Winners of the Telstra NATSIAA announced

The annual award recognises the practices of Keith Wikmunea, Julie Nangala Robertson, Owen Yalandja, Brenda L Croft, Anne Nginyangka Thompson, Jimmy John Thaiday and Dhalmula Burarrwaŋa.

Words: Erin Irwin

The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA), one of the most prestigious awards in the Australian art world, has now announced the winners of its 2023 edition. Hosted by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), Darwin, and this year judged by Kelli Cole, Janina Harding, and Dr Peter Yanada McKenzie, the awards saw 63 finalists compete for the plethora of prizes.

The prize’s major award, the Telstra Art Award, was bestowed upon Thu’ Apalech man Keith Wikmunea from Aurukun in Queensland. Valued at $100,000, the ‘Big One’ was earned by Wikmunea’s work Ku’, Theewith & Kalampang: The White Cockatoo, Galah and the wandering Dog.

“I was with my family when my manager called and gave me the good news about winning. We all got really excited”, says the artist, “it means a lot to me and my family to be sharing our culture with the rest of Australia”.

The work incorporates his totems, the white cockatoo from his father’s side and the galah from his mother’s side, and represents the artist as a Thu’ Apalech man. “The colours on this tree are specific to my clan”, he explains, “in Wik-Mungkan, my first spoken language, we call this tree yuk thanchal. This tree is also known as milkywood [sic] in English and is the same tree that my ancestors have been using since the beginning of time to create their artefacts”.

Director of the MAGNT Adam Worrall congratulated the artist, saying “He is truly a master carver and I am awed with the might of his work and its celebration of his culture”.

Several other awards are granted as part of NATSIAA, including the Telstra General Painting Award, which this year went to Julie Nangala Robertson for her work Mina Mina. The piece depicts a hugely meaningful ceremonial site for Napangardi and Napanangka women. Of this work, the judges stated that “we feel this painting captures the essence of water, ceremony and a Dreaming story that has existed for millennia”, elaborating that it “bears witness to our connection to culture, Country and nature”.

The Telstra Bark Painting Award went to Owen Yalandja for his piece Ngalkodjek Yawkyawk, which used earth pigments on stringybark to record a story passed on to the artist by his father. The story tells of the yawkyawk (mermaid) spirit women called Ngalkodjek who live in the billabong on the artist’s Country. “When they walk down from the bush, they follow a set path that belongs to them and they walk along calling out”, the artist explains. “That is their path which they take. It is an old traditional route.”

Brenda L Croft is this year’s recipient of the Telstra Work on Paper Award. blood/memory: Brenda & Christopher II (Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra; Mara/Nandi/Njarrindjerri/Ritharrngu; Anglo-Australian/Chinese/German/Irish/Scottish) 2021 uses a wet plate collodion process to create an image honouring bloodlines. “Our First Nations heritage grounds us in continuous, ever-shifting colonised landscapes; literal, metaphorical and metaphysical”, says the artist, “blood/memory is the intangible essence pulsing through our hearts and minds, across the generations”.

Artist Balwaldja Wanapa Munuŋgurr was given the Highly Commended award in this category for his work Exile, depicting his homelands to which he may never return.

This year’s Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award went to Anne Nginyangka Thompson for her work Anangu History. Consisting of two ceramic vessels, they present the histories of the artist and her Country through glaze. “Before, it was a beautiful landscape without problems like we have today. People were connected as families. Everything was silent, and all the animals were close by to the people. Everyone looked after the animals and the environment. People don’t have that life anymore”, the artist explains.

The Telstra Multimedia Award was given to Jimmy John Thaiday for his 5:08 minute video work Just Beneath the Surface, which explores the artist’s connection with the ocean and with nature. “Ethereal and emotive, the imagery of Jimmy John Thaiday being caught and strangled by the ghost nets is haunting,” said the judges, “the artist’s work is a testament to our responsibility in protecting Country, the ocean and all living things, because without our natural resources there is no human life”.

Dhalmula Burarrwaŋa was the recipient of this year’s Telstra Emerging Artist Award for wanha, dhika, nhawi?, depicting ‘whatchamacallit’ objects using earth pigments and stringybark. The judges were struck by the joyfulness of the work, describing it as “cleverly assembled as a group of bark paintings that reflect our sense of humour and ‘Black Comedy’”.

The 40th year of the award has proven to be an impressive one, with a vast range of approaches, practices and mediums on display. The exhibition of all finalist works is currently on show until 18 February 2024, and is also available online.

This article was posted 16 August 2023.

Image: Keith Wikmunea in Aurukun. Photo: Brian Cassey. Courtesy: the artist and The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

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