Indigenous Australian art is one of the primary markets that we have in Australia. The unique craft and its aesthetic sees Aboriginal art as the main income for many communities and this year, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair sold a record $760,000 worth of artwork. The interest and demand is huge.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards (NATSIAA) held at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), showcases some of the best Indigenous art in the country. It exhibits an array of mediums; from bark painting to photography and hosts a variety of established and emerging artists from across the nation. NATSIAA is not only an incredibly important event which tests the waters of the national art scene to see how healthy they are, but it also recognises and celebrates the cultural and historical value of contemporary Indigenous art and artists.
When presented with some of the country’s most vibrant work - how do we judge the best of the best?
So, when presented with some of the country’s most vibrant work —how do we judge the best of the best?
It’s a difficult job, but someone has to do it. Being on the judging panel of this leading and largest art awards is certainly rewarding, but no easy task, especially when choosing from 65 diverse and equally outstanding works.
Fortunately for Emily McDaniel, she’s well-equipped for the challenge and the privilege of what she calls a “career highlight”.
The Wiradjuri woman from the Kalari Clan is an independent curator and former assistance curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of NSW. She has been the emerging curator for the 18th Sydney Biennale and the lead artist educator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. She has recently returned from the Venice Biennale as the Aboriginal emerging curator on the Australian team.
Emily is a first time judge alongside Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Chris Saines’ and established artist, Regina Wilson, making the judging panel strong in diversity, like the artist finalists themselves.
Emily understands how incredibly personal art is and says that even each judge assesses and likes and dislikes differently. She recounts the three all entering the exhibition and “shot off” into different corners of the room.
“We were all magnetically pulled to different areas from one another,” she chuckles.
However the appeal and ‘wow-factor’ always plays into Emily’s rule of thumb, and judging an art award is about picking the strongest work, rather than awarding a prize based on the artists’ reputation.
“I strongly believe that what we’ve selected for each category, is based on their own incredible works of art. They all make really strong statements and that was a big thing in my mind.
"There may be artists that audiences aren’t immediately familiar with, which I think is really important because we’re going to the merit of each artwork"
“There may be artists that audiences aren’t immediately familiar with, which I think is really important because we’re going to the merit of each artwork, and I was delighted to to award a few artists whose practices I wasn’t familiar with —and I think that’s what’s really special about NATSIAA awards,” she told NITV
Outside of judging and assessing works, Emily’s independent practice as a curator and art enthusiast generally gravitates toward works that tell the important cultural histories and those which include cultural objects.
“I gravitate toward works that are beautiful, works that are encapsulate the time that the artist has spent working on them. You can look at them and see how that day in the studio played out. I really enjoy that kind of work
“I noticed that there were a lot of artworks that we visited [at NATSIAA] that use traditional cultural practices and that are reinventing them and reconfiguring them in a contemporary context, such as Andy Snelgar from the South Coast of NSW.
“I have a strong pull towards artists that are from the South Coast of Australia and I was quite disappointed that not many of them got into that final stage of the awards. So that’s definitely something that I would like to see rectified by our artistic community next year, because we make such amazing work.”
This year is Emily’s first time judging, but she is no stranger to the event, having been attending as a punter, curator and arts educator over the last four years. She says NATSIAA facilitates a really important event to connect with the Indigenous and wider art community.
“It’s not only artists and art centres, but curators as well.
For the rest of the year we scuttle off into our corners of the country and do our work in states across the nation, but to come together and get a bit of context of what you’re doing. It’s really important and invigorating, so I’ll be coming back again and again and for me it’s a real priority.”
"The works that we have awarded in each category, they have each stuck with me quite deeply and I think they’ll stay for a really long time.”
These visits often mix work with pleasure, as Emily says that she can’t help tracking down particular finalists to showcase in her own exhibitions later on. One of whom is Adelaide-based artist, Anna Dowling who is known for her beautiful intricate drawings.
“It was this beautiful abstract ink drawing and it never left my mind," Emily recalls.
"A few years later I curated it into a show so, yeah, that’s what Darwin International Art Fair and the NATSIAA Awards are about for me. I find a lot of works that stay with me for a really long time, and the works that we have awarded in each category, they have each stuck with me quite deeply and I think they’ll stay for a really long time.”
Emily hopes more to see more exhibiting Indigenous artists in the growth of Indigenous art in Australia as a whole,
“I think the future’s very bright for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in Australia. I would like in the next five years for NATSIAA to have a more balanced representation of artists across Australia, including Torres Strait Islands.
“I'd also like to see Indigenous artists, having more major solo exhibitions in the years.
"I think that’s really important that we not just have group shows and start to really highlight the work that artists have accumulated over the course of their long vast careers. Our artists are very much a part of this industry, they are connected and these artists are knowledgeable and respond to art markets and once we fully understand and accept that I think we will really be able to highlight their careers as we would any other accomplished Australian artist.”
The 34th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAAs) is on display at the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory (MAGNT) from 11 August - 26 November 2017. For information, go here
The winners will be announced Friday, 11 August at 6.00pm