A hand-woven “monumental” pandanus candle, symbolizing the centuries-old relationship between the Yolngu of Arnhem Land and their neighbors in Macassan, Indonesia, won first prize at the prestigious Natsiaa and Natsiaa art awards.
Margaret Rarru Garrawurra, a senior Yolngu artist from Lanarra in Arnhem Land, created the impressive 2.8m tall hand-woven pandanus sail over several months of daily work.
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Garrawurra, who won the shell painting award in 2005, said she was “proud and happy” to win the $100,000 grand prize for Dhomala (vela pandanus), which addresses her cultural identity and connection to her father, as well as the historic relationships that endure between the Yolngu people and the Macassans.
“I was with my sisters when I heard about the victory. We were very happy. It makes us proud to receive the first prize,” said Garrawurra, known as Rarru.
“The Yolngu people were watching the people of Macassan weaving their dhomala over time… so they started doing it. My father also learned the skill. He used to do them.
“I thought about how he made them, my father, and I started to remember. And now I’m doing it.”
The sail features distinctive stripes of pandanus dyed black. As a senior weaver at the Milingimbi arts center, Rarru knows the recipe for creating black. mole (tincture) she uses – and use of mole is reserved for her, and those to whom she gives permission.
Rarru said the work took months to create, from collecting pandanus and dyes in July last year and weaving from October to March “every day from morning to night” before being completed.
Natsiaa judges said the work was “a monumental sculpture that is majestic in scale and demanding in technical virtuosity”.
“Her work is a powerful one that reminds us that the Yolngu are active and intrepid explorers, participating in international trade long before the arrival of Europeans,” said Myles Russell Cook and Dr. Joanna Barkmann, the judges.
The winner of the work on paper was Larrakia artist Gary Lee for a beautiful portrait of his grandfather, adorned with white flowers.
The late Mrs. D Yunupingu of Yirrkala won the bark award for his joyful retelling of an important mermaid story that is also a story of her relationship with her father and the traditional country of the sea. Yunupingu, who became a master painter like her sisters later in life, used the bright magenta from printer cartridges to create the background on which ghostly mermaids sit, depicting sea creatures as well as the stars of the night sky.
From the art center Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, Merrkiawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs accepted the award on behalf of his beloved “mermaid lady”.
“The mermaid is the spirit that revealed herself to her father, my grandfather, on Wessel Island when they lived there in the late 1930s,” Ganambarr-Stubbs said.
Ganambarr-Stubbs said the painting captured Yunupingu’s effervescent spirit.
“[In the painting room] you could always hear her from across the room, her laughter and her always saying, ‘Amazing!’ That was her favorite word.
“If she were here, this is what she would say: ‘This is amazing!’”
Jimmy Thaiday of Darnley Island won the multimedia award for a moving film about the impact of climate change on his island and a nearby sand key, which is now almost completely submerged. Thaiday said the $15,000 award will help him work harder to address the climate change crisis in Torres Strait.
“I encourage all the younger generation to get out there and speak up if they feel powerless about climate change,” said Thaiday. “It’s really affecting our sand key, affecting the breeding seasons for animals, birds and plants, and our ability to go out there and talk to younger people about our traditions.”
Rebekah Raymond, curator of Aboriginal art and material culture at MAGNT, said there were 63 finalists from across Australia, representing over 44 different nations and language groups.
“This year, I’ve seen a resurgence of strong handwork in truly tactile practices – carving, pottery, weaving – that celebrate handwork in such an intimate way,” said Raymond.
“During Covid, life slowed down a bit. For many of the artists in the north of this continent, there has been a return to their homeland, and that has given them more time to consider different things, to push their practice in new ways, to move up the scale or return to something they have always done.”
The Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art awards (Natsiaa) exhibition takes place from 6 August 2022 to 15 January 2023 at the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery in Darwin. Details: www.natsiaa.com.au