Queensland College of Artdoctoral candidate Robert Andrew has won the $40,000 Alice Prize, which recognises the country’s best contemporary art.

The biennial acquisitive prize is open to artists from across the country, attracting hundreds of entries.

Robert took out top honours with his work ‘Whitewash over the burn’, a striking textural piece that features burnt timber boards, aluminium, ochre and chalk.

Robert said he couldn’t believe his luck when a call came through from this year’s judge, Brian Ritchie – MONA FOMA curator and Violent Femmes bassist.

“It was a major surprise – I was absolutely speechless,” he said.

“The money will give me the opportunity to keep making art, and winning a prize like this also helps get your work out there and seen by a wider audience.”

Photo credit: Carl Warner

Robert’s prize-winning work was a tribute to his great-grandmother, a Yawuru woman from the Kimberley region whose struggles to gain citizenship in the early 20th century inspired the piece.

Robert took wooden panels from his colonial-era house in Brisbane, which were embedded with text from his great-grandmother’s repeated applications for citizenship and the subsequent denials. After burning the boards, Robert doused them with ochre and covered them with white chalk.

“Often historical documents were intentionally burnt to destroy and cover up atrocious acts against Indigenous people, and I used this process of burning to enact mirror this form of violence back upon the English text as a cathartic strategy,” he said.

Queensland College of Art Director Professor Derrick Cherrie said Robert was enjoying a career-defining year.

“This national award attracts some of the country’s best artists,” he said.

“Robert’s richly layered, complex work deservedly took out top honours.

“His work is concerned with repressed histories and the traumas of colonisation suffered by Indigenous peoples in this country.

“As well as the significant prize money, it represents an opportunity for him to present his work to some of the country’s most renowned curators.”

Professor Cherrie said Robert was one of many remarkable artists to emerge from the QCA’sContemporary Australian Indigenous Art (CAIA) program, with an impressive roll call of graduates including Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert and Dale Harding.

“The fact that our CAIA students and alumni are receiving recognition at high profile national and international awards reflects the calibre of this unique program.”

The Alice Prize finalists exhibition is on at theAraluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs until 17 June.