With entries closing soon for the 2018 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, independent art curator Emily McDaniel reflects on her experience as a first-time judge in 2017 and the importance of the awards to the Australian art community.

As Australia’s longest-running and most prestigious Indigenous art awards, Telstra NATSIAA showcases a diverse range of works from around the country. But as 2017 judge Emily McDaniel sees it, the importance of the awards is far greater – not just for the arts community, but for all of Australia.

Attracting more than 65,000 visitors annually, the awards are widely recognised as one of the most important indicators of artistic development in contemporary Indigenous art.

“I go to the NATSIAAs every year because it’s a summary of the year that has passed, and shows who has risen to the top of their art practice – but it also brings together people. I have colleagues in Western Australia who I see once a year, and it’s at the NATSIAAs,” McDaniel said this week.

Telstra NATSIAA Awards

“One of the most important reasons we have art awards like this is for the wider awareness of what Indigenous artistic practice today is like – this is Australian art as well, and it’s the best of our artists practicing today.”

McDaniel said the Telstra NATSIAA from year to year is a barometer for the health of the contemporary art landscape across Australia, and is challenging for judges and audiences.

“Aboriginal art is not static, and it never has been. It’s always changing, always adapting – as all art should. We see that in the NATSIAAs, if you take for example the winning work from last year [Kulata Tjuta – Wati kulunypa tjukurpa (Many spears – Young fella story)] – yes it’s photography but it’s also about self-representation and the passing of cultural knowledge. It was that beautiful elongated kulata that have been made before time immemorial,” McDaniel said.

“We’re looking at something that is both ancient, and very of today and that exemplifies what contemporary art practice is. That’s the important thing about NATSIAA – it asks for submissions of art recently produced. So it’s all contemporary work and it challenges audiences in ways they’re not aware of.”

Telstra NATSIAA Awards

The 2017 winner of the major prize – the Telstra Art Award – covered the emotionally and politically charged subject of the incarceration of young Aboriginal men, and was described by the judging panel as “a measured and considered response to an inherently complex and contested subject.

“The incarceration of young Aboriginal men affects families and entire communities. This work is a solemn and dignified call to action – to bring young Aboriginal men back to culture, language and country.”

McDaniel acknowledges that audiences may be cautious when engaging with Indigenous art, but encourages people to embrace the opportunity to use the art as a catalyst for better understanding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience.

“I feel that this comes from a place of respect. People do not want to disrespect the cultural content of a work that they’re not aware of,” McDaniel said.

“If we’re scared and we don’t have the conversation, what good is that doing? Art is a third space – there’s you over there, and me over here, we can have a conversation or we can turn to this third space and suddenly communicate in a way that wasn’t possible before – that’s the power of art.“

Emily McDaniel an independent curator, writer and educator from the Kalari Clan of the Wiradjuri nation in central New South Wales. She worked for three years as the Assistant Curator of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and as the Aboriginal Emerging Curator for the 18th Sydney Biennale and in 2017 joined the Australian team for the Venice Biennale in the same capacity.

The categories for the 35th Telstra NATSIAA are:

  • Telstra Art Award – $50,000
  • Telstra General Painting Award – $5,000
  • Telstra Bark Painting Award – $5,000
  • Telstra Works on Paper Award – $5,000
  • Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award (also sponsored by Telstra) – $5,000
  • Telstra Multimedia Award – $5,000
  • Emerging Artists Award – $5,000

The Awards are open to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists over the age of 18. There is no particular theme or restriction regarding work that can be entered. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists can submit one original work that has not been previously exhibited or made available for sale. Apply at MAGNT.

The finalists’ works will be exhibited at MAGNT from Friday 10 August 2018, where seven winners will be announced at a special awards ceremony.