Overall NATSIAA winners Frank Young (R), his niece Rhonda Dick, and grandson Anwar Young. (Supplied: MAGNT)
A multimedia work of a young man looking out through the bars of suspended spears that both protect and imprison him, created by three generations of one family, has won the overall prize at this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA).
Frank Young, his niece Unrupa Rhonda Dick, and his grandson Anwar Young jointly created the work, called Many Spears — Young Fella Story, with the men carving the spears and Ms Dick photographing her nephew in a commentary on Indigenous incarceration in Australia.
“We need young people to be standing behind their culture, not behind bars,” Young said.
“I wanted to train my grandson to make spears like me to take over my work, because I’m getting old.
“We are looking forward to getting our young people to be in safe places, learning about our culture, learning about our work, and continue on … we are so hungry to take our work outside to the world.”
Dick said she wanted to help young people in her community Amata, in the APY Lands of South Australia.
“It’s not the right way, to end up in prison; we want to tell them to stay behind the line, behind culture, where they belong,” she said.
Artwork a ‘call to action’
Now in its 34th year, 65 finalists were preselected from more than 300 entries, before the judges made their decision, selecting a multimedia piece as the overall winner in the first year that category has been offered.
“The fact that it was a collaboration between multiple generations, and each one you can see in the work, that really inspired us … it’s a really layered work,” said judge Emily McDaniel, director of the Queensland Art Gallery.
“It’s a call to action; it isn’t a passive response, it isn’t a purely political response, instead it’s a callback to culture and language.”
The work stands out following a year of public discussion about the Don Dale youth detention scandal in the Northern Territory, and the subsequent royal commission.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of both hope and possibility in this work,” said judge Chris Saines, director of Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art.
“This isn’t trying to problematise a political issue, it’s trying to address a political issue, to provide solutions rather than providing something which simply acts as some culture of complaint.”
Themes of forgiveness and healing
Robert Fielding won the Work on Paper Award for the second time for his work Mikali Kutju, meaning “one blood” in the Pitjantjatjara language, which he said was a call for unity and an end to racial prejudice.
“What’s on the surface is nothing … we are equal, and we are one,” he said.
He said the work was part of his embrace of forgiveness, as his father forgave those who removed him from his family as part of the stolen generation.
“I cannot live on hate, I cannot live on anger … I as a person can only move forward with love,” Fielding said.
Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, from north-east Arnhem Land, won the Bark Painting Award, her second NATSIAA win, for her work Lines.
The work represented the evolution of her art since she began painting about a decade ago after she was gored by a buffalo.
“She used to have really bad dreams and then she went, ‘nah, I’m not going to do that anymore’. So she started painting leaves and fruit and food, and then from there she went on to just lines and strokes,” said her niece and translator Merrkiyawia Ganambarr.
“That was probably a part of her leaving that experience, or her fear of the buffalo.”
She said Lines represented how her aunt now views the world, and told the story of fire, her life force.
“Fire is danger but it can be healing and peace … the rhythm of her life and the land are one,” Ms Ganambarr said.
Surge of creativity in APY Lands
South Australian artist Matjanka Norris won the General Painting Award for The Country Is Very Dry, a stark, sparse landscape of the APY Lands.
“It used to be dry land, and now in our lands we got a lot of grass, and wildflowers, and trees,” she said via an interpreter.
South Australian artist Betty Muffler won the Emerging Artist Award for a work called Healing Country, which told the story of her experience of the Maralinga atomic bomb tests and expresses the healing of her country in the APY Lands.
Queenslander Shirley Macnamara won the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award for Nyurruga Muulawaddi, a woven basket using old age spinifex to reference the 1967 referendum and the difficulties her family faced in fighting to retain their culture.
“Because of the way it was, my grandmother couldn’t pass or didn’t pass any of that [culture] on because they were worried about what would happen, they would be sent away if they practiced their language,” Macnamara said.
“The work is inspired by the strength and resilience that my grandmother and other family members in the wider family group continued to do those things secretly.”
Winner of the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award, a basket by Shirley Macnamara. (Supplied: MAGNT)
Despite gaps this year in representations of artists from the Torres Strait and from south-eastern Australia, Ms McDaniel said contemporary Indigenous art was flourishing, particularly in the APY Lands, whose artists won four of the six categories.
“There’s an increasing surge of creativity and activity in the APY,” she said.
“They’re artists that aren’t content with remaining stagnant, they aren’t content with stability, they want to push boundaries … so there’s a sense of urgency and excitement behind the works they’re creating.”
Some of the finalists at this year’s awards
Darwin artist Gary Lee’s photograph Sad Buddha, a commentary on the Don Dale scandal. (Supplied: MAGNT)