“I have to go with [those] patterns and designs and reach out to other cities, or across the sea. You can see I was reaching out right to where the Statue of Liberty is in the States. It is really important for me, I have to be confident, it is written in my soul and in my blood. Even if a gallery takes my work away it is here,” he says, gesturing to his heart.
Luke Scholes, curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, where an exhibition showcasing the entries is held every year, says ambition is the most significant takeaway from this year’s works.
“What resonates with me is that Indigenous artists are engaging globally. Even 10 years ago if you’d told me the Statue of Liberty would appear on a bark painting from East Arnhem land, I’d probably have had a little giggle but here we are.”
Artists are less constrained by traditional art-making practice and expectations, he says. Another case in point is a bronze sculpture, Business man 2018, by Donald Pitjara Thompson from Ampilatwatja in the Northern Territory. It is traditionally a place that produces female artists, says Scholes. “So to have a male artist from that region is one thing, a figurative sculptor is another, and then to have it cast in bronze is another. It’s easy to see a bronze sculpture there and think nothing of it but for regions like that – and there are many other such examples in the exhibition – they’re kind of giant leaps.”
Kaylene Whiskey’s Seven Sistas, painted on an old road sign, interweaves figures from popular culture with a traditional Indigenous story in what she calls a transition ”from the comic to canvas”. Featuring Cher, Tina Turner, Dolly Parton, Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz, Catwoman, Wonder Woman and Whoopi Goldberg, it’s a riff on the strong women in the artist’s life and at the same time a play on the traditional Seven Sisters story
about female family members looking out for each other. “I’ve painted seven strong women,” she says. ”They’re hanging out on the Iwantja Arts sign, hiding from the cheeky wati [man]. From the old one, I [thought I] will make the Seven Sisters a new way.”
Gutingarra Yunupingu, a 21-year-old artist from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, was born deaf. His video artwork, Gurrutu’mi Mala – My connections 2019, shows him signing the names of significant people from his community. Sign language has been used by Yolngu people for generations, allowing them to communicate from a distance when hunting. Because it is taught to all children from an early age, he is able to communicate with his entire community. The film, which won the multimedia award at this year’s awards, is compelling and beautiful, in some ways simple, yet extraordinarily complex. It reveals not just the artist’s story but a much broader world as well and is particularly poignant given 2019 is the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Old and new cultures also merge in Titus Nganjmirra’s Queen Elizabeth. Nganjmirra, of the Northern Territory’s Gunbalanya community, won the Emerging Artist Award. Against a background depicting the first flag to be hoisted on Australian soil near Sydney, he has painted male and female Nayuhyungki, the first people, as well as the plants and animals who have lived in the stone country of Arnhem Land for thousands of years.
Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and NATSIAA judge Rhana Devenport says the Emerging category was a highlight of this year’s awards, because people are working across so many mediums.
Devenport noted a trend among several artists to reclaim imagery from other countries. “The cultural colonisation that’s taken place from America and the political colonisation from England … is reabsorbed into Indigenous culture. I think this is a really significant moment. Why can’t Djambawa paint the Statue of Liberty, why can’t Titus paint the queen?”
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery senior curator of Indigenous cultures and fellow judge Zoe Rimmer says the works also speak to the future. “It’s a clever way of incorporating new and different cultures into the Aboriginal world view. It speaks to that strength and adaptability and resilience of Aboriginal culture.
“For me it’s the incredible breadth and intelligence of visual language. So you’ve got this deep, deep ancestral knowledge and confidence informing a practice that is then augmented by innovation,” Rimmer says. “You can be transported across the country and beyond, through these works that on one level are highly individual, but also communal.”
Aboriginal art isn’t what people think it is, says Devenport. “This is always the question and the exploration, because it’s always moving.”
Entries for next year’s awards are open until March; works are selected in April. The awards, says Luke Scholes, curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture at Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, are ”a cornerstone of what we do, it’s the fabric of this place”.
Winners are announced in August, a busy time on Darwin’s calendar. The Darwin Festival is in full swing, and the Darwin Art Fair and the Salons des Refuses have sprung up around the NATSIAAs.
Scholes says the rise of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, at which works by more than 2000 artists from around the country are shown, and the Salon des Refuses, which shows a selection of artworks that didn’t make the cut for the NATSIAAs, has been a wonderful thing. “We consider ourselves as a really tight ecosystem up here, where we all work together, we all support each other, what we’re really about is promoting incredible art.
“When we get together it’s with nothing but good faith. It’s a small community up here but we like to think we provide a real highlight on the Australian visual arts calendar. Particularly for people from down south, who come up for the first time, get a chance to see a lot of art, meet a lot of artists. Some are recent converts and others have been aware for a long time.”
The NATSIAA 2020 Awards will be announced in August 2020 and exhibited from August 2020 until February 2021. Kerrie O’Brien travelled to Darwin as a guest of the awards.
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald