Darwin Festival celebrates Indigenous culture

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In 1984, when the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) initiated the annual National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA), contemporary Indigenous art was slowly catching the attention of both critics and collectors. Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is widely and internationally respected, and during August, while the Darwin Festival is taking place, the whole city of Darwin celebrates both the depth and breadth of Indigenous creative talent.

The festival includes myriad shows and events: Salon21 presents multiple Indigenous art exhibitions across five galleries; the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair offers ethically sourced arts and crafts from 70 Indigenous-owned art centres; fashion and textiles are showcased both in the National Indigenous Fashion Awards and on the Country to Couture catwalk; and singers, songwriters and musicians are honoured in the National Indigenous Music Awards. MAGNT director Marcus Schutenko describes this as a thriving ecology of Indigenous art, and NATSIAA is at its heart.

Pitjantjatjara artist Timo Hogan has taken out the top gong—the prestigious Telstra Art Prize—for his spectacular painting Lake Baker, 2020. The artist, who lives in Tjuntjuntjara in Western Australia, has been a NATSIAA finalist in previous years, with powerful paintings that pay homage to his father’s country.

“Im painting Lake Baker. Its a sacred place,” explains Mr Hogan. “My father showed me the Tjukurpa (spiritual / ancestral creation story) when I was a boy. Its got a big story, but I can’t tell all of it, miilmiilpa (highly sacred), only the front part.”

Bugai Whyoulter has won the General Painting Award for Wantili (Warntili, Canning Stock Route Well 25), 2021, while the Bark Painting Award went to Dhambit Munuŋgurr, whose work Bees at Gäṉgän was lauded by the judges as “completely transforming the medium and conventions of bark painting as we know it.” The late Yolngu artist Ms M Wirrpanda was posthumously awarded the Works on Paper prize for a compelling abstract drawing in fibre-tip pen, Untitled, which was completed in the last months of her life.

Hubert Pareroultja and Mervyn Rubuntja received the Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award for their large-scale immersive work Through the veil of time, 2021, which saw the artists using watercolour on silkscreen mesh to convey the Country of the Central Desert, in the style of the Hermannsburg School. The Multimedia Award went to Tiwi artist Pedro Wonaeamirri for Jilarti, live performance of Jilarti  (brolga song), pimirtiki (feather head piece), imeuja (false beard), tokwayinga (feather ball), tjimirrikamarka (fighting stick), tunga (folded bark bag), 2021, a performance with associated ceremonial objects. The judges commented of this work: “By animating these objects through ceremony—both live and digitally presented—Pedro offers a powerful reminder to all of us that Aboriginal culture is a living culture, rich in tradition.”

Queensland-based Kyra Mancktelow, from the Jalai language group, was awarded the Emerging Artist Award for her etching Moongalba 11, 2021. Described by the judges as “haunting and ghostly”, the piece uses textiles and printmaking to explore the legacy of missionary schools and the Stolen Generations.

This year the award exhibition features works by 65 established and emerging Indigenous artists from across the country. While the judging panel acknowledged many of these artists would have faced challenges making art during a pandemic, MAGNT too has felt the repercussions of Covid-19—although, as Schutenko points out, they weren’t all bad.

Despite having to close the 2020 NATSIAA for a period, Schutenko explains that the pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions gave MAGNT the push they needed to develop an interactive virtual NATSIAA exhibition. “I think everyone was really excited about being able to reach a broader audience,” he says. NATSIAA usually draws people to Darwin from Europe and North America, as well as from all over Australia—and with the addition of a virtual exhibition again this year, everyone, everywhere, can now visit.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
7 August – 6 February 2022

Darwin Festival
Various locations
5 August – 22 August

This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Tracey Clement