As we prepare to celebrate the incredible and diverse range of talents on display at this year’s Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) – presented by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) – it’s important to reflect on how the field affects everyone it comes into contact with.
Australian Indigenous art is unique in its form and is unlike any other genre of art. Our First Nations’ people don’t simply use art to express emotions or represent beautiful scenes; Indigenous art is about storytelling and representing the history of this country through a range of mediums. Indigenous art represents over 60,000 years’ worth of history, stretching as far back as stories told through rock paintings.
Indigenous art – whether expressed through rock art paintings, body art, or canvas – is used to pass on information, stories and symbols for later generations. Some Indigenous art even serves to preserve languages native to Australia’s First Nations people.
The Telstra NATSIAA is the longest running and most prestigious Indigenous art prize in the country, and as a result, it attracts an incredible breadth and depth of talent.
We spoke to four of our 68 Indigenous artist finalists about their work, and asked them to share the stories of their art in their words.
Gutingarra Yunupingu (Guti)
Guti is a rising star in the Indigenous art world. Born deaf, Guti uses his artistic talents to capture the stories of his kin via film and digital media. He describes his work as “an expression of myself, my land and my people”.
At just 21 years of age, he is already the chief editor of a local art centre, and was one of the only young men in Yirrkala to complete his year 12 studies. Guti says “[his] film art is mostly autobiographical. I like to show my life and my land to the audience.”
This year, Guti’s entry is entitled “gurruṯu mi’ mala”, which he says means “my connections”.
“Gurruṯu is the connections and kinship that Yolŋu share with one another. In this artwork I am signing the Yolŋu gurruṯu names and demonstrating my position in the world of gurruṯu. These gurruṯu signs are very important to me because they represent my family.”
“YSL is important for hearing Yolŋu also, when we go hunting we use it to communicate from a distance. When I went to school I was taught Auslan, so now I use YSL and Auslan to communicate. Without Yolŋu Sign Language I would have found it hard to communicate with my community – it has helped me make my way in this world.”
Nici is a finalist in this year’s NATSIAAs, and brings her unique experience working on crime scene photography to capture new scenes for her art.
“I was a Photographic Technician with the South Australian Police Department (SAPOL) for 6 years in the 1990s. I developed and printed film from red light and speed cameras as well as crime scene, accident investigation and the forensic science laboratory. Only the police officers worked as photographers. I studied fine art photography and it is possible that the way I work as an artist has been influenced by my experience with SAPOL.”
Previously, Nici won the Work on Paper Award in the 2015 Telstra NATSIAA.
In her own words, Nici says she uses “both analogue and digital cameras to create photographs. I enlarge and print my images which are either colour or black and white, and I hand colour my black and white images.”
“The work I have entered is a colour photograph which I have printed as a Rorschach. It is an image which was taken on the shores of Nookamka Lake, in the Riverland of South Australia.
“As an artist, I work on many different ideas and concepts. The entry for the award this year is part of an ongoing series which is looking at sites of Aboriginal occupation within the landscape.”
Kent has been a NATSIAA finalist for the past four years and produces large-scale photo works. While he has links to New South Wales through his identification as Barkindji, Kent has also worked in Victoria as part of The Torch.
The Torch works with Indigenous prisoners in Victoria to use art as therapy, and Kent works as the program’s head. Indigenous Australians make up 3 per cent of the general population yet account for almost 30 per cent of the prison population and are 15 per cent more likely to go to prison than non-Indigenous Australians.
Through its Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Program, The Torch provides art, cultural and arts industry support to Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders throughout Victoria. By embracing program participants as artists rather than offenders, The Torch provides an avenue to change by encouraging participants to explore identity and culture through art, develop confidence and define new pathways for themselves upon release from prison.
His NATSIAA 2019 entry, “Family Lines – Country Has a Memory”, is a large digital photograph which represents three Barkindji sisters who married three Ngemba brothers, “my great aunts and uncles on Dad’s side of our family. Two families who are continuously connected by time and place. Barkindji and Ngemba people share close ties to family, Country and culture.
“Our stories continue to defy and reshape colonial interventions, many of which have attempted to erase our histories and connections. These stories are embedded in the land even after it’s many transformations. I see and feel them, then reconstruct and transmit them for maintenance and renewal.
“My art practice reveals the continued presence and patterns of Aboriginal history and culture in the contemporary Australian landscape, despite colonial interventions that have irreversibly altered the environment.
“Through my artworks I am reconstructing the shapes and structures of the built environment. The new shapes of the built environment, and the shapes that colonialism brought with it, are being re-imagined and reconstructed to reflect the long history of Indigenous people in this country and to reaffirm continuity, identity and connectivity.”
“The Telstra NATSIAA provides an important forum for the expressing and exchange of ideas and highlight the diversity of Indigenous cultural practices today. Engagement with artists, artworks and arts industry professionals who attend the exhibition provides inspiration and cultural exchange opportunities.”
Indigenous art takes all shapes and forms, including wearable art. Krystal Hurst is an emerging artist and jewellery maker. “I create, explore and share my work under my business Gillawarra Arts, and handmake wearable art with currently available materials and natural materials from the land, rivers and sea. I use shells, native seeds, seaweed, feathers, and laser cut on wood and plastic. To me it is important to tell stories, share knowledge and utilise language in a meaningful way. I am very new to silversmithing, and I have plans to develop this practice further and exhibit more of my wearable work,” she says.
Her entry this year is an imitation of echidna quills and wattle seeds made from bronze metal. “For me they are an expression of strength, survival, knowledge and resilience. I’ve had this piece in my mind for about a year and to see this image come to life means everything to me as a Worimi artist. I am really proud of this piece and looking forward to seeing it on display in August.”
“I grew up watching and helping my mother make jewellery among other crafts and arts for markets. It wasn’t until I got older and reflected and realised that I was doing something similar to my ancestors. For me now, I’m still exploring and expressing what it means to be a First Nations woman in modern Australia and understand how colonisation has impacted my land and people, particularly cultural practices. Within my pieces I hope that I can shed light on issues, express culture and identity, and show that Indigenous jewellery is empowering.”
“For me wearable art is a statement. It also holds knowledge, stories, memories and conversations that is connected to our culture that extends millennia. At times, wearable art has the ability to influence our emotions in ways words cannot describe. When I wear pieces I’ve made, I feel strong, connected and beautiful and if my pieces can do that for other people as well, I know that my purpose as a creator holds power and is important.”
The Telstra NATSIAA awards ceremony is on Friday 9 August and the exhibition runs from the 10 August – 3 November 2019 at MAGNT.