Art and access to justice combine in the Northern Territory

Napangardi Jones, Yellow Bird, White Bird is being auctioned off to raise money for the Environmental Defenders Office of the Northern Territory. Photograph: Represented by Nyinkka Nyunyu Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre

For the second year in a row, artists and art centres (18 of them in fact) from across the Northern Territory have thrown their support behind the Environmental Defenders Office of the Northern Territory's annual Aboriginal art auction. This year more than 60 pieces will be auctioned. Most are being auctioned online at www.galabid.com/edont with a few major works being auctioned live at the final event on Monday evening at law firm Gilbert and Tobin's new Sydney offices in Barangaroo.

Last year, faced with imminent closure following federal government funding cuts, the Environmental Defenders Office NT was approached by two of its clients from the Gulf region asking if they could assist by donating paintings for us to sell. It was an incredibly generous offer, one that set off a chain of events that saw the office hold its inaugural art auction in June last year. That event generated over $60,000, effectively saving the centre.

Stewart Hoosan, Mayawagu – Freedom Fighter Photograph: Represented by Waralungku Arts

It's a good thing that it did, because in the last 12 months since our near closure the Environmental Defenders Office NT has continued its positive impact on the community. Since last year's auction we have provided legal services and community legal education in 19 remote communities, successfully assisted traditional owners of Watarrka National Park in preventing oil and gas exploration in the National Park, commenced litigation in the federal court challenging the approval of the Port Melville Oil and Gas Marine Supply Base and, just this week, brought an appeal in the Northern Territory Supreme Court in relation to an Aboriginal heritage area.

Related: Aboriginal art for auction to raise money for legal services

Despite the success of last year's auction, the well has once again nearly run dry. So, the office has, once again, turned to the Northern Territory's Indigenous artists and art centres for support.

Colin Golvan QC, once wrote in relation to Aboriginal art that it is "the expression of association and identity with the land and values which must be understood and protected, not just by Aboriginal people but by all of us … At a critically important level, Aboriginal painters are telling us how to look after our land".

Golvan's description of Aboriginal art makes clear the synergy of our event, auctioning Aboriginal art to provide free legal assistance for people seeking to protect country through the survival of the Environmental Defenders Office NT.

All of the art in the auction is, in one way or another, directed to the land. For example, the stunning works by Nancy McDinny and Stuart Hoosan depict landscapes of their country in the Gulf, the rivers that wind their way through Garrawa Country, the vast areas covered by white gum trees, and the stories of legendary frontier war freedom fighter Mayawagu. Timothy Cook's impressive ochre on linen piece, "Kulama", represents the Kulama Ceremony, which coincides with the harvest of wild yam during the late wet season.

Timothy Cook, Kulama design Ochre on linen Winner of 2012 Telstra Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award Photograph: Represented by Jilamara Arts

Contributing artist Billy Black from Bula Bula Art Centre in Ramingining described the importance of art as "passing stories on to Gurralpa mob and all the kids". Art is way of educating younger people about the land and how to care for it. Education is one of the office's most important roles. We attempt to help our Indigenous clients develop an increased understanding of, and capacity to interact with, the mainstream, as opposed to traditional, legal system. Our work takes time, it requires mutual respect and the generation of trust, it also requires a desire for reciprocal learning.

The need for the office's fundraising efforts is the complete withdrawal of federal government funding in 2014. At the time, the attorney general, George Brandis, justified the cuts on the grounds that a limited legal aid budget should be directed to clients not causes. For many Australians, environmental laws probably have a limited impact on their day-to-day lives. That is not the case for our clients. The environmental defenders office is often the only available legal option for Territorians confronted with major development projects.

But this year's auction doesn't just benefit the environmental defenders office, it provides a benefit to the artists too who will (with some notable exceptions) be paid for their work. The contributing art centres have foregone their fee in support of the office. This approach has allowed us to accept some major works from some of the Territory's most prominent artists. The event features significant works on bark by Nonggirrnga Marawili (2015 winner of best work on bark at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards), Ivan Namrikki and Debra Wurkidj. It also features a significant piece from 2012 Telstra Art Award winner Timothy Cook.

Further information about the Art Auction and a catalogue can be found at www.art4edont.com, good luck with the bidding.

You can view a gallery of some of the art for sale here.


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