There is nothing in the world quite like the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA). On Friday evening, thousands of spectators gathered on the lawns of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory to hear the winners of the 26th annual awards announced.

In a result bound to elicit some controversy, the $40,000 main prize was awarded to the Canberra based contemporary artist Danie Mellor for his mixed media work From Rite to Ritual. According to Mellor, the work explores the “uneasy co-existence” of Indigenous and settler cultures.

In many ways, this disjunction is at the heart of the Telstra awards. After 26 years, it remains the centrepiece of the Indigenous art calendar. For the assembled throng of curators, collectors, wheelers and dealers, it is a moment when stars can be born, reputations affirmed and the flavour of the next twelve months detected.

But beneath the dazzle of opening night, it is hard not to notice the uneasy coexistence between the modernist world of exhibitions, galleries and art awards and the cultural imperatives that underline most Indigenous art.

For instance, Rerrkirrwanga Munungurr, who was awarded the $4,000 category prize for bark painting, could not attend the awards evening as her son was undertaking an important initiation ceremony.

Her representative Will Stubbs from the Buku-Larrngay Mulka art centre commented that, whilst the artists see NATSIAA as important, “Law is a stronger calling than an art award. This weekend Rerrkirrwanga will see her son with these designs [that she paints on bark] painted on his chest, so that hopefully he can continue that law.”

Nevertheless, every year over 400 Indigenous artists submit works for the awards. Of these, around 100 are shortlisted for the prestigious exhibition. This year’s exhibition was certainly one of the best in recent memory, and the selection has been delicately balanced to impress even the most hostile critics.

There are major works from some of the nation’s leading artists [including former winners Makinti Napanangka, Dennis Nona, Dorothy Napangardi and Gulumbu Yunupingu], alongside superb examples of emerging and younger artists. Every important art-producing region is represented, along with most major genres, styles and media.

The overall impression is that Aboriginal art is at a crossroads. At the opening, one veteran of the event regaled me with tales of when the awards were “just a big piss-up and an excuse for everyone to get together.” Just as the tinnies have been replaced with chardonnay, the works on display this year show an unprecedented level of accomplishment and professionalism. This in itself is not a bad thing, and clearly demonstrates the Aboriginal art movement reaching a new maturity.

However, whilst there are few “bad” works in this year’s NATSIAA exhibition, there are equally few surprises. One cannot help feeling like the 2009 exhibition signifies a transitional moment, as Indigenous art awaits its next great influx of fresh ideas. A cultural analogy might be made to the late 1970s, when the popular music industry was dominated by bloated mainstream rock acts, before punk came along to kick out the metaphorical jams.

“From Rite to Ritual” by Danie Mellor

With a PhD from ANU, Danie Mellor is hardly a young punk, but his winning work From Rite to Ritual seems to address precisely these issues. A large, mixed media piece, From Rite to Ritual juxtaposes western and Indigenous rituals in hyper-kitsch jumble of Masonic iconography, native animals and Indigenous figures in ceremony. Although large and visually impressive, Mellor’s piece seems like a wry joke — a subtle dig at an industry under the thrall of Indigenous mysticism, while existing in its own increasingly secular world. Mellor’s is not a cynical gesture, but rather, an interrogation of our viewing practices.

From Rite to Ritual asks us to question our motives in appreciating Indigenous art. In his kitschy animals, he is not just casting aspersions on bad taste, but asking us to question exactly how we make such distinctions of taste. How do we distinguish between tacky tourist art and Indigenous masterpieces? How do we make the kind of aesthetic judgements that an art award like NATSIAA requires? Can we ever have a meaningful understanding of Indigenous art, when the traditions that underpin it are in conflict with the industry that drives it?

For Will Stubbs, “Every work in the Telstra is its own universe. They are simply an interface between the Indigenous and western mind.” Mellor’s winning piece suggests that this is an imperfect interface. This is all the more reason that any one interested in Indigenous should visit the 2009 NATSIA website.

And the winners are:

  • $40,000 Overall Winner — Danie Mellor, From Rite to Ritual
  • $4000 General Painting Award — Yinarupa Nangala, Untitled
  • $4000 Bark Painting Award — Rerrkirrwanga Munungurr, Gumatj Gurtha
  • $4000 Work on Paper Prize — Glen Namundja, Likkanaya and Marrayka
  • $4000 Wandjuk Marika Memorial Three-Dimensional award — Janine McAullay Bott — Dhalkatj –- Bilby.

Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards are on display at the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory until Sunday 25 October 2009.

Henry F. Skerritt is an art historian and freelance writer.