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Neta, Darwin 1950, by Chips Mackinolty

The annual TOGART Award’s online bumph describes it thus:

The Togart Contemporary Art Award annually showcases an eclectic collection of artists and artwork for public scrutiny in Darwin. It is one of the most prestigious art awards in Australia and brings together artworks from all cultural backgrounds to provide a snapshot of what is happening in the rich artistic environs of the region. A prize of $15,000 is offered to the artist whose work is judged the most meritorious and each year a people’s choice prize of $5,000 is awarded.

For some reason – most likely my own ignorance combined with the fact that I’ve been living 1,500 kilometres away from Darwin in the desert for the past four years or so – I’d not heard about TOGART until about a month or so ago when I found out that my old mate Chips Mackinolty had won 15 grand and promptly given it away to three very good causes.

The name TOGART comes from the “Toga Group“, responsible for what can easily be described as the most controversial building project in Darwin for many years – the sprawling development between the base of the escarpment on which the Darwin CBD rests and the Stokes Hill Wharf area. Not without some cause there are many – mainly living outside of Darwin – that look somewhat jealously at this massive project.

And there are some critics of the Togart Award as well, not least Jeremy Eccles who earlier this year in Aboriginal Art News noted the diminishing number of indigenous entries:

On the years since 2007 when the Toga Group started this art award in conjunction with the public art program around its massive Waterfront development in Darwin, about half of artworks selected to hang have been by indigenous artists. Two out of three winners have been Aboriginal too. This year, less than a third of 34 finalists is Aboriginal.

Perhaps the art just wasn’t there? There’s certainly a sense of over-familiarity among many of the Aboriginal selections – though Timothy Cook’s bold Kulama image seems to combine both the strong spirituality of the Tiwi yam increase ceremony and confident aesthetics. Also, it strikes me that 5 or 6 of the white artists are showing indigenous tendencies – from Peter Eve’s moving Larrikia Embrace photo to Deborah Clarke’s clear reference to Aboriginal stencilled body parts on cave walls in her ephemeral image of her own body outlined by desert sands that are being washed away by an incoming tide far, far away from her Red Centre home on the NT coastline.

I’m at a bit of a loss to see quite what point Eccles is trying to make here – as he says, maybe the work just wasn’t there…

Eccles didn’t spare his criticism for this years winner either – though for mine it is a rather churlish swipe:

The Mackinolty winner, Neta, Darwin 1950, is all coastline – flower-print dresses, shorts and white socks, flowers in the hair, bamboo furniture, with the sounds of a ukelele in the scented, humid air. A White Man’s Dreaming. Darwin as pictured (still?) by two Down South judges – curators from public museums in Melbourne and Perth, who were lacking the participation of a commercial art gallery director judge for the first time this year. It was not exactly chosen to confirm the more academic views of Southern essayist Darren Jorgensen in the Togart catalogue, who saw the Award as “designed to prove that Darwin is not still the primitive frontier, (rather) a centre of cosmopolitan civilisation”, as well as proof that NT artists are “addressing the art world’s most pressing concerns”.

Chips Mackinolty is a self-confessed rat-bag and much more besides.

Chips Mackinolty by Colin Holt
Chips Mackinolty by Colin Holt

The day after he won the $15,000 prize in the TOGART Award he talked with Annie Gastin on Darwin’s 105.7 FM ABC local radio. This is an edited transcript of their interview.

Annie Gastin: Were you surprised to win the $15,000 for the TOGART Award?

Chips Mackinolty: No. I was completely shocked. I think the last thing I won was a raffle for a fondue set in 1973. So it has been a long time between drinks…

AG: Well, you must still be reeling from the incredible success of the “Not Dead Yet” exhibition at the Charles Darwin University Art Collection and Art Gallery. I was there for the opening and it was stunning. And then last night you won 15 grand and decided on the spot to give it away.

CM: Yeah, people think it is a bit weird – but it is not. I gave it to live music venues in the Territory – the Winanjjikarri Music Centre in Tennant Creek, the Railway Club in Darwin and Happy Yess also in Darwin. I’ve worked with musos on and off all my life and they do it hard so why not spread the cheer?

AG: And your work that won the prize – tell me about that.

CM: Well, you haven’t got a pulse if you live in Darwin and don’t know Dwyn Delaney. It is an image of Dwyn’s Mum Neta from about 1950 and it shows her as a live act playing the Ukelele in an old Sydney William’s hut in Stuart Park sixty years ago. It is kind of nice getting a sixty year old image into a contemporary art award. That was a period in Darwin history that we shouldn’t forget – where people did make their own entertainment and music.

AG: So where did you grow up?

CM: I grew up in semi-rural area out of Sydney which is now wall-to-wall suburbs and the home of weird places like the Hillsong Church. In my late teens I started ten years of living in inner city Sydney. Very much a sex-drugs and rock-n-roll existence where I began my time as a designer and printer of posters at the Tin Sheds at Sydney Uni.

AG: Tell us about the Tin Sheds…

CM: The Tin Sheds were a part of Sydney University – a poor cousin or bastard child I suppose. There were open access studios for painting and photography and ceramics. One of the prime focuses was the screen printing section which ran for seven or eight years with 24-hour access to community groups as well as students. It was place where a number of us lived from time to time, worked, had hopeless personal lives, drank too much and I imagine that some of us took too many drugs and so on but it was a really important part of my life.

AG: Did you go to University?

CM: I dropped out after a couple of years.

AG: What did you study?

CM: History, politics and psychology – disastrously! Then I stayed at Sydney Uni and squatted at the Tin Sheds. I learned how to screenprint through a friend of my mothers. My first T-shirt was surfie image and the second one was Che Guevara.

I survived ten years of that in Sydney before steadily heading north. I went to Townsville in Queensland first as a community arts officer and then went to smaller and smaller places. Then to Katherine in the NT for four years, working at Mimi Aboriginal Arts & Crafts then I went to Mutitjulu working for Maruku Arts and Crafts. I’ve been in Darwin since early 1985.

Living in Katherine in the early eighties was a very intense period. The land claim over Nitmuluk was happening at the time and it was a period which there was an extraordinary amount of tension between European and Aboriginal people. There were street demonstrations against the land claim and a couple of [the Aboriginal] claimants had shots fired over their heads.

But working with Aboriginal artists was also politicising as well – you couldn’t avoid the politics of the situation. I was really privileged to meet Vincent Lingiari about 8 years or so before he died. It was interesting yarning with him because I’d also been at anti-Vesteys demonstrations back in Sydney in the late sixties – so suddenly I’m finding myself years later talking about boomerangs and other things with the leader of the Wave Hill strike.

AG: That era in Katherine – you talked about some of the claimants being shot at – were you ostracised by that?

CM: Yeah, but I spent a lot of time out bush. Katherine was isolating in those days. Unless you’d stayed in town for at least two wet seasons people would look at you as an outsider. And if you were crazy enough to do a third wet season they sort of thought, “Well, he might be a lunatic but at least he is our lunatic.”

I’ve got a lot of friends from that period from the non-Aboriginal population. I learnt fairly early on that it was better not to say “I work for Aboriginal people” rather, I would say “I drive around the bush picking things up and dropping them off…

For example if you were in the Mataranka Pub and you told a [white local] that you worked for Aboriginal people they would turn their backs on you. But if you left that minor detail out you could have a yarn and find out all kinds of stuff.

It is far different now. I hate that thing where people say “Its not what it used to be” – because of lot of what it used to be was really awful.

This image I have for the Togart Award is also of a mythic time but I don’t think we should ever forget those histories.

AG: How was it working for the NT Labor government…

CM: Well, I had to wear shoes – which was a big thing – I hadn’t regularly worn shoes since I left school.

I think it was a really valuable experience, especially in terms in working out how that stuff works in a parliamentary sense. Again I made a lot of good friends on both sides of politics.

AG: You are know by your friends as a very intelligent rat-bag – in the nicest possible way…

CM: Certainly a rat-bag…

AG: What do you reckon is the most outrageous thing you’ve done…

CM: Nothing in the NT. I’ve mainly been a fine upstanding citizen here. Back in the seventies to go on a street march and get arrested was a relatively commonplace thing.

I’d forgotten about that part of my past until I applied for a shooter’s license up here and of course the Police get your interstate record.

The beauty of the Territory is in its smallness – and that is still very true even though we’ve doubled in population over the last 25 years. You can be a rat-bag and still have friends across different political and other persuasions. The Territory is much more user-friendly than down south.

AG: What would you like to see change?

CM: I’d like to see far less palm trees in Darwin because they are useless. They don’t give any shade and I think this obsession with the palm is really quite sick.

And I’d really like to see lots more live music venues.

I think it is tragic that we lost the Green Room in the old Hotel Darwin. I’d like to see many more venues like Happy Yess in town and the Railway Club out at Parap which has just been re-established after a fire. It is really difficult for small venues like that but they are important and I’d like to see many more small venues like them. Alice Springs is in many ways more culturally engaged than Darwin is.

* “Not Dead Yet”, a retrospective exhibition of the collaborative and individual work of Chips Mackinolty and Therese Ritchie was shown at the Charles Darwin University Art Collection and Art Gallery to September 30th. It is expected to tour southern states in 2011 and 2012.