Dennis Nona. Saulal
Dennis Nona. Saulal - winner Telstra Work on Paper, 2010

In a new twist to an old story, this year the overall winner of the 27th Annual Telstra National Aboriginal & Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) will come from the five category winners.

I know who that winner is but I can’t tell you right now – if I told you you would have to kill me. You’ll have to wait another 24 hours for that news.

Dennis Nona
Dennis Nona

Dennis Nona is a member of the Kal-lagaw-ya language group from Badu and Saibai islands in the Torres Strait. His work Saulal is this year’s winner of the Works on Paper category,

…explores the seasonal phenomenon of turtle mating which starts on the mainland and travels through the Torres Strait islands. At the start if the turtle mating season the biru biru (birds) migrate north from the mainland, across the Torres Strait to Papua New Guinea. At the end of the turtle mating season they migrate south back to the mainland.

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The NT Museum and Art Gallery has hosted the NATSIAA awards since their inception. The building lies squat among pandanus and acacia trees on the end of short headland – but you wouldn’t know that from the inside, which looks in only on itself and does not connect with the magnificent views to the west of Darwin Harbour and the Arafura Sea beyond the walls.

Glen Namundja. Kunabibbe Ceremony at Manmoyi
Glen Namundja. Kunabibbe Ceremony at Manmoyi

Glen’s magnificent bark painting, a deserving winner of the 2010 Bark Painting Award, tells of a Kunabibbe ceremony at his homelands at Manmoyi. Glen works with the Injalak Arts Centre based at Gunbalunya in western Arnhem Land.

The image relates to a time when the men of the area were conducting a Kunabibbe ceemony. Despite the ceremony being strictly men’s business, two daluk (women) went to the ceremony grounds when the Kunabibbe was being performed. Ngalyod (Rainbow Serpent) saw this and was angry. He rose up and killed the two women, who are depicted within the coil of the serpent’s body. The men in turn were angry that Ngalyod had killed their women and sought revenge. They speared the Ngalyod to death. The bodies of the Ngalyod and the two women, now rick formations, have become part of the landscape. The footprints of the women’s husbands can also be seen in the rocks.

The main NT Museum and Gallery space was built in 1982 and, apart from the occasional cosmetic makeover, is sadly in need of some major capital works.

And it is not just the aging infrastructure that inhibits the NATSIAA awards and the Museum and Gallery from achieving their full potential, with some serious gaps in key staff positions that have effectively left the Museum and Gallery rudderless for the past few years.

Add the lack of any catalogue for the NATSIAA awards and the minimal on-line presence and it is pretty clear that there is a lot more that should be done that isn’t. Rumour has it – and there is as much rumour and gossip around this town right now as there is art – that the Museum & Art gallery will be getting a new Director in the near future.

If that is so, then fixing these awards and getting a new artspace should be top of their list. And hitting up Telstra for a few more bob shouldn’t be too far down the list as well – for mine they are getting an absolute bargain!

Nawurapu Wunungmurra. Mokuy
Nawurapu Wunungmurra. Mokuy

Nawurapu Wunungmurra’s sculptures of Mokuy – spirit figures, won the inaugural Telstra New Media award this year. Nawurapu, who like Wukun Wanambi works with the Buku Larrnggay Muku arts centre at Yirrkala is the eldest son of the esteemed Yolngu artist Yanjgarriny Wununjmurra.

Nawurapu says of his winning sculptures that:

The Mokuy or Nanuk (spirits) come in together, Dhuwa and Yirritja, to the sacred ground called Balambala, past Gangan, othe other side for all the Mokuy to get together. The spirits go there and that’s where they make the yidaki sound. It’s like showing Yukuwa (sacred yam emblem) and the Morning Star feathers; they are different. The same goes with the yidaki, different sounds for Yirritja and Dhuwa. The Yirritja and Dhuwa play yidaki to call in the Mokuy to the same ground Balambala. The Yirritja Mokuy come in on the birds djilawurr (Orange-footed Scrub Fowl) and bugutj-bugutj (Banded Fruit-dove. The Dhuwa Mikuy, they come from rangi (saltwater side).

In particular a new dedicated gallery space would be useful to give major award shows like NATSIAA some room to breathe and also allow for some of the major works and collections that the Museum and Gallery have accumulated over the years to emerge from the archives.

Wukun Wanambi. Bamurrungu
Wukun Wanambi. Bamurrungu

Wukun Wanambi
Wukun Wanambi

Wukun Wanambi is a previous NATSIAA award winner, having won prizes for his bark paintings and meticulously sculptured lattakitj (ceremonial bone coffin) in 1998 and 2003 respectively. This year he takes home the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3d award.

Wukun has been heavily involved in a number of major collective projects and has been a long-standing member of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka centre at Yirrkala in north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Jimmy Donegan. Papa Tjukurpa Pukara. Winner, General painting award
Jimmy Donegan. Papa Tjukurpa Pukara. Winner, General painting award

Jimmy Donegan works with the Ninuku Arts Centre based at the Kalka community in south Australia but the country for which he paints is not delineated by the straight lines that mark the state and territory border in the “tri-state” area, as this administrative juncture of states and the Northern Territory is rather confusingly known in a western administrative sense.

Jimmy Donegam winner of the General Painting category, 2010
Jimmy Donegan winner of the General Painting category, 2010

Jimmy Donegan’s painting, Papa Tjukurpa and Pukara, tells two stories, the Papa Tjurkurpa (Dingo Dreaming) and of Pukara, his grandfather’s country in western Australia and won Jimmy the General Painting award.

Ngayu mamaku ngura Dulu (my father’s country rockhole is called Dulu). At this place there are lots of Dingoes living there, digging up the water and hunting at Pilantjara rockhole in the country area of Dulu. This is Papa Walka, Dog design. Pukara is [my] grandfather’s country. It is a story about a sacred men’s site in Western Australia, south of Wingellina. It is a Watersnake Dreaming story. This is where the Watersnake fell down and his elbow makes an indent in the landscape. This is the creation story for the Honey Grevillea. Birds are really scared of this water at Pukara. It is like a “big boss”, this water.

There has been a fair bit of chatter about in certain quarters lately that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art has done its dash and that the arts centres – so strongly represented in the NATSIAA winners and in the works on show at the Museum and Art gallery – were not fostering any growth and development in this sector and were doing little more than smoothing a dying pillow for Aboriginal artists.

What is clear, to me at least, from looking at the winners above and the impressive works by all the finalists on display at the Museum and Art Gallery, that this show reveals the true strengths, value and integrity not only of the many art centres scattered around this country, but also of the artists and their arts practices.

And this impression is only reinforced by the equally impressive amount and quality of work on display at this years Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, which opened today and runs through to Saturday.

That is where I’ll be tomorrow and if you are in town you’d be a fool if you didn’t go there too.

The NATSIAA show at the Museum and Art Gallery at Bullocky Point (buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the story on that one) opens to the public tomorrow evening – and the opening event is well worth attending – and runs through to 7 November.

Oh, and stay tuned for the announcement of the overall winner – the embargo is lifted at 2pm tomorrow afternoon!

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As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.


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