Jody Broun 'White fellas come to talk bout land', 1998, Winner of the Telstra First Prize, 15th NATSIA Award, Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory, Telstra Collection. Reproduction licensed by Mossenson Galleries, 2009.

Jeremy Eccles | 27.06.11

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: book

Is a silver anniversary any more important than a 20th or a 17th? I ask because the Museum & Art Gallery of the NT (MAGNT), the Darwin home of the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award has belatedly – it's 25th was in 2008 – produced a celebratory book that only just adds to the sum of its two previous publications when the Award was 17 and 20.

Indeed, the depth of the essays in the 17th year book by the likes of Jon Altman, Howard Morphy, Margie West, Djon Mundine and Avril Quaill is so much greater, one wonders whether they'd forgotten its existence in Darwin when planning this volume, mainly of artist profiles. Only the reproduction of the artists' works (by CDU Press) is a significant improvement.

Perhaps it was the history of the movement since 1984 rather than the art that they saw as the key to this collection? Indeed, the book begins with plain lists of winners – though the changing categories of awards could have done with some explanation. 1985, for instance, saw the introduction of the 'Painting in Introduced Media' Award (retitled General Painting Award in the book, and won by the peerless Uta Uta Tjangala) which reveals just how resistant even the most Aboriginal art-friendly institution in Australia was to acrylic work by indigenous artists. Sadly, as well, there's no list of judges – though a picture of Wandjuk Marika judging the first prize in 1984 does serve to remind us that it was not until 2010 that another 'traditional' artist was chosen as a judge. A list of judges might have given us some hints about the reasons for their annual picks – which aren't really examined at all in the artist profiles.

Why, for instance, did masters like Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas never find favour with their entries? Why did that great artistic adventurer of the Noughties, John Mawurndjul never progress beyond bark painting prizes? Why isn't Jody Broun, the Big Telstra winner in 1998 not biographised beside her fellow Blak artist, Richard Bell or a non-winner like Lin Onus? And why do we learn about comparatively 'unsuccessful' artists – if you accept that prizes mean anything in an artform – like Dorothy Djukulul and Nyukana (Daisy) Baker and not about early winners like Pansy Napangardi and Frank Jakamarra Nelson; or even the Tjanpi weavers whose Toyota won in 2005?

Guesses about the choices of Djukulul and Baker lie in their lives rather than their art. Baker's bio, for instance allows the significant story of Ernabella to appear; and Djukulul may just be there in loco maritus for her second husband, Djardi Ashley, who won first prize in 1987!

There are no clues in Dr Sarah Scott's introductory essay. Scott bases her piece on “the dramatic shift in the status of Aboriginal art (which) the Award has promoted”. But there's little context to the claim – no mention of events before 1984 such as Gallery A's first commercial showing of Aboriginal art or the 1979 Sydney Biennale's pioneer exhibition; or events afterwards like the 1988 Dreamings show across America. There's also the extraordinary suggestion that a “pan-Aboriginal dialogue” might have emerged between remote and urban artists via the NATSIAAs. But rather than analyse how that artistic pygmy Richard Bell might have had anything to say to the “Oogaboogas” (his word) who bracketed his 2003 win, in the majestic persons of Gulumbu Yunupingu and Gawirrin Gumana, she clearly prioritises the Blak winners and throws in the googly that Bell's win was a “coming of age” for the Award.

Fortunately, there are more distinguished contributions in the biographies – notably Margie West on Ginger Riley and Kitty Kantilla, David Malangi on himself and Brenda Croft on Pantjiti Mary Mclean. This last offers critical links to related artists and to the white facilitators in Mclean's artistic life – particularly the fascinating Nalda Searles, whose own Desert-influenced work I've only just encountered at an important touring exhibition in the Mosman Art Gallery. It also introduced me to existence of Milpatjunanyi, the uniquely women's way of story-telling by drawing out characters in the sand.

Then Franchesca Cubillo, former NATSIAA curator (and Croft's successor at the National Gallery) offers a fascinating overview of Wenten Rubuntja's political life. But she makes no comment on the significance of his naming a Namatjira-like landscape Honey-Ant Dreaming – surely a revelation of the older artist's traditional subject-matter that lay undiscovered within his seemingly white imagery; nor on Rubuntja's convincing switch to a Papunya-style of painting for the second National Aboriginal Art Award in 1985 (which did not yet include TSI art).

Overall then, there's a nice balance of regions and great artists, but a total lack of any sense of a developing art movement whose aesthetic diversity can now encompass a grass Toyota and a bronze crocodile! Fortunately the bald facts are there too, revealing 23 of the 25 Big Telstras (as the first prize is known today, after its sponsor) went to remote artists, while Blak artists picked up just 2, and about 15 of the 75 lesser prizes.

How agile are those Yolgnu minds that have picked up both of the New Media Awards (post the 25th anniversary) with filmed work when indigenous artists from the cities might have assumed the prizes were designed for them!


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Contact Details

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



Dorothy Napangardi, 'Salt on Mina Mina', 2001, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 244 x 168 cm. Winner of the Telstra First Prize, 18th NATSIA Award. MAGNT Telstra Collection. Reproduction licensed by Gallery Gondwana, 2009.


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