THE KWM Contemporary First Nations Art Award was created to demonstrate our support for meaningful reconciliation and celebrate the power of First Nations artists to share stories and meaning via their work. What value do you see in awards such as ours and how do you think the corporate community can have the greatest impact?
I believe it is so important that we all continue to support the art of First Nations people in Australia. Awards such as the KWMCFNAA are taking important steps toward recognising the valuable contribution of our Indigenous artists in the arts sector and community. The award gives artists an opportunity to showcase their work to a broader audience whilst also carrying on cultural traditions and practices. The high calibre of works is testament to the profound talent that these artists possess. They are pushing the boundaries of their creative practice and creating important work that represents them as individuals and showcases their contemporary identities. It did however make the judging process very difficult.
The KWMCFNAA places a focus on First Nations artists as opposed to Indigenous art and as a result we were fortunate enough to receive entries that ranged from traditional styles of painting all the way to more politically motivated photography. With such a variety of pieces how important is the story behind the artist’s work?
It was a great choice to broaden the scope of the award and accept work from artists in a variety of art mediums. First Nations art is so diverse, and we have so many artists that work across a variety of forms from installations, to bark painting, to photography and painting on canvas. This award was a really great way to see not only the breadth of works across our communities but to recognise the nuances of our practices. I think people get caught up in this idea of Indigenous art and design being “stagnant” and a “thing of the past”, but to me, its constantly evolving and adapting. We have artists working with traditional materials and we have artists working in more contemporary mediums. Thinking specifically about one of the award recipients, Maree Clarke, who started out making jewellery and has since expanded her practice to move into large scale installations that incorporate glass and river reeds. Maree is an example of someone who has been able to dismantle preconized ideas of what Indigenous art is. First Nations people are constantly adapting to our environment which shows not only how resilient we are as a people, but our creativity and innovation.
Does such a variety of works impact the judging process you undertook with fellow judges [Stacie Piper and Myles Russell-Cook] and your selection of winners?
The visual component is important. We also considered the artists background and their contribution to their communities. We selected works that were visually the strongest, while also making sure we had representation from artists across Australia.
As a curator of First Nations art you see works that convey the history, culture and experiences of Australia’s First Peoples. What is it that drew you to a career in art and helping to share Indigenous art with all Australians?
I started out wanting to do politics and was studying a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University but I quickly realised that art history was my passion. My mum is an artist, my uncles and aunties are artists, and it was just something that I have always been surrounded by. I come from a very small Aboriginal community in Cape York with a population of about 300 people. Art is such an integral part of daily life there. It has the ability to share moments of joy and hope, whilst at the same time, challenge histories and analyse difficult topics. Being the first First Nations curator at Bendigo Art Gallery has meant I have been able to shape the role, and to work with an amazing number of artists and designers. We recently opened our contemporary Indigenous fashion exhibition, Piinpi, which is the first ever survey of contemporary Indigenous fashion in Australia. Museums have traditionally been very colonial spaces and history has always been told through the lens of the oppressor, so for me it is important to bridge that gap and give our First Nations artists and communities an opportunity to tell their story through their lens. I guess I see myself as being able to provide mob with access to these spaces – to help them reach a broader audience with their work.
The gallery exhibition for the award is in your now home state of Victoria, which has been hardest hit by the effects of COVID-19, only now coming out of an extended lockdown. How has this period impacted the arts and specifically First Nations artists?
It has been such a difficult year, particularly in Victoria for our arts community. A lot of First Nations artists draw their inspiration from Country, and not being able to travel onto their traditional lands has been difficult. But being a resilient people there is always a silver lining and I have spoken to artists who have told me that the pandemic has been a time to really push their practice and focus on creating more. The response since things have reopened has been so positive and it has been wonderful to see people really engaging with art again. With regional travel now allowed we have had a lot of Melburnians visit the gallery. It is great for our local economy and for our local artists. Even local artists have been heading into the gallery to once again see the exhibitions and have told me that this is what they have really missed; engaging with works in person and appreciating the talent and story behind each piece.
The winner of the KWM Contemporary First Nations Art Award, Michelle Woody, is from the Tiwi Islands whose entry featured a style of painting that is gaining recognition. What is it about art from this region (and Michelle’s work) that is so special and unique?
Tiwi design definitely has an important place in Australian history. What drew me to Michelle Woody’s work was her story and ability to pass on traditional culture and practice. She uses the Tiwi comb, which is traditionally used for ‘painting up’ in ceremony, to create the beautiful and intricate layered markings that you see on her work. All the ochre pigments are naturally sourced on Country and they are a reflection of her knowledge of the land and her connection to place. As judges we gravitated to her work because it was a demonstration of her cultural authority but also her contemporary flair as a daring artist. She showcased a distinctive Tiwi style and design that is completely her own.
You were on the panel with Stacie Piper and Myles Russell-Cook – how did the three of you collaborate and work together throughout the judging process?
I have worked with Myles and Stacie before. I am a great admirer of their work and the important contributions that they have both made to their communities. We came to the judging process with a very open mind and were able select the strongest works that we believed were worthy of the awards.