Natsiaa 2018: young guns breathe new life into Indigenous art traditions

Guardian Web |

In Yolngu culture “rock solid” cultural conventions dictate that artists use the land for their art, which can be only of an artist’s own identity or that of their mother or grandmother. For artists such as Gunybi Ganambarr, who won the overall prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art awards (Natsiaa), that definition is malleable.

Ganambarr’s striking work is unique for its use of shiny modern sheets of metal – some leftover aluminium panels, essentially found objects on his traditional land.

“The reason I find the different materials … roofing insulation, rubber, metal … is all the trees and bark, when we chop them out from the bush they’re all dying,” he says. “So I found this different road.”

The importance of young people carrying on old traditions, and of elders allowing the evolution of art to encompass new mediums, has dominated this year’s national Indigenous art awards. Most went to Yolngu artists from a northeast Arnhem Land art centre.

At the absolute maximum size for eligible entries – three metres by three metres – the dremel-etched panels of Buyku are a traditional depiction of freshwater from Gadarrpa (Blue Mud bay) and Gulutji coming together. The glinting metal catches the light in an unpredictable dance akin to a water surface.

“This is freshwater going to meet the ocean,” Ganambarr says.

“It’s my mother’s clan’s land, and it represents the waters running out to the ocean. The mainstream of the fresh water goes into the ocean and clashes.”

Ganambarr, a former carpenter, hopes to use the $50,000 prize money to open a business on his Gangan homelands.

He is not the only artist merging the traditional with the new to take home a prize from Australia’s leading and longest running Indigenous art awards.

Patrina Liyadurrkitj Mununggurr’s 93-second video is an intimate portrayal of her preparations for ceremony, painting the white clay from her Djapu clan’s beaches on her forehead and limbs. The clay – gapan – represents the dhuwa wanjupi (cloud), and is the subject of an ancient songline sung before ceremonial dances.

“[This award] is the first time for me. I’m nervous, a little bit. I’ve done this for my family so they can see our new generation,” Mununggur says.

One of the three judges, Judith Inkamala, a senior artist from Ntaria, praises Mununggurr’s work.

“She learn from her family, from her culture – it could be ceremony or sorry business. She’s showing to us that they can learn from the young people,” she says.

Inkamala is more familiar with the art of the works of paper award winner, Kathy Inkamala. The young woman from Mparntwe (Alice Springs) won for her depiction of Mount Gillen, in a style reminiscent of Albert Namatjira but with the colours and style turned up for the young generation.

“To paint a landscape is to use imagination,” says the first-time winner. “I kind of pop it out a bit. For me the first time wining the Telstra awards, I feel happy.”

The evolution of Indigenous art in the non-Indigenous space and the use of modern materials is not uncomplicated.

Indigenous stories and knowledge are strictly protected and their dissemination controlled, but Yolngu leaders and artists such as Djambawa Muruwili have long advocated for and allowed a relaxation of conventions to allow the use of art “in a living way”, says Will Stubbs, manager of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

Yolngu art has been an integral part of the land rights fight, including the Yirrkala bark petitions, the Barunga statement, and last decade’s Blue Mud bay court decision.

“Yolngu art is identity, spiritual dimensions unknown to non-Indigenous people, and also a political statement, but as these awards prove, also capable of being appreciated as contemporary fine art,” he says.

Wukun Wanambi’s winning work for the Wandjuk Marika memorial 3D award was inspired by both his people’s ancient stories, and the genealogy website

Three tall, painted, stringybark poles stretch up and out from the museum floor, framing a bright projected school of tiny fish, spinning and swimming in a tight circle, occasionally bouncing out the edges of the poles looking for their ancestors.

“The fish rotate through to the ocean, looking for their destiny, and then they find the pole or rock and the destiny is stable,” says Wanambi.

“It’s just like you or I looking on the internet for our great great, great, great, grandfather.”

The story of the fish’s journey is from Wanambi’s country, five or six hours from the community he lives in, Yirrkala.

“People know about fishing but they don’t know the story about fishing or where the story comes from,” he says.

“Mullet is a special totem relating to me, and I show that. All this family is relating to me. It makes me strong and I have to share that to the Balanda [non-Indigenous] world.”

The fourth Buku-Larrnggay artist to round out the art centre’s dominance of the awards, Napuwarri Marawili, took out the bark painting award with Baraltja Dugong Yathikpa, and is enthusiastic about sharing the hunting story of his father and ancestors.

“My father taught me how to keep my land and my stories and my fire,” he says. “I’ve got spirit from there and my heart is there. They are telling me how to keep my land and my self, how I can look after myself, how I can look after my community, Yilpara.”

Marawili’s two-metre stringybark is an intricate weaving of lines of curves, depicting a hunting party’s pursuit of dugong through seagrass, manifested as fire, which ended in tragedy with boiling water capsizing the canoe. The story is believed to be the oral tradition of an ancient tsunami in the area.

“Now we’re painting and showing it to the Balanda mob, how the Yolngu live at home,” he says. “You’ve got to learn from us Yolngu – language, mind, dancing, health, following [your] heart.”

The importance of art to Indigenous communities, particularly in passing it on to the young people, is evident in the excitement of emerging artist winner, Matthew Dhamuliya Gurruwiwi, and his relatives Jeffrey and James from the Goulburn Island community of Wurruwi.

“He had to make his choice, to go for it, to listen to our elders and leaders,” says Jeffrey.

“He made his choice. Some young people don’t have interest, but Matthew had an interest and the talent. He wanted to be a part of those leaders.”

Gurruwiwi was born on Elcho Island and raised by a senior Galpu clan leader and artist, Gali Yalkarriwuy Gurruwiwi. He learned to harvest wood, collect feathers and bush wax and make bush string to continue making and dancing with traditional Galpu ceremonial Morning Star poles for the next generation.

“We’re trying to push the young people to follow the footsteps and carry out the knowledge, be good, strong and proud,” says Jeffrey. “This is what you’re looking at.”

Peter Mungkuri was unable to attend the awards to accept his prize for general painting. From Indulkana in South Australia, Mungkuri’s confronting red and monochrome work depicts “the memories of my country”, in the APY lands.

For only the second year, the judging panel chose their winners from the selection pool: 66 works from 308 entries.

Kelly Gallatly, director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, says it allowed the panel to “see everything as it is” before judging.

“You’re perhaps more likely to come with assumptions when you see the works in the flesh when you’ve shortlisted,” she says.

“You’re not judging the works in the flesh, you’re judging from images. So whether its slippages of scale, things that might read a particular way in an image that when you see it in the flesh is either better or perhaps falls away.”

Fellow judge Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, an independent curator and consultant, encouraged people to visit the exhitibition in Darwin, at the city’s Museum and Art Gallery of the NT, on until November.

“It offers a chance to see the different trends … a lot of work around cultural revitalisation and cultural maintenance … [and] that’s become a really important thing for practitioners, especially from the southern parts of the country,” he says.

“For audiences it’s a way to come and challenge themselves around their own preconceptions of what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life is like, and see the way people, particularly with technology, are really innovating.”

Standing with his three fellow Yolngu artists, Wunambi says the new art is “significant”.

“We’re showing you guys more particular and different art that we can play [with],” he says. “We’re giving the young guns an opportunity to show the world that we can do the art in a different manner.”

  • Guardian Australia travelled to Darwin with the assistance of Telstra

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