Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Voice of activism

Harold Thomas’ winning painting “Tribal abduction”, courtesy the artist and MAGNT.

Gina Fairley, Art award carries the voice of activism, ArtsHub, 11 August 2011

An art award that responds to contemporary issues offers more than financial rewards for Indigenous artists.

Last week, Harold Thomas was named winner of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) for a painting that cuts to the core of the Stolen Generation story.

He told ArtsHub: ‘Some people were shocked and they had to reorganise their thoughts and come back to take a second look.’

Dominating a group of figures is a woman whose child has been torn from her breast by the authorities. Titled Tribal abduction, the judges described Thomas’ painting as ‘a raw truth which provides space for cathartic reflection’. The panel included Vernon Ah Kee, respected contemporary artist, Kimberley Moulton, Senior Curator, South Eastern Australia Aboriginal Collections, Museum Victoria and Don Whyte, Don Whyte Framing.

It is not the kind of painting that we have been nurtured to expect from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists by an art market that has been built upon dot paintings and Dreamings.

Thomas put it simply: ‘Attitudes have changed.’

And, the Telstra NATSIAA has come in sync with that shift of focus.

‘It took 33 years to get their act together. Now it’s like nothing else; there’s such a wide range of work, from desert art to very contemporary stuff. It’s doing its job I think,’ said Thomas.

A Luritja and Wambai man, aged 69, Thomas knows that journey well. He was a finalist in the first NATSIAA in 1984, then known as the Aboriginal Art Award, with what he described as a ‘conservative painting’ on paperbark from his wife’s country.

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