Indigenous artists reach finals of national art prize

Three artists from the Queensland College of Art (QCA) have made the finals of the prestigious Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA).

The awards showcase the best Australian Indigenous art from emerging and established artists around the country.

More than 300 entries were received for the awards, which offer a top prize of $50,000. Students and alumni from the QCA made up three of the four finalists chosen from Queensland.

Cultural connection

CAIA director Dr Carol McGregor said the number of students and alumni represented at this year’s NATSIAA awards demonstrated the rich and diverse contemporary Indigenous artistic practice fostered at the QCA.

The QCA’s Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art (CAIA) program has established the careers of many leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, including Vernon Ah Kee, Dale Harding and Tony Albert.

“It makes all of us so proud,” Dr Carol McGregor said.

“It shows the strength of the QCA, and in particular, CAIA.

“The key is the connection to culture. We give students the artistic tools to explore their cultural heritage and they leave with a deep understanding of their Indigenous identity.”

Finding your voice

CAIA student Dylan Sarra is a first-time finalist at the awards.

The Gooreng Gooreng artist from Bundaberg said his entry was inspired by his connection to country.

The intaglio print features three handmade boomerangs that reference rock carvings from the banks of the Burnett River and the initiation markings of Dylan’s great, great, grandfather.

“I’m incredibly humbled by the fact that the judges saw my work and decided the story was valuable enough to promote it on the national stage,” he said.

Dylan is in his final year of the CAIA program, and said the course has had a profound impact on his development as an artist.

“I always felt like I had something to say, but I didn’t know how to say it,” he said.

“I came to the QCA as a mature-age student and it has helped me find my voice. It’s not about what you are creating, but learning to understand why.

“CAIA is unique, and it’s given me a sense of community. There is such a strong network and everyone encourages each other.”

A family affair

QCA alumnus Jenna Lee was a NATSIAA finalist in 2018 and said she was delighted to be nominated again.

“It’s been nice to go through the list and connect with other finalists – I think a really vibrant community grows out of these awards,” she said.

“Two of my Dad’s brothers from the Northern Territory have also made it to the finals, so it’s a bit of a family affair this year.”

Socially aware art

Jenna Lee is a mixed race Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman.

She studied graphic design at the QCA, and spent most of the past decade working as a commercial artist and designer at Indigenous design agency Gilimbaa.

In recent years, Jenna has embraced a more personal artistic practice, winning several national awards for work that explores cultural identity and language.

Jenna credits her studies at the QCA for teaching her to dream big.

“The degree at the QCA had a big focus on socially responsible design,” she said.

“My time there really shaped my thinking about how art and design can make a positive contribution.”

Creative freedom

Ryan Presley is an alumnus of the CAIA program and completed his PhDat the QCA in 2016.

The Alice Springs-born and Brisbane-based Marri Ngarr artist said it was an honour to be recognised on the national stage.

Ryan credits his time at the QCA with giving him the freedom to develop his unique artistic style.

“It was great to have that time at uni to experiment and try new things,” he said.

“CAIA also gave me a chance to explore and connect with my family history.”

The Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards’ winners will be announced on 7 August. Works by all of the finalists will be shown at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory from August 8 – January 31, 2021.