Telstra’s Chief Financial Officer, Andy Penn shares his view about the importance of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, which Telstra has sponsored for the past 22 years.

Andy says the Awards play an important role in recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. The Opinion Editorial was originally published in The Australian Newspaper on 22 August.

This year, for the first time in the history of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards ‘NATSIAA’ (or, as they are more colloquially known, the “Telstra Awards”) we saw a Salon des Refusés in Darwin. It included some wonderful traditional works. Works, however, that were not shortlisted for the award.

The history of the Salon des Refusés originates from Paris where the first Salon showed in 1863. It marked the beginning of the modern art movement. The works of such masters as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne were excluded from the most prominent annual exhibition of art of the day, the Paris Salon. Their works were seen as too radical, frivolous and straying too far from tradition and the Salon des Refusés was established to allow such works to be presented to the public. It caused quite a stir at the time but we should all be forever grateful as it provided the platform from which impressionism became accepted.

The irony of the Salon des Refusés in Darwin is that most of the works are more traditional in nature. Perhaps hinting at a rebellion against the contemporary paths that NATSIAA has taken in recent years and the fact the awards went to less traditional entrants, although some wonderful traditional works were shortlisted. This is, of course, the reverse of what happened in Paris in the late nineteenth century when it was the modern rebelling against the traditional.

This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the NATSIAA. These prestigious awards have led the way in recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in Australia. They dared to confirm that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture was something to celebrate. The awards also enable dozens of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to present their extraordinary talent, stories, culture and heritage in a national context. Each year we see artists from remote locations and urban centres across the country representing their people in various mediums and forms of expression.

Telstra has supported the NATSIAA for the last 22 years. The connection between Telstra and art may not be obvious but art, like technology, is a powerful medium for connecting people and allowing them to share their stories. Also, like technology, art continues to innovate, although this is not always popular.

Over this time, the NATSIAA has been a pioneer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. It has confirmed that this art and its associated culture is something to celebrate and deserves its own platform.

Over its 30 year history, NATSIAA has recognised and awarded some of Australia’s best artists, both traditional and emerging, including Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Dorothy Napangardi, Gulumby Yunupingu, Djambawa Marawilli, Julie Dowling, Alick Tipoti and Richard Bell. Others such as Naata Nungarryi have been highly commended in the awards.

The awards have grown and innovated, introducing new forms and mediums. The ”new media” category was introduced in 2010 and is perhaps viewed by some just as Impressionism was in the 1870s but it is simply a reflection of the fact that we are living in a digital world. The fact that artists are using (as they always have) new tools as they become available, should be celebrated.

The overall winner of this year’s NATSIAA, Jenni Kemarre Martiniello’s Golden Brown Reeds Fish Trap (pictured below) was a work in glass representing a traditional weaving, a traditional form transformed into the contemporary. It was praised by the judges for its sophistication, elegance and mastery of this medium.

Jenni Kemarre with the 2013 NATSIAA winning artwork 'Golden Brown Reeds Fish Trap'

As with technology, it would be a mistake to hold back innovation and creativity in art. Whilst this year’s NATSIAA attracted a strong field of contemporary art and the Salon des Refusés in Darwin was a show of more traditional work, it should not be lost on us that, whether it is via the NATSIAAs or the Salon des Refusés, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture continues to grow in prominence in Australia and abroad.

That is why the announcement that 50 of the NATSIAA artworks from the Telstra collection will be available to new audiences through a collaboration with the Google Art Project is such an exciting development. Google Art Project is an online platform where audiences across the world can access more than 40,000 works selected from collections held in 261 museums and galleries worldwide.

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory will join some of the world’s most acclaimed art museums, including the Tate Britain, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Van Gogh Museum; as well as Australian galleries including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The NATSIAA has been showcasing the best modern and traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art for the past 30 years and I hope it will continue to do so for another 30 years. As it does and as with many elements of life, I am sure artistic trends will continue to evolve whether the work is delivered on canvas, bark or in digital media and new traditions will emerge, just as they have throughout history. Through these changes our artists have and I am confident will remain respectful of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, tradition and culture.

The mix of traditional and contemporary should not be argued as wrong or right; it adds dynamism, a new dimension from which our culture and art will benefit. What history has shown us is that over the long term it is art that matters and it is the art that speaks the loudest.