Territory style: Salon des Refusés

Yanuwa/Larrakia/Bardi/Wardaman woman Franchesca Cubillo, Senior Curator/Advisor National Gallery of Australia, writes about the first Salon des Refusés (conceived and brought to fruition by gallerists Matt Ward and Paul Johnstone) held in Darwin in 2013 as a pendant to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

The Salon des Refusés (SdR) originated in Paris, France in 1836 and was an exhibition of approximately 2,300 paintings rejected from the annual Academy of Fine Art's Paris Salon.

A group of official jurors (conservative artists) 'rejected’ the paintings. The ‘rejected’ artists and the wider public protested against this decision and the supreme power of the day, Emperor Napoleon III, intervened and instructed the works be displayed elsewhere.

And so it was, several centuries later and on the other side of the world, that the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects) opened to a packed audience at the historic Commonwealth Bank building, corner Smith and Bennett Street, Darwin, Australia on the 8 August 2013. Such was the excitement that it was estimated that approximately 350 people were in attendance.1 Approximately 1500 visitors attended over its two-week duration.

The display was held at the same time as the 30th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Art Award (NATSIAA) was on at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). It was courageously conceived and brought to fruition by commercial gallerists Matt Ward of Outstation Gallery and Paul Johnstone of Paul Johnstone Gallery who stated in their catalogue: "Every year hundreds of amazing works are rejected by the pre-selection process of NATSIAA. We believe that providing an exhibition space for the (rejected) works would be beneficial in a multitude of ways including: Additional exposure of outstanding artwork; Exposure for artwork during a national event; Potential sales of artwork for the artist; Instigate a public discussion about the future of NATSIAA."

The display succeeded in tackling these issues whilst also addressing the decades of grumbling that have occurred around the NATSIAA since its inception in 1984. As in Paris, this rejects exhibition was born out of collective frustration by the concerned (Indigenous art) sector troubled by the unpredictable nature of the official Award. This response was decades in the making.

The SdR exhibition removed the ‘Award’ component, thereby allowing all artwork to be displayed equally and without privilege. It also included paintings by Indigenous artists whose work was rejected in previous years. It provided an opportunity for the wider public to gain a greater understanding of the depth and breadth of the entries, and to reflect upon the quality of artworks entered. Everyone was intrigued by what had actually been rejected from the Award - discussions during the opening event included: did the official Pre-selection Panel make the right decisions, whose personal taste came to the fore, why wasn’t this work chosen for the NATSIAA hang, did individual judges have a particular agenda, why was a particular person involved, and do they have the skills and qualification to make these decisions...and so on and so forth…

It is important at this point to stop and consider why there is this intense interest surrounding the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Art Award. Like most art awards throughout history, it has not been without controversies. In fact the competition has benefited from the controversies, as the Award’s profile has risen from the local to the national and more recently, the international. The Award has grown to such an extent that most people involved in the Australian Indigenous arts sector have an opinion on the outcome of who is selected and who should win. This wonderful sense of intimate connectedness has been cultivated by MAGNT over the last 30 years. Art critics, artists, curators, arts administrators, art centre managers, gallery owners, collectors and the general public all engage at some point or another about who and what should have won.

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