This year’s ‘Telstras’ feel different. Over its 34 years the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) have been known for their sometimes surprising winners – remember the life-size Toyota ute woven from native grass in 2005? – and occasional controversy: in 2008 a group of artists boycotted in protest against the participation of a dealer. But follow the curving ramp up past the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory’s (MAGNT) prized exhibit Sweetheart, the five-metre stuffed saltwater crocodile, to the upper galleries that host the 2017 NATSIAAs, and a change is discernible in the air.
Instead of paintings hung cheek by jowl and vying for attention in the harsh glare of competition, works occupy their own discrete spaces. Dark-painted walls disappear and objects are pooled in light, each emerging to display their own unique materiality: natural ochre, stringybark, stoneware, spinifex, feather. In this way, the 34th NATSIAAs is first and foremost an exhibition, a prize second.
The product of a new and ongoing three-member selection panel, comprising MAGNT’s Curator of Aboriginal Art Luke Scholes, which has whittled down over 300 entries to the 65 on display until 26 November, the exhibition is national, nuanced, and cohesive despite a range of practice through the sheer quality of works. With this year’s other panellists being Hetti Perkins and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s Clothilde Bullen, it is very much an exhibition considered curatorially rather than drawn by numbers – and more than the sum of its considerable parts.
Pity, then, this year’s judges – curator Emily McDaniel, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art Director Chris Saines and artist Regina Wilson – in having to single out the various (albeit very well-deserving) category winners: Robert Fielding (Telstra Work on Paper Award); Shirley Macnamara (Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award); Betty Muffler (Telstra Emerging Artist Award); Matjangka Nyukana Norris (Telstra General Painting Award); and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (Telstra Bark Painting Award).
However, in deeming the multimedia work Kulata Tjuta – Wati kulunypa tjukurpa (Many spears – Young fella story) by Anwar Young, Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Frank Young to be this year’s overall winner, the judges not only noted ‘a solemn and dignified call to action’, but privileged the exhibition’s collaborative curated vision. A creative response to the injustices of juvenile detention, this installation from the APY Lands is conceptually powerful, poetic as well as political, and a perfect work of art.
Michael Fitzgerald, Darwin