The Darwin Festival, NATSIAA 2023 and the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair generate an intense experience of contrasts. By Tristen Harwood.

Three Darwin art shows

Part of the NATSIAA exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Part of the NATSIAA exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Credit: Mark Sherwood

Out over the Timor Sea there is a crack in the cosmic egg. The sun casts a gold and pink glow over the creamy-turquoise sea, making opals before nightfall. I watch this scene while sitting on the white stone of the cliffs at the Nightcliff foreshore in Garramilla/Darwin. It is said the Larrakia word “garramilla” refers to the white stone that streaks these cliff faces around coastal Darwin City. Tomorrow, in this small, languid city on Larrakia Country, the Darwin Festival will officially open but looking at – which is to say feeling – all of this, it seems arbitrary to distinguish between what is and isn’t part of the official programming. Sometimes the best things aren’t.

The next day, I get out for a run just after sunrise. For the most part, a saunter is a more appropriate pace at which to experience the tropical savanna climate, but I like the heat. As I round the corner towards the harbourside esplanade I see an artwork on the side of the road. It’s a sculpture by notorious and vexatious local “Rubbish Warrior” Trevor Jenkins, who’s not on the list of performers and artists but whose leitmotiv – a tripod, usually assembled from palm fronds and litter – is a fixture of the city.

Later that morning, the director of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), Adam Worrall, walks me through the gallery’s exhibition of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards 2023 finalists and winners. This year – NATSIAA’s 40th – Keith Wikmunea (Thu’ Apalech) from Aurukun in Queensland won the $100,000 Telstra Award for his hand-carved sculpture Ku’, Theewith & Kalampang: The White Cockatoo, Galah and the Wandering Dog (2023). The large sculpture made from yuk thanchal (milkwood) – a material Wikmunea says his ancestors have used since the “beginning of time” – comprises a tree, cockatoos, galahs and a dog, all painted in natural pigments sourced from Country.

In the exhibition are 63 artworks by artists from 47 language groups. There is a strong painting presence among the finalists but the exhibited work spans multiple media, themes and materials. The linguistic diversity across the entrants is not reflected in the didactic panels, which are primarily in English. This seems like a missed opportunity to generate greater knowledge of Indigenous languages, and in turn the artworks.

Rebekah Raymond, the gallery’s curator of Aboriginal art and material culture, does well to parse out the equally disparate and concordant array of artworks. There is light and space to appreciate the paintings and slightly darker, quiet corners where the multimedia works play. Where the exhibition design falters is simply in the lack of gallery space it’s afforded. Some sculptures – including the winner of the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award, Anangu History (2023) by Anne Nginyangka Thompson, which comprises two finely detailed ceramic vessels – have been backed up against the walls, in part cutting the artworks off from view.

Up the ramp past the display of Sweetheart, a legendary and massive estuarine crocodile, is 40: Celebrating four decades of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, an exhibition of some of the winners over the past 40 years. Included in the exhibition is Kumantje Jagamara’s (also known as Michael Nelson, 1946-2020) Three Ceremonies, which won the very first National Aboriginal Art Award in 1984. Also included is Richard Bell’s infamous painting Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) (2003), which took out the main award in the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award in 2003. The message in the painting still holds in 2023: “Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing”.

A more recent event on the loaded August schedule is the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, now in its 17th year. More than 70 Indigenous art centres from across the country have stalls. A number of artists are there along with staff from the art centres. At the Ngukurr Arts stand amid the mob’s incandescent paintings, artist and author Karen Rogers (Ngalakgan), seems to be filling the role of artist and administrator – probably covering a lunchbreak. DAAF is an equaliser of sorts: the punters range from tourists and admirers to collectors, curators and critics.

The Darwin Convention Centre, where DAAF is held, is in the Darwin Waterfront Precinct. The waterfront development, which is equally garish and generic, feels as if it could be anywhere in the world. This isn’t to say it’s “world-class”: rather, it’s a soulless product of prefab international architecture. However, what does make the Darwin waterfront unique is the view. Pan across the cerulean sea and not far in the distance you’ll see Ichthys LNG Project – a liquefied natural gas project owned by Japanese gas giant Inpex. More than a bad omen, Inpex’s brand of fossil capitalism helps fuel Darwin Festival, with the main stage of the event appropriately named the INPEX Sunset Stage.

The festival’s Maho Magic Bar – a Tokyo-themed magic show – isn’t the only place you can see sleight of hand at the Darwin Festival. In 2022, the festival copped heat from activists over its involvement with another fossil fuel company, Santos, and now it seems the organisers are playing different cards from the same deck.

Heat might be the word that best describes Garramilla. Not that it’s too hot – the days are cooled by a soft breeze that smells of frangipani – more in the sense of an intensity of emotion, of sensation, of pressure and build-up. Darwin-based artist Gary Lee’s vital book Heat: Gary Lee, Selected texts, art & anthropology was launched at Coconut Studios during the festival. Maurice O’Riordan – Lee’s partner and publisher at Darwin’s dishevel books – tells me the word on the street is the book is an “instant classic”. Having partly read it, I have no trouble believing him.

Alongside the book launch, the luminary Darwin artist has a small exhibition of photographs titled midling – a Larrakia word for “together”. These images draw from the colonial archive and Lee’s point-and-shoot snapshots of what might be termed queer, gay, Indigenous, elastic – or all of the above – masculinities. While at the gallery, I sit and speak with Lee for a couple of hours. Afterwards, I understand that it’s exactly moments like these that draw me to Garramilla – the dusted blue of the late-afternoon sky or the smudged light of the sun that you can barely hope to describe and that will always evade definition.

The Darwin Festival continues until August 27.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Creative hotspot".

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