One of the 'Tjungungutcha' exhibition boards - Johnny Warangkula's 'Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa' (1971/2)
Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 10.03.16
Gallery: Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Dates: 05.08.16 : 06.11.16
It's that time again – time for Indigenous artists to enter the biggest prize of them all. Here's the official announcement:
"Australia’s longest running and most prestigious Indigenous art award – the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award or NATSIAA – is open for entries.
As usual, the first prize $50,000 Telstra Award is non-acquisitive and awarded to the most outstanding work in the exhibition. The five other categories (worth $5000 each) are the Telstra General Paining Award, the Telstra Bark Painting Award, the Telstra Works on Paper Award, the Telstra Youth Award and the Wandjuk Marika Memorial Three-Dimensional Award.
Entries close on Friday 1 April with finalists announced on Friday 29 April. Winners will be revealed at the exhibition’s opening night on Friday 5 August.
It's a particularly big year for the NATSIAAs in 2016. In the absence of the WA Indigenous Art Awards, they're the only kid on the block this year. And sponsors Telstra are determined to make that well known because they've reached the remarkable milestone of 25 continuous years sponsorship of the event. As Telstra CEO Andrew Penn said during the 2015 Awards, “The NATSIAAs are at the heart of Telstra as an organisation through our connectivity. For Indigenous art is all about connections with heritage and story and a narrative for the future".
In celebration right now, Telstra has tested its shareholders' generosity by publishing a splendid tome that's basically images of the incomparable contribution made by Indigenous artists - ie a selection of their entries since 1992, when The Telstra Collection quietly came into being at MAGNT.
For the first prize was acquisitive from 1984 until 2005 – so the winner automatically came into the MAGNT collection. But Telstra felt that this generally under-funded museum needed to be able to add other works that that year's judges hadn't favoured. “They wanted to get our relationship established”, explained the legendary Margie West, who all-but invented what was originally called the National Aboriginal Art Award, and ran it until 11 years ago. “And unlike miners who come and go as sponsors, Telstra then stuck around”.
The result is 123 artworks – 14 acquisitive winners of 'The Big Telstra', but, surprisingly, only three since 2005; and 106 other artworks which, arguably, are an even better representation of important developments in Aboriginal and TSI art over that last 25 years than the choices of the oddly random selection of judges from down south. For the selection has been made by specialist curators like Margie West – though things have been a bit wobbly in recent years as NT government funding got cut back and then the Museum emerged as an independent body under the chairmanship of Allan Myers QC.
So, it's noteworthy that a Nyapanyapa Yunupingu etching was chosen in 2009 when Danie Mellor's magnificent Masonic piece won but didn't make the Collection; that an Allery Sandy canvas was preferred in 2012 to Timothy Cook's 'Kulama' winner; and an Alison Riley work from Amata was bought for the Collection in 2011 while Dickie Minyintiri's fellow-APY work was not. Oh, and a Barbara Moore that hadn't won a prize was bought while her 2014 Best Painting winner wasn't. Price??? I could understand that in the case of Dennis Nona's bronze croc at $100,000 in 2007. But there's a hard-to-understand history with the NATSIAAs where Emily Kngwarreye entered twice and Rover Thomas four times without ever finding the judges' favour or selection for the Collection!
Fortunately, entrants – and potential presences in the Telstra Collection – will this year find a new Curator of Aboriginal Art & Material Culture with some valid experience in the person of Luke Scholes, former Papunya Tula Assistant Manager, Papunya Boards curator at Araluen Gallery and associate on the big NGV Papunya boards show, 'Tjukurrtjanu'.
That Papunya background will stand him in particularly good stead as he builds to the vital task of presenting MAGNT's remarkable early board collection as a show in Darwin in (maybe) May 2017, followed by some touring. It'll be called 'Tjungungutcha – Having come together' – for the painting followed pan-tribal Tingarri ceremonies at Papunya, a rare coming-together of the men corralled there for assimilation. The collection is the legacy of the dynamic Colin Jack-Hinton's unique insight as MAGNT's first Director that the 1970s painting movement in Papunya was of national significance. He accumulated 226 boards when no other institution would touch them. And about 160 were cleared by cultural custodians in the Centre in 2012 to be publicly viewed and explained. This number is now down to 130 for a variety of aesthetic, dating and tribal reasons.
“The team I've been working with”, Scholes told me, “consisting of Long Jack Phillipus (now 83 and one of the original artists), Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Bobby West, Sid Anderson and Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, really want people to know the boards' subject-matter. There's a lot of emotion attached to it in their minds. Even Geoffrey Bardon's transcriptions of the original artist's explanation are part of the history they believe, and they're reluctant to alter that voice. So we're aiming for a median point between 'Tjukurrtjanu' – which just showed the art – and the American show, 'Icons of the Desert', which went way over the top”.
As Long Jack Phillipus explained to Luke for the 'Tjukurrtjanu' catalogue: “That old man Walter (Tajampitjinpa) told me, 'You've gotta paint him, 'cos you know that story, Kalipinypa' So I did. It was time to tell those white people, your people, that they gotta listen to Aboriginal people, to those old men. All finished now, those old people; but not that story”.
Scholes has also been working on the other big development at MAGNT – the design and potential usage of its new building in the centre of Darwin – The Chan. Its name change to the Darwin Art Museum helps to make their intentions clear – its priority will be art, while the current building out at Bullocky Point will presumably become more the museum of MAGNT's name. But where will the NATSIAAs have their home? For the ceremony involved in handing out the awards each year at the current site is a Darwin icon – sunset over the sea, the presence of great artists and (in the good ol' days) traditional ceremony to hail their achievements, the crowd laid out on traditional Telstra rugs. Should this all be lost in favour of the convenience of a more central, urban location?
Luke Scholes says that work on the project – which was designed, trebling the building's current footprint, last October and its construction put out to tender in February - is “progressing at a rate of knots, 24/7”. But vital questions like mine are “still in the air”.
As a result of all this, Scholes is not involved in the pre-selection process for the 2016 NATSIAAs – he's leaving that to the unnamed judges. Unnamed? Yes – apparently there's a fear that if their identities are known, artists and their agents will try enter works known to appeal to them. We'll only know their names after the closing deadline on April 1st. But old hand Margie West hopes that Luke will at least get involved in “geeing up” some of the big name artists who seem to have been missing in action in recent years.
Architect's impression of the new Darwin Art Museum - the re-sized Chan Building in the centre of the city
The late Jukuja Dolly Snell, winner of the 2015 'Big Telstra' prize in the NATSIAAs - her work also bought for the Telstra Collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art