Visual Art

The 36th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards on display in Darwin amply demonstrates the range and quality of contemporary First Nations visual art. By Kimberley Moulton.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards

Dhambit Munuŋgurr’s Bees at Gängän (centre), which won the Bark Painting Award.
Credit: Charles Bliss

For the past 36 years, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) has highlighted the dynamic art being produced by First Peoples from across the country. This year is no exception, with 65 artists selected from 248 applications.

The process behind the awards has had many iterations. I was a judge in 2016 along with artist Vernon Ah Kee and Darwin art framer Don Whyte, and I understand its complexity. At the time we selected about 70 works from hundreds of applications after many days of rigorous discussion. Over the next few months we continued to review the works and once the final show was hung we spent two days judging the awards in the space.

This process was important in giving each artist the respect they deserved, enabling a continuity of discussion around the works. This process has shifted over the past few years to an initial selection panel of art and cultural experts, with a separate panel making the final judgement. While changes to such longstanding awards are necessary, I think this process does raise questions about their intention. Is it now more about curating an exhibition than selecting works for a national award? For many years there have been major gaps in a truly national representation, which is a problem because, from its beginning, the NATSIAA has been a major influence in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art market, pushing trends and profiling artists.

On entering the 36th Telstra NATSIAA exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin, we are greeted by a magnificent painting by Tjukapati James, Kungka Kutjara (2020), that shares a cultural story significant to Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra women in abstract pastels. This space also features a mass of paintings from Western Australia and Northern Territory, including the General Painting Award winner Bugai Whyoulter, Wantili (2020), which – as the judges say accurately – is a work that captivates the viewer without “shouting for attention”. Here a beautiful soft palette reminiscent of Country tells Bugai’s story of growing up around Wantili and the Canning Stock Route.

A suspended woven scoop by Mary Dhapalany from Ramingining faces a mesmerising digital media work by Ishmael Marika that shares the songline and sacred design of Rulyapa, the saltwater of his country. Near to Ishmael is Emerging Artist Award winner Kyra Mancktelow’s Moongalba II (2020), a series of etchings on paper that look at the history of the Myora mission on her country of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island). Her depictions of the uniforms forced onto children at the mission in the late 19th century act as a haunting reminder of the assimilation policies of this era.

In the next room are a bark with cheeky self-portrait mermaids from Yolngu artist Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu, weavings from the Erub Arts Collective and layered works from Alycia Marrday and Yangyangkari Roma Butler that speak to themes of climate change, family and camp life. Also here is Hubert Pareroultja and Mervyn Rubuntja’s Through the Veil of Time (2020) from Mparntwe (Alice Springs), winner of the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award: an impressive watercolour painted on silkscreen mesh. Standing in front of this work I felt as though I was transported to this beautiful landscape, which was made famous by Albert Namatjira.

Pedro Wonaemirri’s Jilarti (2021), winner of the Telstra Multimedia Award, is a wonderful selection by the judges. It’s a film of his live performance of the brolga song in which he wears pimirtiki (feather headpiece), imeuja (false beard), tokwayinga (feather ball), tjimirrikamarka (fighting stick) and tunga (folded bark bag). These items were displayed with the film, connecting the living culture behind the objects and creating a dynamic installation.

The winner of the Works on Paper Award, Mrs M Wirrpanda, sadly died this year. Untitled (2021) was created in the last few months of her extraordinary life. She is one of Australia’s most important artists – I write this in the present tense as she will always carry with us through her incredible artistic legacy. These captivating works – 70 individual pen on paper drawings depicting Yolngu families collecting maypal (shellfish) in the mangroves – well deserve this award.

There are some strong entries from south-eastern coast artists, such as Dylan Sarra’s subtle but powerful reworking of an archival photo from the Queensland State Library, Catching Cook (2020). Next to this Thea Anamara Perkins’ striking A bastard like me (2021), which portrays her grandfather, Charles Perkins, highlighting his resistance and “radical spirit” and what it represents to her today.

This painting stood out in a room of stars. Elisa Jane Carmichael’s Fabric of Place (2021) is a reflective meditation on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), which honours ancestral memory through a mix of cyanotypes developed on country, weaving and natural fibres. Elisa’s work is calm yet bold and sings of country and her fresh and salt waterways. It is encouraging to see representation from south-eastern Australia, which also includes prolific artist Christian Thompson and emerging artist Dennis Golding. However, there remains a continual gap in the representation of New South Wales, Victorian and Tasmanian artists.

The Telstra Bark Painting Award was won by Dhambit Munuŋgurr’s truly incredible Bees at Gängän (2021). Dhambit is famous for her use of prominent blue paint on bark, which takes bark painting to a very new space. The dancing blue ironbark trees and busy bees that nest within them are a delight to contemplate.

Just up from the bark is the overall winner for 2021, Timo Hogan’s large painting Lake Baker (2020). Timo’s Country is in the remote south-eastern pocket towards the borders of Western Australia and South Australia, lands belonging to the Spinifex people, and his work is a masterpiece of black-and-white depictions of Lake Baker and Tjukurpa, the creation stories of this Country. The judges are not wrong when they said his work is “a masterful painting of international calibre”. This work should be seen in an international context: the contemporary work of First Peoples in Australia should hold space at the Tate Modern or America’s Museum of Modern Art.

Overall the 2021 NATSIAA is a beautiful selection that foregrounds the extraordinary talent coming out of Australia, particularly from the central, west and Top End. A strong Tiwi representation profiles the incredible work coming from the region, with inspiring weaving and installations of steel and ceramics and works that look at deeply personal histories from across the country.

The judges made strong choices. This year’s artists demonstrate that First Peoples’ art is not only grounded by the sovereignty of the many hundreds of language groups and countries within what we now call Australia, but is always adapting to new means of expression. It is contemporary Australian art, it is First Peoples’ art, and it is exceptional.

The 36th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards is showing at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, until November 3. The virtual tour is online at natsiaa.com.au.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Rooms of stars".

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Kimberley Moulton is a Yorta Yorta woman, curator and writer.