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Aboriginal incarceration artwork wins premier Indigenous art award

An evocative multimedia artwork responding to the incarceration of young Aboriginal men in centres such as Magill and Don Dale has won the country’s most prestigious Indigenous art award.

The overall prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards was tonight awarded to South Australian artists Anwar Young, Frank Young and Unrupa Rhonda Dick for their collaborative work Kulata Tjuta – Wati kulunypa tjukurpa (Many spears – Young fella story).

The awards were presented at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, where the finalists are being exhibited. Each category finalist receives a $5000 prize.

The winning work, selected from 300 entries and 65 finalists, features a photograph of a young man watermarked with cultural designs and text in language. In front of the photograph are hanging spears, arranged to form a chamber reminiscent of a prison cell.

Anwar Young, Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Frank Young, Kulata Tjuta - Wati kulunypa tjukurpa (Many spears - Young fella story), 37 spears, digital print, wood, kangaroo tendon, kiti (natural glue), 34th Telstra NATSIAA
Anwar Young, Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Frank Young, Kulata Tjuta – Wati kulunypa tjukurpa

But the spear structure actually represents the safety of traditional Aboriginal culture, the three artists say.

The young men should be behind our culture, not behind bars,” Frank told Daily Review. The spears are protecting our people — outside of that and behind iron bars, that’s no good for us.”

Frank is the grandfather of his collaborator Anwar, and Dick is his niece. The trio collaborated with other young men from Amata, who have been working with their grandfathers, learning to make spears in the traditional way.

Frank believes this kind of participation in art is hugely important for young people, and says that arts centres are the primary source of full-time work in many Indigenous communities.

NATSIAA winning artists, Frank Young, Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Anwar Young
NATSIAA winning artists, Frank Young, Unrupa Rhonda Dick and Anwar Young

Chris Saines, Director of Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art and one of the NATSIAA judges, said of the winning work: “It’s a work not about problematising a current state but rather aspiring to a future state; to have these young men return to country and have them introduced to traditional forms of art practice, and the making of spears through the mentoring of their elders. It stands to reason that that’s got to be a better outcome, because the rate of re-incarceration amongst Indigenous people in Australia is really shameful.”

Judge and curator Emily McDaniel said the work, like many of the finalists, speaks to both the past and present of Indigenous art, combining the ancient art of spear-making with the contemporary medium of photography.

McDaniel says she doesn’t find terms dividing between “traditional” and “contemporary” Aboriginal art particularly helpful when assessing the works in NATSIAA.

“A contemporary work belongs to a much deeper cultural practice — all of these works are connected to the past and the future simultaneously,” she said


The painting award went to Matjangka Nyukana Norris, an artist and healthcare worker from Watinuma on the Anangu Pitjantiatjara/Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the Northern Territory. Her works can be found in the National Gallery of Victoria, South Australian Museum and Flinders University Collections.

The judges said of the work: “Ngura Pilti represents a deeply felt experience of country. Using multiple perspectives, it subtly reveals the underpinning watercourses that trail across the land and give it life. Its mark-making is controlled and precise and accounts for the negative space it generates, which results in a scintillating and translucent pictorial effect.”

Matjangka (Nyukana) Norris, Pitjantjatara, Ngura Pilti
Matjangka (Nyukana) Norris, Pitjantjatara, Ngura Pilti


South Australian artist Robert Fielding won the award for work on paper for Milkali Kutju – One blood, a bold red paper work through which bright light is filtered.

Fielding says his work is a call for unity and an end to racial prejudice.

“I’m asking viewers to look beneath the surface and see that our differences are only skin deep. We all have blood running through our veins,” he says.

Robert Fielding, Milkali Kutju – One blood
Robert Fielding, Milkali Kutju – One blood


Multi award-winning Northern Territory artist Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu won the bark painting award for a piece painted with black ochre and white clay: the materials used by Aboriginal people from Yunupiŋu’s region to make markings on their faces and bodies for ceremonies.

The judges said: “Lines is a confident painting by a senior artist. Nyapanyapa allows the material qualities of the natural pigments to emerge, resulting in an alternation of translucency and opacity of the pigment. She expertly works across the uneven terrain of the bark, interpreting each contour as a directive for her gestural mark-making.”

Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu, Lines
Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu, Lines


Acclaimed Queensland artist Shirley Macnamara won the 3D award for her precisely engineered but deceptively simple sculpture made out of weaved spinifex. The work is in response to the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum.

“I guess I’ve woven memories of my grandmother and all of the other old ladies that were constantly on my mind while I was making that work,” she told Daily Review.

Macnamara has strong memories of her grandmother and other older female relatives singing traditional songs and speaking in language. But Macnamara was never taught those songs or her language as it was strongly discouraged, particularly before the referendum.

“I think when you’re young you can’t understand fully what that means,” she says. “It’s not until you’re older and realise what you missed out on. And you can’t go back. You just have to be very aware and grateful of what you do have and continue that on the best you can.”

Macnamara’s new tradition is in her particular practice of weaving spinifex, a fibre found naturally around her home. Her grandsons help her to gather the material.

Judge Chris Saines said: “It’s such a simple and economic means that she’s using, but she’s doing so in quite a thoughtful and profound way. She’s made an object that manages to be at once both contemporary and ancient.”

Shirley Macnamara, Nyurruga Muulawaddi
Shirley Macnamara, Nyurruga Muulawaddi

telstra emerging artist award

This year, the young artist award has been replaced by an emerging artist award, recognising that many Indigenous artists start their careers quite late in life. This year, the award has been won by Betty Muffler, a South Australian artist in her 70s.

Muffler lived in Maralinga in South Australia when British forces were testing nuclear weapons in the area. When she was a child, Muffler’s parents became quite sick due to the bombing and both died.

Muffler’s work incorporates that experience, with the white smoke of bombs represented in the painting. Muffler is also a traditional healer, and the painting represents her travels across the APY lands.

Betty Muffler, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country)
Betty Muffler, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country)


2 responses to “Aboriginal incarceration artwork wins premier Indigenous art award

  1. I would comment on this winner but to even be the slightest bit critical of an Indigenous art work is deemed racist now. So I just stop thinking about it. I’m sure many do.

  2. Could we ensure that this review of positive artistic traditional Indigenous genius is put into the in-trays of all state and federal parliamentarians!


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