National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards 2018

August 23, 2018
Gunybi Ganambarr with his winning entry

A remarkable thing happened at this year’s 35th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT): the stand-out work actually won the major prize. The annual circus of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman may have given me a jaundiced view of art prizes, but it was pleasing that the judges of this year’s NATSIAA avoided the perverse temptation to reward a less-than-compelling entry.

The winner, Gunybi Ganambarr, is one of Australia’s foremost contemporary artists. In successive exhibitions he has reinvented the discipline of bark painting while remaining utterly orthodox in his imagery and spiritual affiliations.

John Mawurndjul (b.1952), whose retrospective may be seen at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, is the artist who showed that barks could be painted on a grand scale. Gunybi (b.1973) is the ground-breaking innovator of a younger generation who realised one need not stick to traditional materials. In place of bark and wood, Gunybi has put the imagery of his community, the Yolngu, onto sheets of metal, rubber slabs from a conveyor belt, and PVC piping.

Buyku, his winning entry in this year’s NATSIAA, is a three-metre square of aluminium etched with intricate patterns representing the convergence of different bodies of water. Because the Yolgnu are assigned custodianship of different parts of the land at the top of the Gulf of Carpentaria, the piece also represents a coming together of clans from Gadarrpa (Blue Mud Bay) to Gulutji.

On first approach the work is awe inspiring, but the artist’s choice of materials was not meant to épater la bourgeoisie, in the manner of the French avant-garde. Gunybi was less concerned with flabbergasting the middle classes than with preserving trees that would be destroyed by having their bark removed.

This astonishing piece is the third that Gunybi has created in this manner and all three have gone to private collections in the United States. I’m not sure if this means the message about indigenous art is getting out to the rest of the world, or that local buyers are simply not quick enough.

It wasn’t so many years ago everyone believed Aboriginal art was destined to dry up creatively as an older generation passed away. It now seems as if that doomsday prediction was no better founded than the belief that the entire Aboriginal race would disappear – as was believed throughout most of the 20th century, even by ardent sympathisers.

The strength and variety of this year’s NATSIAA, along with the satellite shows spread throughout Darwin, was revelatory. As with every art form there will always be artists of greater and lesser abilities, but the quality on display doesn’t suggest decline, rather a perpetual renewal.

Among entries that stood out were paintings by Vincent Namatjira, Mabel Juli, Yarritji Young, Mantua Nangala and Warwiriya Burton – each of them working in completely different styles, each becoming known as a formidable talent. Another Yolgnu artist, Wukun Wanambi, took out the multimedia award for an installation of three exquisitely painted poles. From a hole in the base a projection of tiny fishes swam in circles on the floor.

Mulkun Wirrpanda & John Wolseley, a ground-breaking collaboration

Like the platypus, MAGNT is a beast with multiple identities, being required to serve the needs of art, science and social history. This year it has taken a big step forward, with a range of well-organised displays. Aside from the NATSIAA, the museum is also playing host to Midawarr/Harvest, a collaborative exhibition between John Wolseley and Yolgnu bark painter, Mulkun Wirrpanda, previously shown at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

In Canberra the show was crammed into a narrow, inadequate space. The Darwin presentation is more spacious and the work benefits immensely. As a genuine cross-cultural dialogue there has rarely been anything like this exhibition, which deserves to be seen by the broadest audience. After Darwin the show will travel to the Melbourne museum, but there is no Sydney venue.

Aside from the NATSIAA the city’s major attraction at this time is the annual Aboriginal Art Fair. Most exhibitors found business was brisk, although the main action seemed to be in textiles and knacks-knacks. Few stalls had a really first-class selection of paintings.

That gap was filled by two local dealers, Paul Johnstone and Matt Ward, who organised an ambitious six venue project called Salon. It included a Salon des Refusés of NATSIAA entries, at Charles Darwin University, and five smaller shows spread around town. The artists were shrewdly chosen and almost everything was selling.

Mulkun Wirrpanda, featured in the NATSIAA and with John Wolseley, had an impressive solo exhibition called Maypal, at the Vickers Street Gallery. The title refers to the term for shellfish, of which there are more than 200 local varieties.

Pepi Jangala Carroll, ‘Wilinkarra’ at Outstation

Two other rising stars backing up from the NATSIAA were up-and-coming bark painter, Barayuwa Munungurr, at the Searcy Street Gallery, and Pepai Jangala Carroll of Ernabella, at Outstation Gallery. The subtlety and complexity of Barayuwa’s work impresses itself upon the viewer slowly, but once you are inside his world, with its tale (and tail) of a whale, an entire cosmology starts to unfold.

Carroll, who is both potter and painter, has devised a palette of close-toned greys and greens that seems utterly at odds with the red deserts of central Australia. Those colours are present in the rocks, grasses and shrubs but compared to most artists from these regions, Carroll gives us a landcape of the mind, not a record of what meets the eye.

The Paul Johnstone Gallery is hosting the work of two old friends, Witjiti George and Taylor Cooper, who paint for Kaljiti Arts in Central Australia. The works share all the familiar motifs of desert painting but each artist has found his own way of manipulating this language of signs and symbols. The most prominent figure is the snake that crops up in numerous pictures.

Mick Rictor, ‘Untitled’ at Tactile Arts

Finally, in the Tactile Arts Gallery, alongside MAGNT, one encounters the work of Mick Rictor, who ‘walked in’ from the desert as late as 1986, and has only recently taken up painting. The experience of a lifetime has found its way into these raw, colourful dot paintings on black grounds. The stylistic variations presumably reflect the diverse stories upon which the artist has drawn.

Much of the work in the Salon exhibitions was new to me, and all of it was fascinating. These shows allowed artists represented by a single picture in the NATSIAA or the Salon des Refuses, to be seen in far greater depth. They also made it clear that anyone who wants to study the latest, most dynamic developments in indigenous art has to travel to Darwin. It’s not enough to sit in Sydney or Melbourne, waiting for works to trickle into the local galleries, or even into events such as the Wynne Prize. Darwin is the front line, while the rest of Australia follows at a respectful distance.

The 35th Telstra National Aborginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award 2018,
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, 11 August – 11 November, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August, 2018