Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards

The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) showcases some of the most exciting contemporary Indigenous art in the country. Featuring sixty-eight finalists from 280 entries, this year’s exhibition represents a wide range of disciplines and approaches – including traditional weaving, painting, etching and sculpture as well as photography, film, printmaking and assemblages. The variety of media demonstrates the richness and diversity of contemporary Indigenous artistic practice in Australia and the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices nationwide.

This year, Yolŋu artist Djambawa Marawili AM is the winner of the Telstra Art Award for his piece Journey To America (2018). Made of natural pigments on stringybark, the work reflects on Marawili’s recent travels throughout the United States promoting Yolŋu philosophy. It depicts the iconic Statue of Liberty, along with five different states of water in Blue Mud Bay on the eastern coast of Arnhem Land, and how these ideas have flowed between the nations. The main flow is generated through Marawili singing the fire of the estate of Yathikpa, passing from Australia indicated by the coat of arms, towards America, home of the female ‘ancestral being’ the Statue of Liberty. Marawili’s intricate brushwork and use of natural materials creates dynamic movement and flow across the large bark piece, and the addition of his own personal narrative and familiar western iconography makes the work is decidedly contemporary.

Another artist who conflates Indigenous and Western imagery is Titus Nganjmirra, a young artist from Gunbalanya, NT, who won the Telstra Emerging Artist Award for his painting Queen Elizabeth (2019). A depiction of the Queen in the traditional visual language of West Arnhem Land, Nganjmirra’s piece juxtaposes ancient and modern iconography, referencing Australia’s dark colonial history and the resilience of Indigenous culture. Poignant and political, this sophisticated painting still manages to be playful and endearing.

Many of the artists in this exhibition seek to bring humour and play to the surface, including Kaylene Whiskey (Indulkana, SA) who was awarded the Telstra General Painting Award for her portrait Seven Sistas (2018). Painted on a repurposed road sign, this contemporary interpretation of the Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) Dreaming reclaims TV and pop culture idols as characters, celebrating sisterhood and female empowerment.

The amalgamation of modern materials and traditional techniques is also present throughout the exhibition, with many artists adopting synthetic polymer paint, ink, and in one case print toner, to formulate their pieces. Noŋgirrŋa Marawili (Yirrkala NT) used discarded magenta print toner to inject a new language of colour into the tradition of bark painting in Lightning Strikes (2018) – which won her the Telstra Bark Painting Award. Another prolific artist from Yirrkala is Malaluba Gumana, who this year has won the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award for her work Rainbows in the Lillies (2018). The hollow stringybark is decorated with the marwat (cross-hatching) technique using a finely controlled hairbrush, depicting her mother’s Galpu clan designs of dhatam (waterlilies) and djari (rainbow). She and many other artists are finding innovative ways to pass on their stories and communicate their history to a contemporary audience. An artist who executed this brilliantly was Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu (Yirrkala NT), whose captivating film Gurrutu’mi Mala – My connections (2019) won the Telstra Multimedia Award this year. This work highlights the importance of barrkungu wanga (language from a distance) or Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL), an everyday tool used by the artist and those in his Yirrkala community to communicate cultural identity and connection.

Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA)
10 August – 3 November 2019
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin

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