the past, whose works I may have seen reproduced but never encountered in person. It is a chance to be shocked and dismayed and then to overcome those emotions through study and reflection. It is a site, physical, virtual, printed, and remembered (and occasionally brought home with me) to rethink what Aboriginal art can be and may be in the future.
The NATSIAA is where I first saw work by Abraham Mongkoreeree, Adam Hill, Banduk Marika, Craig Koomeeta, Daisy Andrews, Darren Siwes, Emily Evans, Gali Yalkarriwuy, Gershom Garingarr, Ian Abdulla, Joshua Bonson, Karen Mills, Nici Cumpston, Pauline Moran, and Tony Albert. It’s where I learned to appreciate fiber work and photography.
In short, the NATSIAA has always been comprehensive and surprising, an opportunity to discover emerging artists as well as a place to see the best work from the established masters. It’s always been an education.
This year I remember only two works that had that effect on me of suddenly opening up a new vista, of making me think that here was something new and interesting and exciting that I’d not seen before.
The first was the exquisite and highly commended 3D Healthy food from the past by Lucy Malirrimurruwuy Wanapuyngu from Gapuwiyak. People in Gapuwiyak don’t paint their sacred designs for the market and so have rarely been represented in exhibitions the way that their relatives in Yirrkala are. So it was a delight to see Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts appear in the exhibition, only a year after their commercial debut. (Gapuwiyak was represented last year with a delightful assemblage of bulpu (bags) by Dolly Dhimburra Bidingal, a fact I overlooked when perusing the web site.) If I had been giving out prizes, Wanapuyngu would have taken one home.
The second was the short film entered in the New Media category, The Lennard Identity by David Lans from Balgo. Part homage to the Jason Bourne movies, part sociological study, part hip-hop YouTube video, Lans’s work was swift and slick and would have easily taken the New Media award if it had been up to me. While I’m on the subject, I have to say also that the presentation of this work in the Gallery was nothing short of shocking. Take a look at the still from the film that’s on the web site: it’s full of rich color and not a strangely conceived exercise in noir at all!
I think that the chief reason for my disappointment stems from the greatly reduced selection of work on display this year. Sixty-one works in total is simply not enough to capture the breadth of enterprise abroad in any given year. No one I spoke to could account for this reduction in scope. Many people, however, wanted to see the salon des refusés.
I was struck by the smallness of the exhibition when standing in the largest of the rooms, the one featuring many of the paintings from Tjala Arts and the carvings by Jeremiah Bonson. I realized that by turning in a circle I could glimpse over half of the works in the exhibition without moving from where I stood. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; it’s just not want I want from the Art Award.
And the reduced scope is not simply a numerical matter. The selection of work is heavily weighted toward artists from the Northern Territory and the APY or Ngaanyatjarra lands. The capital cities are represented only by Brisbane’s Archie Moore and Perth’s Chris Pease, and Pauline Moran completes the roster of “urbans.” Four works come from TSI artists, and then there’s Vicki West, whose bull kelp sculpture of a Tasmanian devil was high on my list of personal favorites as well. Patrick Mung Mung and Mercy Paymurra Fredericks constitute the Kimberley complement, along with Nora Wompi and Eubena Nampitjin–who fit more comfortably with the desert artists who dominate the show anyway.
Now, indeed, desert painting and particularly the work coming out of the APY lands seem to be more than just simply the flavor of the month. Some of the strongest work I saw almost everywhere from Melbourne to Darwin on this trip is being produced by Tjala Arts. The works from Papunya Tula Artists were all of the highest caliber, even by their own soaring standards. (Although there was at least one work by Kawayi Nampitjinpa at her solo at CCAE that outshone the painting in the NATSIAA.) But is there nothing of national rank being produced elsewhere? Were there no submissions from proppaNOW, Mornington Island, Aurukun, or even Martumili? Have all the Indigenous artists given away their cameras and broken their printing plates? Où sont les refusés d’aujourd’hui?
But lest I seem choleric and ungrateful, there are many terrific works among those chosen. Of all the prizes given, I thought that the award to Bobby West Tjupurrula in the General Painting category was especially insightful: this was a painting that at first struck me as good, but on second and third viewing became more and more interesting until I agreed that it was a masterpiece of invention and subtlety, beautifully colored and full of unexpected incident. I doubt that there was a question in anyone’s mind that Raelene Kerinauia deserved to win the Bark Painting award, and not only for adventuring into a medium that she and her fellow Tiwi engage with too rarely these days.
I’ve already praised Tjala Arts, but my favorite among their submissions in this show was Alison Riley’s Seven Sisters, full of sliding planes of color. Riley is an artist whose work has escaped my notice until now; she was one of the discoveries (for me) that I depend upon the NATSIAA to bring to me. The influence of the APY colorists and their trick of building tectonic plates of pigment might be detected in Gladdy Kemarre’s Anwekety. Even if that influence resides only in my eye, I thought this the strongest work from a Utopia artist that I have seen in years, nearly equal to the great canvases of her sister, Angelina Pwerle.
Among works from the Top End, Djirrirra Wunungmurra’s small, incised bark, Buyku, shows that this amazing young artist has untapped creativity to spare, even when she adapts innovations from her fellows at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka. (The work also benefited, as did Wukun Wanambi’s exquisite embossed paper piece, Bamurrungu, from being hung outside the bark ghetto at the back of the gallery.) And if she paid homage to Guny’bi Ganambarr through her incisions, then I wonder if he repaid the favor with the exacting hand of his diamond patterning in Munbi.
It was wonderful to see Gali Yalkarriwuy’s Banumbirr singled out for an award this year. No one would dispute that he is the master of the genre. However, I found a bittersweet appeal in the Tree of Knowledge, a morning star pole submitted by Richard Djarrimili, who has learned his craft from the other great master, Henry Nupurra.
As we left Darwin a few days after the Awards were announced and after return visits to the galleries to view the show, I found myself wondering what visitors will see next year. Certainly speculations about the future were on many lips that weekend. Word came back from Perth that the WA Indigenous art prize will be moving to a biennial schedule. But even if it doesn’t, I hope that the two events won’t be scheduled on the same weekend, that the award ceremony will return to its Friday night slot, and the crowds will return to their former size. MAGNT Director Pierre Arpin, who certainly threw himself into the spirit of things with great enthusiasm in this, his initial venture, has promised greatness for the future, and I hope he delivers. I hope too, that the feeling I heard so much of three years ago, of the award ceremony being an event that brings the Indigenous community together, that brings artists and their families to Darwin to celebrate their achievements and advances, will return: there seemed to be a conspicuous lack of black faces in the crowd on Thursday night.
The “Telstra” is and should be both the premier and the national Indigenous art award in Australia. As such, it should be inclusive and grand in its scale. It must recognize and celebrate its history and fulfill its obligation to the future. And perhaps someone in the Commonwealth government needs to wake up to this simple fact and work with Telstra in days to come. Is that asking too much?