News

Harold Thomas, the artist who designed the Australian Aboriginal flag in 1971, has been declared the overall winner of the 33rd Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. The Northern Territory based artist took out the award with his work Tribal Abduction.

Betty Kuntiwa Pumani from Mimili, South Australia, won the Telstra General Painting Award.

Robert Pau from Cairns (born Townsville), Queensland, won the Telstra Work on Paper Award.

John Mawurndjul from Mumeka, Northern Territory, won the Telstra Bark Painting Award.

Nicole Monks from Sydney, NSW (born in Subiaco West Australia) won the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award (sponsored by Telstra).

Ishmael Marika from Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory, won the Telstra Youth Award.

Colloquially known as the ‘Telstra’s’, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards celebrate 25 years in 2016. They are, without question, the primary awards for identifying Australia’s Indigenous artists, and this legacy is at the heart of the judging direction that Vernon Ah Kee is planning with co-judges Kimberley Moulton and Don Whyte.

Ah Kee is one of Australia’s leading artists. His work has been part of major international and national exhibitions and is known for its aesthetic, conceptual and political edge. As a first time final judge of the Telstra’s, which often selects traditional winners within established regional styles, he told Art Guide, “There are lots of good quality entries… In that sense the judging is fairly straightforward, but the Telstra Awards have a different history and a distinct path trod so far.”

“It has been a bit stale for a few years but, hopefully we can, by the selection with my two partner judges, offer pointers for the future. This is an approach that the three of us spoke about before we started.”

There are six categories of prizes: Telstra Art Award ($50,000), Telstra General Painting Award ($5000), Telstra Work on Paper Award ($5000), Telstra Bark Painting Award ($5000), the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award (sponsored by Telstra) ($5000) and the Telstra Youth Award ($5000) which was introduced in 2014 purportedly to retain the relevance of the awards through a focus on innovation.

2016 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards judges (L-R) Don Whyte, Kimberly Moulton and Vernon Ah Kee.
2016 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards judges (L-R) Don Whyte, Kimberly Moulton and Vernon Ah Kee.

Ah Kee has mixed feelings about this last award. “Lack of young entries is a cultural thing, and the problem is that these awards have, at times, rewarded elderly artists regardless of skill level or interest in the industry. Young people with more skill and discipline don’t enter out of respect,” he explains, “a Youth Award won’t assist in that circumstance.”

His ambition as a judge is to reward art on merit, without disregarding the legacy of the award. “It has a long history of elevating people and establishing narratives and legends. Its problem is that every time it has tried to break out of what it had become there has been a corrected narrative established immediately. As a judge all I can do is ask questions to negotiate different ways of approach with my fellow judges.” Examples of the Telstra’s “break outs” cited positively by Ah Kee include the major award to Richard Bell (2003) and Danie Mellor (2009), both of whom are national leaders.

The award, like the industry as a whole, has accommodated growth and change. Yet within the currently flat art market, Ah Kee sees an opportunity. “Australian art has its first best opportunity to define itself; we have nothing to lose. We could throw caution to the winds and have our mantra be risk and courage. Australia has not had that history: we barely know how to experiment. We are released from art school into an industry where you conform or perish.”

Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA)
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
5 August – 30 October

Louise Martin-Chew