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10 August – 3 November 2019

History of Telstra NATSIAA

MAGNT founded what was originally called the National Aboriginal Art Award in 1984. It is Australia’s first and longest running exhibition of its kind and came at a critical time in the developing growth and recognition of commercial Aboriginal art. By the 1980s there was already an increasing number of community based art centres in remote Australia, especially in the Northern Territory that still has the highest percentage of practicing artists nationwide. At the same time there was also a ground swell of so called urban-based artists who were agitating for recognition in a highly political way. By bringing together such diverse artists from around Australia, NATSIAA wanted to celebrate the validity and cultural diversity of contemporary Indigenous artistic expression when it was largely undervalued and underappreciated. Interstate artists like Lin Onus, Fiona Foley, Arone Raymond Meeks and Jeffrey Samuels, who were also part of the first, highly influential ‘Koori ’84’ exhibition in Sydney, were also featured in the first NATSIAA that was won by Papunya artist Michael Nelson Tjakamarra for his canvas painting Three Ceremonies.


By 1992 Telstra (then Telecom) became NATSIAA’s major sponsor, which consolidated its standing as a prestigious national exhibition, while significantly increasing its monetary value. The Telstra Art Award (formerly First Prize) dramatically increased from  $20,000 to $50,000 in 2014, while the subsidiary awards now include seven $5,000 awards in five different media categories, as well an emerging artist award. Up until 2004 the major prize was acquisitive so the work was automatically acquired for the MAGNT collection as part of the prize money, along with other curatorially selected works that became part of the Telstra Collection. Richard Bells’ canvas painting Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) ironically about the exploitation and commodification of Indigenous art by the white art market, was the last to win the acquisitive award in 2003. In the following year the Telstra Art Award became an outright gift to the winner in keeping with other art prizes as well as the escalating value of Indigenous art. This was highlighted by Denis Nona’s win of the first non-acquisitive prize in 2007 for his 3.5 meter bronze sculpture Ubirikubiri of the Awailau Kasa, that was valued in excess of $100,000.


Since its inception NATSIAA has profiled the immense changes and trends within Indigenous art that emerged from almost invisibility to become a significant force in contemporary fine art. An obvious change has been in the growing range of techniques used by entrants, now reflected in the five subsidiary media awards for bark painting, general painting, works on paper, three dimensional work and in multimedia – an award established in response to the growing submissions of multimedia installations by entrants.


Women have also participated in increasing numbers over the years with entries in batik, printmaking, ceramics, glassmaking, jewellery as well as paintings on bark and canvas. Women’s fibre practice has also been increasingly celebrated with entries of exquisitely crafted possum skin cloaks, baskets, nets, fish and eel traps, through to completely new schools of fibre sculpture. Notably, Maningrida’s Lena Yarinkura won the Wandjuk Marika 3D Award first in 1994 for her revolutionary figurative fibre installation Family drama, and again in 1997 for her twined Family of Yawkyawk mermaids. Then in 2005 the Tjanpi Desert Weavers collective represented by the Papulankutja Artists, won the Telstra First Prize for their remarkable life sized Tjanpi Grass Toyota. Although one critic controversially dismissed it then as a mere work of badly shaped craft, it’s become a much-loved item in MAGNT’s collection.


These and other remarkable works have passed through the MAGNT gallery since NATSIAA began, providing a small glimpse into the ever changing face of indigenous art since the 1980s. During its establishment period, the exhibition coincided with National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week in Darwin. Today it is now the signature art event of the Darwin Festival among a number of other commercial Indigenous art exhibitions, including the Indigenous Art Fair that was originally conceived to complement NATSIAA. An independent Salon des Refusés has also been run concurrently with NATSIAA since 2013, showing a high proportion of the rejected works- a fact that has invigorated debate about the NATSIAA’s selection process while providing unselected artists a chance to be exhibited. It is impossible now to include the vast number of submitted works, although the NATSIAA remains true to its initial objective by providing unknown, emerging, and established artists from around the country the opportunity to be seen. 


Margie West
Emeritus Curator of Aboriginal Art and NATSIAA Founder, MAGNT

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MAGNT Darwin

19 Conacher Street

The Gardens, Darwin NT


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