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The 55-year-old Aurukun artist has taken out the First Nations art prize in Darwin, for a playful work that was praised for its ‘remarkable execution
A vibrant, joyful sculpture hewn from a north Queensland milkwood tree has won one of Australia’s richest art prizes, at the 2023 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art awards (Natsiaa).
It is the first art prize win for 55-year-old Aurukun artist Keith Wikmunea, who has been practising his art on the Cape York peninsula since the 1990s.
Wikmunea’s sculpture – titled Ku’, Theewith & Kalampang: The White Cockatoo, Galah and the Wandering Dog 2023 – collected the $100,000 top prize at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin on Friday evening.
Wikmunea, who belongs to the Apalech and Winchanam clans, said the carved white cockatoos and galahs in the work represented two of his totems, drawn from his father’s and his mother’s side respectively.
The dog at the base of the tree was from his ancestral song lines, while the tree itself – painted in colours specific to the Thu’ Apalech people – was the same tree his ancestors had been using to create art “since the beginning of time”.
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The artist told the Guardian he would use the prize money to buy a boat – and a car to tow it with. “I’m going to take my family camping and fishing,” he said.
The all-Indigenous judging panel – comprised of National Gallery of Australia curator Kelli Cole, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair director Janina Harding and La Perouse artist Peter Yanada – praised Wikmunea’s work for its extraordinary scale and presence.
“The remarkable execution of the work captures the strong sense of community life that invites the viewer to enjoy,” the judges statement said. “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 family. This is an exemplary winning work.”
Acclaimed First Nations artist Brenda Croft won the Works on Paper award, one of six $15,000 prizes distributed by the awards.
Her brooding photographic portrait – titled blood/memory: Brenda & Christopher II – represents the “matrilineal/patrilineal blood/memories” that connect the artist and her son/nephew.
“Our First Nations heritage grounds us in continuous, ever-shifting colonised landscapes,” she said, noting that it was ironically her non-Indigenous grandfather who bound them together.
“Through him we are the direct outcome of a century’s enforced displacement and removal from our communities and traditional lands, enacted under legislation and proclamation spanning two centuries. blood/memory is the intangible essence pulsing through our hearts and minds, across the generations.”
The general painting award was won by Julie Nangala Robertson, an artist from Pirlinyarnu in the Northern Territory, and the daughter of another former Natsiaa winner, Dorothy Napangardi.
Her Mina Mina 2022 is an aerial depiction of a sacred ceremonial site for Napangardi and Napanangka women, located about 600km west of Yuendumu.
Kuninjku artist Owen Yalandja won the bark painting award for Ngalkodjek Yawkyawk 2023, a work representing an old story the artist’s father told about a billabong woman spirit.
A 29-year-old artist from the Yolŋu community of Yirrkala, Dhalmula Burarrwaŋa, was named emerging artist of the year.
The printmaker, mentored by her grandmother, a fellow Yirrkala artist, captures the “fun and playfulness of everyday life” in her work, the judges said.
Torres Strait Island artist Jimmy John Thaiday’s Just Beneath the Surface, a five-minute video exploring the artist’s connection to the ocean, won the multimedia category; and Anne Nginyangka Thompson won the 3D award for her Anangu History vessels.
Five works from the APY Art Centre Collective’s Tjala Arts studio appear as finalists in the exhibition. The APY ACC is subject to a South Australian government-led inquiry into allegations of non-Indigenous workers interfering with some of the First Nations artists’ work.
On 2 August, an independent investigation called by the National Gallery of Australia released its report, finding all 28 APY ACC artworks scheduled for a mid-year exhibition were the artists’ own work.
MAGNT director Adam Worrall said all works entered into the Natsiaa’s must meet its standards of authenticity, collaboration, non-Indigenous participation in the formation of an artwork, and provenance. All 2023 Natsiaa finalists met these criteria, he said.
Speaking to the Guardian, Rebekah Raymond, the museum’s curator of Aboriginal art, said there was much joy to be found among the work of the 63 finalists, selected from more than 240 entries.
“There’s always some works that are extremely joyful and buoyant and show the full range of emotions,” she said. “But this year there seems to be a real focus on liberty, looked at in many in different ways.”
Now in its 40th year, the Natsiaa’s are Australia’s longest running and most prestigious Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art awards.
To mark the anniversary, the museum has selected works that have come into its collection from past awards spanning four decades for a special exhibition.
“It is an incredible snapshot of contemporary Indigenous artists practice,” said MAGNT director Adam Worrall. “You can actually see the changes in styles and the changes in the sector over the last 40 years.”
The Natsiaa exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory opens on 12 August and continues until 18 February 2024.