Gayle Maddigan Remembered Ritual 2005, charcoal and ash on paper, 179 x 133 cm.

The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA), known among Indigenous Australians as simply 'The Telstra', draws entries from all over Australia from both communities and individuals, established and new artists, who only need to be Indigenous to be eligible.

The Pre-selection Panel this year consisted of Margie West, Research Associate, MAGNT; Daena Murray, Curator, Visual Arts, MAGNT; Brenda L. Croft, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Australia; Dan Murphy, visual artist and Gary Lee, writer, freelance curator. They met over a two-day period to view 369 entries in the form of photographic documentation, sometimes of unfinished works. The two judges' Indigenous artist Destiny Deacon and Queensland Gallery Director Doug Hall then selected winners for the five categories from 119 actual works.

In such an exhibition I look for something I haven't seen before, something that speaks to me about intensity and engagement. I was impressed by Archie Moore's strong work featuring life-size segmented photographs of his body, painted in black and white and covered in writing. And Turbo Brown's energetic painting of pelicans on the Murray River against a grey and yellow cloudy sky, Ngarra's charming Gudajal who was loved up to by Agulas in a cave along the Margaret River Range in which the Agulas look like Martians, and Bardayal Lofty Nadjamerrek's delicate bark painting Lambalk (Flying Fox). Then there was Paddy Wainburrnga Fordham's Drinking in the Cemetery, a graphite drawing with a long story panel telling a ghost story, a story about life and earth, expressing a true and urgent desire to communicate and instruct through art.

Tjanpi Grass Toyota, the artwork that won the First Prize, is a particularly large work clearly made with The Telstra in mind. It is a life-size Toyota troopie (troop carriers are the workhorses of the outback) made by twenty women, the Blackstone Tjanpi Weavers, from dried grass over three weeks on an armature of steel made by Perth sculptor Claire Bailey. The work strongly expresses the ambitious vision of its initiator, Kantjupayi Benson, an old woman keen to experiment with the newly introduced coiled basket technique. Previous works have included woven crockery and a giant 5 meter long Big Basket for the World Expo in Hanover. The strategic thinking and cleverness of many Indigenous Australians is thus represented by the work but clearly the bar needs to be set a lot higher in terms of physical and technical output. Yet the work is undeniably an achievement connected to increasing status and rallying spirits by women from the Tri-State Women's Council struggling to hold up much more than half the sky against a background of diminishing funding and rampant social tragedy.

Banduk Marika's hypnotic and electrically pulsing bark painting Yalangbara, painted with the assistance of Boliny and Ralwurrandji Wanambi, was made in response to the encouragement of Yirrkala art adviser Will Stubbs to enter The Telstra, and as a response to the death of her grandson. The repeat pattern is like a warp and weft, it is a clan sacred design or miny'tji, representing both the sandhills of Yalangbara and salt drying on the skin. It is clear that with this shimmering art Banduk hopes to help to save some young people's lives.

The ongoing tragedies occurring in Aboriginal Australia from North to South to West to East also provide an undercurrent to Gayle Madigan's charcoal drawing Remembered Ritual which refers to the return and burial of Latje Latje people's remains from the Melbourne Museum as well as the all too frequent deaths of young Aboriginal people. Untimely death from suicide, disease, and violence, two funerals a week, is the norm. And it is invariably the old burying the young. This is the true emergency in Indigenous Australia and the role of Indigenous art is to be one of the few lifelines available.

The Garma Festival of Traditional Culture is held in Gulkula, part of Yolgnu country in north eastern Arnhem Land, just before The Telstra opens. Its main originator Mandaway Yunupingu spoke at the opening of The Telstra about the necessity to install and maintain connections for and with Indigenous Australians. Sound like a recipe for Telstra who do now have a National Indigenous Directorate based in Darwin. Mandaway also said that you can't over-estimate the value of visual arts in remote communities, and the effect of success in visual art on community life.

First Prize - Blackstone Tjanpi Weavers
General Painting Award - Evelyn Pultara
Bark Painting Award - Banduk Marika
Work on Paper award - Gayle Maddigan
Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award - Naminapu Maymuru-White