At the 2023 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art awards (Natsiaa), a vivid and joyous sculpture that was hewn from a north Queensland milkwood tree won one of Australia’s richest art prizes. The sculpture was made from a milkwood tree in north Queensland.
It is the first time that Aurukun artist Keith Wikmunea, who is 55 years old and has been working as an artist on the Cape York peninsula since the 1990s, has been awarded a prize for his work.
The Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin awarded Wikmunea’s sculpture “Ku’, Theewith & Kalampang: The White Cockatoo, Galah and the Wandering Dog 2023″ with the top prize of $100,000 on Friday evening. The sculpture’s title translates to “The White Cockatoo, Galah and the Wandering Dog 2023.”
Wikmunea, who is a member of both the Apalech and the Winchanam clans, explained that the carved white cockatoos and galahs in the artwork represented two of his totems. These totems came from his father’s side of the family and his mother’s side of the family, respectively.
While the dog at the base of the tree was from his family song lines, the tree itself was the same tree that his ancestors had been utilizing to produce art “since the beginning of time.” The tree was painted in colours that were particular to the Thu’ Apalech people.
The creative individual stated to the Guardian that he planned to invest the award money on the purchase of a boat and a vehicle to pull it behind. He added, “I’m going to take my family camping and fishing,” and they were all really excited about it.
The exceptional grandeur and presence of Wikmunea’s work was complimented by the all-Indigenous judging panel, which was comprised of the curator of the National Gallery of Australia, Kelli Cole, the director of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Janina Harding, and the artist Peter Yanada from La Perouse.
“The remarkable execution of the work captures the strong sense of community life that invites the viewer to enjoy,” the judges stated in their statement. “With the totem birds above always nearby, we are transported to sitting under a tree in the shade, guarded by the Ku [camp dog], who represents the protector of the family,” the speaker said. This is the kind of winning work that sets the standard.”
The Works on the Paper award, which was one of six prizes totalling $15,000 that was given out by the awards, was won by the renowned First Nations artist Brenda Croft.
Her ominous photographic image of Brenda and Christopher II, which bears the title blood/memory: Brenda & Christopher II, is meant to symbolize the “matrilineal/patrilineal blood/memories” that link the artist to her son/nephew.
“Our First Nations heritage grounds us in continuous, ever-shifting colonised landscapes,” she said, noting that, strangely, it was her non-Indigenous grandpa who bound them together. “Our First Nations heritage grounds us in continuous, ever-shifting colonised landscapes,” she said.
“Through him, we are the direct result of a century’s worth of forced displacement and expulsion from our villages and traditional lands, which was enacted via legislation and proclamation that spanned two centuries. Blood and memory are the invisible essences that continue to move through our hearts and brains from one generation to the next.
Julie Nangala Robertson, an artist from Pirlinyarnu in the Northern Territory and the daughter of Dorothy Napangardi, a previous winner of the Natsiaa, took home the prize for general painting. Robertson is an accomplished painter in her own right.
A sacred ritual location for Napangardi and Napanangka women, Her Mina Mina 2022 is an aerial picture of the site, which is located approximately 600 kilometres west of Yuendumu.
Owen Yalandja, a Kuninjku artist, was given the award for best bark painting for his piece titled “Ngalkodjek Yawkyawk 2023.” This piece depicts an old story that the artist’s father used to tell about a billabong woman’s spirit.
Dhalmula Burarrwaa, an artist who is 29 years old and hails from the Yolu community of Yirrkala, was awarded the title of emerging artist of the year.
The printer, who was taught by her grandmother, a fellow Yirrkala artist, conveys the “fun and playfulness of everyday life” in her work, according to the judges. Her grandmother was one of her mentors.
Just Beneath the Surface, a movie by Torres Strait Island artist Jimmy John Thaiday that is five minutes long and explores the artist’s connection to the ocean won the award for the multimedia category. Anne Nginyangka Thompson’s Anangu History Boats received the award for the three-dimensional category.
The exhibition will feature five pieces chosen as finalists that were produced in the Tjala Arts studio at the APY Art Centre Collective. Allegations that non-Indigenous staff interfered with the creative process of some First Nations artists are the topic of an investigation that is being directed by the government of South Australia and focuses on the APY ACC.
The National Gallery of Australia commissioned an independent investigation on August 2, which resulted in the publishing of its findings on August 2. The report found that all 28 APY ACC Natsiaa artworks intended for a mid-year display were the artists’ own work.
According to Adam Worrall, director of MAGNT, all works that are submitted to the Natsiaa must meet its standards of authenticity, collaboration, non-Indigenous participation in the production of an artwork, and provenance. These standards must be adhered to in order to be accepted. According to what he said, all of the 2023 Natsiaa finalists met these criteria.
The museum’s curator of Aboriginal art, Rebekah Raymond, addressed the media and stated that there was a great deal of joy to be found among the work of the 63 finalists, who were chosen from more than 240 entries.
“There are always some works that are extremely joyful and buoyant and show the full range of emotions,” she added. “There’s always going to be some of those.” “However, this year there appears to be a real focus on liberty, which is viewed in a wide variety of different ways.”
In order to commemorate this occasion, the museum has curated a unique exhibition comprised of pieces that have been added to its collection as a result of having won accolades in the preceding four decades.
The director of the MAGNT, Adam Worrall, referred to the exhibition as “an incredible snapshot of contemporary Indigenous artists practice.” “Over the course of the past four decades, there has been a discernible shift in fashion as well as in the industry as a whole.”
Beginning on the 12th of August and running through the 18th of February 2024, visitors to the Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory will be able to view the Natsiaa exhibition.