Is Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) the most exciting art museum in the country right now? It is offering both the high profile annual National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (the NATSIAAs, often called after their long-time sponsors, ‘the Telstras’) and the quieter but even more important ‘Tjunguṉutja’ exhibition of the earliest paintings from Papunya in 1971-72 when the new Aboriginal acrylic art movement came into being.
Links between the two shows are frequent. For the tribal men of the Painting Room in Papunya were being radical and political when they revolted against the government’s assimilation policies and offered their complex culture to the world as art. And the winners of the ‘Big Telstra’ upstairs protest by adding text to their photograph and surrounding it with a wall of desert spears. Across the room, Yalti Napangati, one of the ‘Pintupi Nine’ who still lived an untouched desert life until 1984, has resisted the current Papunya Tula trend for op-art and continues to paint using the ancient symbols that first appeared on the old boards in her artwork, Ancestral women at Marrapinti.
The judges of 34th NATSIAAs made a convincing case for their selection of Unrupa Rhonda Dick’s photograph of her nephew Anwar Young in a project masterminded by his grandfather, Frank Young. It was a work, they said that “pushed past to greatness” as well as tackling the contentious subject of disaffected young Aboriginal men who may well end up in an institution like Don Dale in Darwin, even offering a solution.
The origins of that collaboration lie in a simple project to get the young men of the APY Lands in South Australia’s far north to engage with the culture by making kulata – spears. Elder and fellow artist Mumu Mike Williams has been doing it longer than most – appropriating Australia Post’s linen bags, painting text and land claims on them, and hanging them from spears. His work in the 63-piece NATSIAA selection makes the point that these kulata are post-aggression weapons; “We hand the spears over to make peace”, he told me – as would have happened in a traditional Makarrata, the ceremonial form of treaty that was proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, 2017.
Artists from the APY Lands also took out three awards – General Painting, Matjangka Norris, Works on Paper, Robert Fielding and Emerging Artist, Betty Muffler. That region’s work is so rich at the moment – at least three other works from there could have won prizes: the bold Watarru Collaborative’s serpent-surmounted tale of the increase ceremony that ensures their supply of quondongs; Wawiriya Burton’s secret/sacred explosion representing My Country; or Peter Mungkuri’s intricate, inked-in version of My Country, much like his work Ngura Wiru (Good Country) which took out the world’s richest landscape prize – the Hadley – in Hobart a couple of months ago. But the judges opted for Norris’ colour-drained reflection on drought – dense dotting of white on black, swirling patterns, and a wonderfully restrained use of pink offering promise of the flowers that will follow any rain.
Only four barks survived the pre-selection cut of entries from 300 to 63. A very limited view of that part of the artform, I believe. The ‘Salon des Refuses’ – now closed, but a revelation of the strength of current Indigenous art-making – contained two barks, by Dhuwarrwarr Marika and Djambawa Marawili, that should have made the show. Perhaps they were sidelined by the sheer riches of work from the Yolngu at the Buku Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala. In the NATSIAAs, either the winning work by Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu – a fiery concatenation of black and white lines responding to the vagaries of a huge bark surface – or Djirrirra Wunuŋmurra’s white-on-white reflections on the significance of the yam in Yolngu society – could have taken the prize.
Then again, bark-mistress Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, experimenting here in enamel paint on aluminium board, has deserted her normal medium with an extreme version of her favourite imagery showing the snake that creates lightning by sitting on a clan rock and spitting it up into the black, tropical sky.
The 16-strong 3-D Award section was competitive too – from the winner, Shirley Macnamara’s immaculate woven Old Woman Spinifex basket to Gunybi Ganambarr’s sensual painted log larrikitj, its curvaceous shape echoing the female form. Not far behind were Anniebell Marrngnamarrnga’s almost comparable woven Pregnant Yawkyawk and Pepai Jangala Carroll’s splendid pot representing his family’s sandhill Country at Ininti.
If you have the good fortune to be in Darwin, spend reflective time with those Papunya boards too – the ‘foundation documents’ of Aboriginal art. Individually, they may lack the drama of developed works in the NATSIAAs. But cumulatively, they add up to “a pivotal juncture in the development of Australian visual culture” as writer John Kean boldly claims in ‘Tjunguṉutja’s’ significant catalogue.
Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts writer who has been writing, broadcasting and film-making about Indigenous culture since 1985.