NATSIAA may not be the most mellifluous of acronyms but it generates an incredible amount of excitement, as finalist Danie Mellor can attest. In 2009 Mellor won the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, which is held every year at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, in Darwin. It’s good to be a winner, but what Mellor liked best was “the unique opportunity to connect with other artists, to have conversations with other work that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”
This is precisely what one sees when one visits the show. Indigenous artists from all over the country are gathered together in one place, looking at each other’s efforts, comparing their own pieces with those of distant countrymen. It’s obvious at a glance that Aboriginal Australia is not a homogeneous group but a United Nations of desert people, forest people, islanders and urbanites. They speak different languages and make very different kinds of art, but they are all part of the deep history of this continent.
It’s appropriate that Telstra should be the sponsor of this event because it’s all about communication – between indigenous groups, between whitefellas and blackfellas, between Australian artists and a growing number of international collectors who have fallen for Aboriginal art.
The NATSIAA, the Aboriginal Art Fair, and a range of other shows combine to make the second week of August Darwin’s busiest time of the year.
Mellor has been chosen as a finalist again this year, the first time he has entered since 2009. With his pale skin and red hair he might be seen as an atypical indigenous artist. On the other hand, he is fiercely proud of his lineage, and living proof of the diversity of indigenous creativity. Born in Mackay in 1971 he is of Mamu, Ngagen and Ngajan heritage.
With a full set of degrees, including a PhD from the Australian National University, Mellor’s relationship to country is more complex than that of an artist from a remote community. A fastidious draughtsman, he is known for large-scale drawings that investigate colonial and post-colonial history; for mixed media sculptures and installations; and increasingly, for his photography. Being a cosmopolitan he knows he can’t claim the same intimate knowledge of country possessed by many of the NATSIAA artists.
His solution has been dig deeply into his own family history, and to make large-scale images of the rainforests of North Queensland. One key work is the blue drawing, A gaze still dark (a black portrait of intimacy) (2019), which depicts an Aboriginal woman in a long, Edwardian dress standing in front of backcloth on which a lush forest scene is printed. The woman is Mellor’s great-grandmother, Ellen, and the drawing is based on a photo portrait taken by Alfred Atkinson in Cairns in 1908.
“I’ve often thought of that photo as a picture for the world,” he says. “It was taken at a time of convergence and change when people’s lives began to shift in a tumultuous way. All over the world there was an upsurge of industrialism, the birth of modernism, an explosion of science and knowledge. These images from that period are pivotal because they talk about personal experience.”
The work Mellor is entering in the NATSIAA is a six panel photographic installation of the rainforest in a signature shade of blue. The images are reminiscent of the pictures taken by colonial photographers such as Richard Daintree and Nicholas Caire, but Mellor has given these scenes a dreamlike atmosphere. We feel we are peering back into a primordial era before western time put a framework on all human endeavour.
He says: “I hope people get that sense of being transported to another time and place. There should be imaginary spaces available in the landscape.”
Mellors find these “imaginary spaces” in many different works of art – not just indigenous painting, but the landscapes of Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan. He feels that Williams had “an engagement with landscape that Aboriginal people could appreciate because there’s an acknowledgement of an unseen dimension that gives us our emotional response. His work has always struck me as being materially based but spiritually inclined.”
The artist says he was thrilled recently to find that the National Gallery of Australia had hung his large photo-work, Landstory (2018) alongside a Williams triptych. What he anticipates most eagerly is a growing convergence of indigenous and western-style art, as white Australians become more alert and respectful of Aboriginal culture. For many leading indigenous artists, one of the main motivations for making art is to share their worldview with a white audience, to open the door to a greater understanding.
In opposition to a world of resurgent nationalism and racism, the idea of cultural coming-together lies at the heart of Mellor’s work. “It holds the potential for an expanded world view, or at least an expanded view of history,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be alive.”
The 36th Telstra National and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, 9 August – 3 November, 2019
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 July, 2019