NIndigenous Award Becalmed in Stagnant Water

Congratulations to the 29th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award winners: Timothy Cook, Barbara Moore, Djirrirra Wunungmurra, Raymond Zada and Jack Nawilil.

Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery has a wonderful Hollow Log by Djirrirra Wunungmurra, head to their website for more information


Nicolas Rothwell from the Australian writes on the NATSIAA:

FOR an art movement uncertain of its immediate future, and afraid the years of gold already lie behind it, the venerable Telstra-sponsored National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award seems the perfect showcase, and Darwin's near-moribund Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory a fitting venue.

The contradictions surrounding the "Telstra" multiply each time the annual exhibition is staged, and so it was once again at this year's ceremonies, held last Friday night: strong winners, a thin field; vast pomp and rhetorical triumphalism; disappointed, half-embarrassed collectors and connoisseurs.

There was a scatter of profound work on view during "art week" in Darwin, but most of it was outside the frame of the main publicly sponsored showcase.

Thus the overall winner of the NATSIAA was Timothy Cook, from Jilamara art centre on the Tiwi Islands, whose large-scale, deep-ochre evocation of the Kulama increase ritual dominated the main exhibition gallery of the museum. But equally poised examples of Cook's work could be seen in a more harmonious setting at the Tiwi Art Network's survey show.

The general painting prize went to western desert artist Barbara Moore for her colour whirlwind of purples, reds and deep oranges. But the jewels of her recent output were elsewhere: on the walls of the nearby Outstation Gallery, where new paintings from the Tjala art centre in the Pitjantjatjara lands are on view.

For the bark painting award, the NATSIAA judges looked to a large white-painted panel by Djirrirra Wunungmurra from Buku-Larrnggay art centre at Yirrkala. It was finesse incarnate, decorative design brought to a new pitch on a surface of stringybark: it was also almost the only feasible choice in a weak list.

A further 60 entries are on display: barely enough to fill two galleries, and certainly too few to represent the state of an indigenous art scene that spreads across the whole Australian continent.

There was a handful of little gems by lesser-known artists: an Elysian watercolour by Sedey Mabel Stephen from Darnley Island in the eastern Torres Strait; a vivid colour panel on black ground by Ben Holland from Wanarn in the western desert; a set of woven nightbirds made by Rhonda Sharpe from Larapinta Valley town camp in Alice Springs: delicate, small-scale works, works from the heart.

But most pieces selected for the exhibition were familiar specimens, made by artists who have been ploughing on in their particular firm-set, distinctive styles for many years: so much so that they seem almost to be copying themselves, staying still, reproducing the patterns and the colour systems that have proved appealing to the commercial market and state gallery curators. How did things reach this pass? What is to be done?

The problems with the NATSIAA in its present form are multiple. They reflect the travails of the indigenous art scene after its state-subsidised over-expansion and the abrupt collapse of its wider market in recent years. The model for the exhibition and awards is almost three decades old, and completely outdated. And the museum running the show is not autonomous in its decision-making: it is controlled by bureaucrats of the NT government.

Vague attempts to reconfigure NATSIAA and free it from these constraints have been made repeatedly in the past few years: they never go far enough. When the award began, it was something new and wondrous: it took Aboriginal art and culture seriously, and gave indigenous Territorians a platform to show their work.

In its heyday, the exhibition was Australia's chief window on the art and thought worlds of remote communities. By the mid-90s it was regularly showing masterpieces from the hands of unknown painters and carvers: a Telstra debut was enough to build the beginnings of a reputation.

The exhibition became the unofficial barometer of indigenous artistry, the place where trends emerged and were appraised. Its success spawned imitators, and drew in a wide field of contestants; inevitably the tensions of Aboriginal cultural politics came increasingly to influence the event.

Now the "Telstra" is only one indigenous art survey show in a crowded field, and its special spark is gone: there is Desert Mob in Alice Springs, the Indigenous Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the Western Australian Indigenous Art Award, and each shows work of consistently higher quality to a more coherent plan.

Given the wide definition of Aboriginal art current today, the organisers of the NATSIAA, with their broad-brush brief, must somehow seek to display, and assess, works deriving from an impossibly wide range of cultural traditions: art made in various ways and with varying intent.

The judging process is peculiar. The members of a small preselection panel view images of the entrants: 300 of them this year. They cull them; then three experts choose the category winners, and pick one work to receive the overall prize. Inevitably, in a scene so small, these experts stem from a coterie, and their choices are predictable in the extreme: often they are judging their favourites.

The notion of a single prizewinner had its place in earlier times, when recognition was still coming to the indigenous art scene, but these days it is the distinguished winners, such as Cook, who burnish the NATSIAA, rather than the other way around.

Indeed the very notion of an indigenous-only award is increasingly outmoded: it makes the Aboriginal identity of the artist everything, it shapes the texture of the event, it focuses the viewer's judgment on racial essence and cultural particularity rather than aesthetic universals.

NATSIAA has gradually taken on a strange post-colonial authority structure: there is a telling division of roles. Most of the finalists are from remote communities, and speak their ancestral languages. The judging panel is artfully composed, and tends to have a representation of Aboriginal curators and artists from non-traditional indigenous backgrounds, as this year.

The private buyers of the art on view are almost always mainstream Australian collectors.

Might the NATSIAA be constructively reconfigured as a regional or north and central Australian art award, open to all-comers? The pre-eminence of Aboriginal art-making in such a context would count for more.

Compounding the effect of the award's internal architecture is the external pattern of the indigenous art market, still in a condition of protracted quiescence. The economic downturn has cut all speculative froth; bargains are everywhere at auction; the flood of high-grade work from new art centres has driven prices down, and built up unsold supply; the regulatory measures imposed on art dealers and buyers have struck hard. In their different ways, the resale royalty, the changes to superannuation regulations and the bizarre indigenous code of conduct have turned the art trade from a joy into a trial. The cultural bureaucracy grinds on with its blueprint for expansion of remote community "art business". The response of the real world was evident at Darwin's Aboriginal Art Fair at the weekend, where 46 art centres showed their work. Perhaps the same number of collectors of note came through the doors.

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is part of this ecosystem, and is thus ill-placed to recraft the key event in Darwin's cultural calendar. Well-established, with a substantial indigenous art collection, almost none of it on view, the museum is widely seen as an institution in free fall. It is a sub-component of Arts NT, itself an under-department of the Territory government, which also supports no fewer than four Darwin contemporary art spaces, all unvisited mausoleums. Once MAGNT was the pride of the north: a museum devoted both to science and art, with a range of star curators. It has been shedding them in recent years.

It may at last have found a suitably radical reformist voice in the new indigenous art curator, Darwin local John Waight. He joins the current director, Pierre Arpin, a Canadian hired 14 months ago as a fresh pair of eyes.

Rather strikingly, the Chief Minister of the NT, Paul Henderson, was given a platform by MAGNT on Friday night at the NATSIAA opening ceremonies, in mid-election campaign, to unveil, days after The Australian's Ashleigh Wilson published them, a set of appointments to the museum's long-ineffectual advisory board. At the helm now as chairman is the prominent commercial barrister Allan Myers, a man with an appetite for challenging cases. If he aims to restore the NATSIAA to its central place in the indigenous art world, he has his work cut out.