Dreamtime artists bask in spotlight

Australia's most prestigious indigenous art award has been won by Brisbane painter Richard Bell, with a caustic message to the galleries and collectors that have sparked an explosive growth in the country's pre-eminent fine art movement.

Bell's large geometric canvas which won him the $40,000 first prize in the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, bears the legend "Aboriginal Art It's a White Thing". It certainly is, the frantic bargain hunting through Darwin's galleries by international and Australian dealers and experts resembling Christmas department store sales.

On the morning Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin launched a new territory indigenous arts policy, a posse of Australian and overseas buyers zipped through Darwin's balmy suburbs, buzzing through exhibitions and back rooms trying to gazump each other for rapidly appreciating works.

It is no surprise that the Australian indigenous art market turns over more than $100-million a year, with the price of some works rocketing by 500 per cent in two years.

It's a fact noted by Gayluma Maymuru, a 52-year-old Manggalili woman who collected $4000 for the best bark painting prize with a work in ochres depicting the dreaming stories she has the clan right to tell.

Gayluma enjoys earning money from painting the dreamtime stories handed down by her ancestors and competing in a major corporate art prize.

"I like going in the (Telstra) competition. It helps tell this story." Her husband Dhukal, lives with Gayluma in a remote homeland camp in East Arnhem Land without power, town water, or any amenities other than a satellite phone for dire emergencies.

"We want all - black and white - to look at the world wisely not narrow, with respect. Listen to Yolgnu people; look at this one world with one spirit," Dhukal said yesterday.

The awards feature a majority of works with traditional and always sacred themes.

Alick Tipoti's intricate lino-cut print recording a sea journey story of his Torres Strait ancestry earned him $4000 for a work on paper.

The 3D award to Lorna Jin- Gubarrangunyia was for a conical pandanus palm fish trap used around Maningrida on the Arnhem Land coast.

But the general painting award won by Regina Wilson, one of the thousands of NT indigenous painters, was for an abstract image of a fish net weave.

Of Australia's contemporary artists, 29 per cent are indigenous and most of them live in NT.

The Telstra entries range in price from $400 to $45,000, all for new works.

Buyers representing the national and state galleries and corporate collectors joined high-profile art lovers such as Mrs Ros Packer who was one of the many visitors streaming through Darwin's Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory all day. Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski presented the awards.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald