Revelatory show of strength in tradition

Aboriginal Art Directory | 17.08.10

Author: Nicolas Rothwell
News source: The Australian

The great achievement of this year's 27th annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award exhibition lies in its quality of overview: it is a portrait of the art-making currents of remote central and northern Australia, broad-brush, yet crystalline and clear. Some 96 works, narrowed down from more than 300 entrants, comprise the elements of this portrait.

There are works on paper, fibre sculptures, new-media pieces alongside painted boards and canvases in myriad regional and individual styles. It is diversity run riot, yet it is also the snapshot of an artistic movement in mid-passage, its past course still plain, its new trajectories already faintly discernible in the accents of the most original of works selected.

Curator Kate Podger has opted for a spare hang in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. She highlights circular shapes in one section of her main display space; the tall, solemn bark paintings of west and east Arnhem Land, almost like tomb engravings in their hieratic poise, offer up another structural rhyme. The two judges, academic Sylvia Kleinert and Yolngu artist Djambawa Marawili, selected as the prize-winners works that combined both aesthetic force and traditional authority: a wondrously detailed, finely cross-hatched record of ceremonial events, by Glen Namundja from Injalak Arts at Oenpelli, won the bark painting award, and was probably the most perfectly executed work on view. A swelling, protruberant tree-pole, overpainted by Wukun Wanambi from northeast Arnhem Land with his trademark pattern of pointillist fishes, received the three-dimensional award. The new media prize, offered for the first time this year, also went to a master from the East Arnhem cultural bloc, Nawurapu Wunungmurra: his carved spirit sculptures, shown within a beam of flickering light, as a projector played archival footage of old ceremonies, made a poignant claim that novel art can rise up from traditions purely kept. A past Telstra winner, western Torres Strait printmaker Dennis Nona, showed the stand-out work on paper, while the general painting award and overall prize went to a senior painter from the western desert, Jimmy Donegan of Kalka community.

This was an extremely conservative, classical choice of winners, and the exhibition as a whole was also rigorously focused on prominent artists and prevailing regional schools. Indeed, a third of the pieces shown came from the broad central desert area, and almost as many from the Top End. As a portrait of a national movement, what do the patterns in this exhibition show? A persistence of traditional forms, an increasing professional trend in the art-making, a certain awareness of market tastes: these natural developments are all much in evidence, together with occasional flashes of wild idiosyncrasy. Thus the most intriguing pieces come, as almost always, from unconsidered corners of indigenous Australia: a tiny, lovely painted bark by Mary Punchi Clement from Kalumburu community near the north Kimberley coastline hangs quietly, as if marooned in its own world. A pair of naive landscapes by Alison Inkamala and Amy Napurulla from the Alice Springs town camps art centre seem like distant echoes of their Hermannsburg watercolour school cousins elsewhere in the show. A startling giant resin dugong by Zugub Alick Tipoti from the Torres Strait rhymes with a vast fibrous mermaid sculpture, made by Clara Nganjmirra out of recycled woven basketware.


And in closing,

It is very telling that the most satisfying works on view in Darwin over the past week are those made by artists, whether young or old, who remain closely involved with the preservation of their traditional culture, religion and ceremonial song.

This is the distinctive feature of the indigenous art movement, and it is this strength that offers it a lifeline, despite the troubled future lying ahead for remote Aboriginal communities.


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Contact Details

Gallery: Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award
Address: Conacher Street Bullocky Point Darwin NT

Gallery: Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Contact: Marcus Schutenko
Telephone: +61 8 8999 8264
Address: 19 Conacher Street Fanny Bay 0820 NT



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