If someone asked me to describe this year’s Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) in a line, my response would be simple: no. The fundamental diversity and redoubtable skill of the 67 finalists’ works demanded such bluntness. Indeed, even the smaller pool of prize winners – Gunybi Ganambarr (Telstra Art Award), Napuwarri Marawili (Telstra Bark Painting Award), Peter Mungkuri (Telstra General Painting Award), Kathy Inkamala (Telstra Works on Paper Award), Wukun Wanambi (Telstra Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award), Matthew Dhamuliya Gurruwiwi (Telstra Emerging Artist Award), and Patrina Liyadurrkitj Mununggurr (Telstra Multimedia Award) – could not be captured in a line. But, of course, this question was not posed to me by a hypothetical stranger – or some ‘someone’ – but by myself. In fact, every time I review a show I ask it, and every time it helps me makes sense of what I’m looking at. Not this time. This time the works that hung, stood, and sat in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory would not bend to authorial conceit or accommodate easy distillation. They demanded more from us.
Entering the exhibition, I was immediately struck by the aesthetic dislocation that existed between the artworks. To my right hung Kunmanara Pompey’s Cowboy Story (2018) and to its right sat Tamika Grant-Iramu’s Storyline (2018). The two works were a study in contrast. Pompey’s sequence of four paintings were anecdotal and endearing, depicting rural scenes of cowboys and horses, with every visible face – human and animal – painted with a smile. The ease of this subject matter, in turn, appeared to suffuse the simplicity of the compositions and the loose handling of the paint. But take a few more steps into the gallery and this tone dissipated: Grant-Iramu’s linocuts were bold and graphic, with each of their white marks biting into the black background. Where Pompey’s paintings invoked a collective nostalgia (irrespective of whether the scene had any grounding in the viewer’s past), Grant-Iramu’s work had a mesmerising, almost alien quality. And, throughout the gallery, these kinds of aesthetic juxtapositions were continually being reproduced. Rather than disturbing the viewer’s experience, however, the hang helped redefine it. Because in disrupting the seamlessness of our aesthetic consumption, the exhibition refused to confirm any monolithic notion of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander art, opting instead to present a vision of difference. The show was at its most potent in these moments of challenge, tension and, ultimately, refutation.
For me, however, one work stood out from all the rest: Wukun Wanambi’s Destiny (2018). The piece comprised of three hollowed-out stringybark poles, and a video installation that projected fish onto the floor, swimming between the trunks. I stood watching – entranced by the creatures that circulated in and out of the base of the poles, in an undulating gyre that expanded and compressed, as if responding to the invisible motions of the ocean. However, the success of Wanambi’s work was not in this singular digitised element, but its ability to bind all of its constitutive sculptural, painted and virtual parts together. The fishes not only inhabited the ground but also the trunks, where they covered every inch of surface: thronging and moving in an intricate painted pattern. In collapsing these static and kinetic elements into one another, Wanambi arranged a marriage of the old and new, and once again defied our expectations. My slow examination of the work was eventually disturbed by the sound of thunder, as raindrops appeared in the virtual water below and the circling fish began to disappear. Just as in nature, the work was fleeting and was perhaps all the more precious because of that fact.
My description of Wanambi’s work is, of course, inadequate. Indeed, I’m sure that, despite the editorial team’s best efforts, the image in this magazine will only partially compensate for that reality. But that is what the best art always does – its effect is so great that it drives you to recount its existence to others, even while reminding you of the impossibility of this task. And, in this sense, that is what this year’s NATSIAAs represented: a beautiful impossibility.
‘The 35th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards’ exhibition is currently on display at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, until 11 November 2018.
Article by Tai Mitsuji from Art Monthly’s September issue 310
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