Installation view at MAGNT

In the 35th year of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards it is clear to me, and many others, that the level of quality overall had taken a serious step up compared with previous years.

Not to take anything away from the excellent group of previous finalists and winners, but a much stronger confidence and connection to self shone through for me, evident by all of the finalist artists this year.

In this post I will walk you through my highlights, starting with one of the absolute stand outs – Pepai Carroll.

Walking up the sloped walkway which leads into MAGNT’s top floor exhibition space I was immediately struck by a large canvas by the Ernabella artist.

Pepai Carrol’s Yumari, 2018 - my pick of the exhibition

‘Yumari’ is a triumph in both innovation and composition. The interplay of techniques draws your eye and guides you in multiple directions - creating a slight unease in spatial recognition. At one moment you’re clear and focussed and the next you are slightly blurred and disorientated.

Perhaps this ingenious technique is not as hypnotic and powerful as some of the strong men’s Papunya works can claim, it is a much more subtle and comfortable experience – and a journey which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one completely captivated by this artist’s work. The constant word on the street was Pepai, Pepai, Pepai! And his sold-out solo show, running concurrently at Matt Ward’s Outstation Gallery, was certainly testament to the level of enthusiasm among collectors. Definitely a well-deserved recognition and an artist worth keeping an eye on.

Mantua Nangala’s Women’s Ceremonies at Marrapinti, 2017

Back at MAGNT though, it didn’t take long to once again become awestruck – this time by a sublime work by Papunya Tula artist - Mantua Nangala. Women’s Ceremonies at Marrapinti has rhythm, a constant hum and an abundance of soul. The finesse and precise intent made this another standout for me.

As I continued around the room, passing masterwork after masterwork, any notion that the best Indigenous works are from a bygone era, began to appear increasingly untrue.

Take this year’s General Painting Award winner - Peter Mungkuri’s ‘Ngura (country)’ - wow!

The combination of both the kitsch, playful illustrated plant life, along with strong underlying tradition using ceremonial design often found on sacred objects, help to create a serious contribution – fantastic!

Around the corner the energy and excitement continues to build through all sorts of application and medium.

The winer of the general painting award - Peter Mungkuri’s Ngura (Country), 2018

Mumu Mike’s clever use of Australia Post mailbags to help underscore a highly politically charged narrative is thoughtful yet provocative.

And several other notable mentions are Tommy May’s superb reverse etching - enamel on tin, exhibited next to three exquisitely petite barks by Kaye Brown. Both works, hanging side-by-side, were purchased by MAGNT - well bought I’d say.

At the Telstra dinner following the award announcements, the highlight had to be the birthday girl - 74 year old Mavis Ngallametta, breaking out mid-dinner in traditional song. And, to everyone’s delight, we got a second rendition closer to the end of the evening...a real treat.

Speaking with Tina Baum (curator at the NGA), confirmed the overriding consensus this year that the overall quality was superior to previous years.  

Mumu Mike’s Kulilaya Munuya Nitiriwa (Listen and Learn from Us), 2017

This can be attributed to several leading factors, but I think the driving force behind this resurgence is the clear and obvious shift in market sentiment. The attendance numbers don’t lie and with communities now beginning to see positive light, the artists are once again being rewarded. And with that - the confidence and passion in the work is clearly showing.

The Telstra team lead by CEO Andy Penn, and the MAGNT curators lead by Luke Scholes, should be highly commended for this year’s effort and putting on a great show. It was compassionate yet serious, bold and progressive.

But the real recognition here, needs to go to the artists - pushing boundaries and gaining recognition for their efforts.

One passing comment that I think had some merit - why aren’t people given opportunity to view the finalist works prior to winner announcements being made? 

It might explain the clearly inadequate response from the audience when the overall winner was announced - perhaps it might be beneficial that they know what they are actually applauding?

Kaye Brown’s three fine bark paintings - Timrambu amintiya winga, 2018

What is exciting though, not only with regards to the winning work, but the majority of new works coming out of Yirrkala/Injalak is the pushing of boundaries through experimental medium. Whether it’s the use of traditional rarrk designs combined with what looked like skateboard grip paper, or the shiny sheets of aluminium used in Gunybi Ganambarr’s Telstra winning work ‘Buyku’, this new wave of contemporary vision (with strong ties to tradition) are to be applauded and encouraged. 

That our contemporary Indigenous artists continue to break new ground and astound us with their work, demonstrates to me that this movement is in the infant stages of accomplishment. The best is yet to come - I can’t wait to see what comes next!

And so I’m lead back to the question that I was constantly asked as I walked around in a slight haze the day after a great night of celebrations - what was your favourite work in the exhibition D’Lan? 

My clear and unequivocal answer is the artist whose work I can’t get out of my head - Pepai, Pepai, Pepai!!

D’Lan Davidson.

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