In 1984, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) held the first National Aboriginal Art Award to celebrate the artistic practice and culture of First Nations Peoples. 40 years on, a diverse mix of works from what is now known as the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) continue to grace the gallery’s walls.
By Tierney Seccull
Art Centres are often referred to as the beating heart of remote Indigenous communities. Artists come together and create, reflecting themselves, their stories, their history and culture through art. This important culture preserving tradition has lasted more than 65,000 years.
Beautiful traditional and contemporary work takes form in these special places, the Art Centres a figurative bloodline pumping back into the community with money generated through art sales.
But, most importantly, creation on Country, in community, gives artists a strong sense of agency. And the Telstra NATSIAA elevates the visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture.
The Telstra NATSIAA has grown over the last four decades to be the longest running and most prestigious First Nations art award this country has ever seen. And although the prize money lucrative, the accolades esteemed, it’s this visibility of First Nations culture and arts practice that is truly its best achievement.
This year, Keith Wikmunea took out the 2023 Telstra Art Award for his almost three-metre sculpture, a stunning work that reflects all that he is.
“Ku’, Theewith & Kalampang: The White Cockatoo, Galah and the wandering Dog is a sculpture that represents who I am as a Thu’ Apalech man from the Cape York Peninsula. The colours on this tree are specific to my clan, the Thu’ Apalech people,” he says.
“In Wik-Mungkan, my first spoken language, we call this tree yuk thanchal. This tree is also known as milkywood [sic] in English and is the same tree that my ancestors have been using since the beginning of time to create their artefacts. My Puulwuy [father’s totem] and my Kathwuy [mother’s totem] are represented here too.”
Wikmunea’s work was one of 246 entries submitted into this year’s Awards, selected alongside 62 other Finalists to be exhibited at MAGNT. Category winners from the 2023 Telstra NATSIAA also include Julie Nangala Robertson (General Painting Award), Owen Yalandja (Bark Painting Award), Brenda L Croft (Work On Paper Award), Anne Nginyangka Thompson (Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award), Jimmy John Thaiday (Multimedia Award, for a second year running), and Dhalmula Burarrwaŋa (Emerging Artist Award).
MAGNT Director Adam Worrall acknowledges the huge importance of NATSIAA, for all Australians, and says the Awards continues what it set out to do 40 years ago despite such humble beginnings.
“MAGNT established this Award because it wanted to celebrate the validity and cultural diversity of contemporary Indigenous artistic expression at a time when it was largely undervalued and underappreciated,” he says.
“While it began as a small, 10-day exhibition, over the past four decades it has showcased over 4,000 works from diverse language groups and communities across the continent. It’s provided significant exposure, growth and development to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual arts sector.”
The 2023 Telstra NATSIAA was unveiled in August with a grand opening and Awards ceremony, and remains on display at MAGNT until mid-February 2024. If you’re yet to explore the impressive range of works from artists across Australia, you are in for a treat. If you’ve been fortunate to marvel at this year’s wonders, no-one could blame you for returning to sneak another peek.
Through varied mediums, artists share themselves and their community with the viewer. Works offer a glimpse into what life is like on Country, often depicted in the style of a clan or a region. As you peruse the works, take a moment to consider the thousands of years of storytelling passed down through generations, the works upon the walls a physical manifestation of this knowledge.
It's integral to Australian culture on the whole that we celebrate the powerful voices and creative talent of our First Nations artists, and Worrall says he is grateful to the artists for their resilience and culture sharing.
“Your stories, connection to Country and artistic brilliance have enriched our lives and deepened our understanding of Indigenous culture. It’s through your powerful narratives and captivating creativity that we can continue to forge stronger connections, and foster cultural appreciation.”
Visit MAGNT by the saltwater on Larrakia Country to witness this year's incredible Telstra NATSIAA art works, carrying within them over 65,000 years of storytelling and culture from Australia's far corners.
2023 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards
WHEN UNTIL SUN 18 FEB, 2024
Thumbnail & Header: Doris Arlyetilhe Thomas, Footy At Titjikala (detail), 2022, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 66x125cm. Photo: MAGNT/Mark Sherwood. © Doris Thomas/Copyright Agency, 2023
Inset: 2023 NATSIAA Winner, Keith Wikmunea, Ku’, Theewith & Kalampang: The White Cockatoo, Galah and the wandering Dog (detail), 2023. Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Collection. Photo: MAGNT/Mark Sherwood