The annual recognition of cultural heroes in the Indigenous world took place online tonight as COVID denied the event its usual physical form in the Sydney Opera House. It also took on board the new normal in nomenclature for the first time “ ‘First Nations’ rather than Indigenous, or Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander “ though that term crops up in individual awards.

As has been the case in the past two years, the Red Ochre supreme recognition for Lifetime Achievement comes gender-defined “ one male, one female. And the heroes for 2020 are Alison Milyika Carroll, cultural leader and, increasingly ceramicist from Ernabella Arts in the APY Lands, and Djon Mundine, the ubiquitous curator and essayist of so much First Nations culture.

At the less stratospheric level, Maree Clarke, curator, artist and maker of installations received the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Fellowship; and fellow-Melburnian theatre and film producer, Lydia Fairhall was the recipient of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts & Cultural Development Fellowship. Thea Anamara Perkins “ in line of descent from grandfather Charlie and mother Hetti “ takes home the Dreaming Award for an emergent artist, having already appeared last year in South Australia’s Tarnanthi Festival and NSW’s Archibald Portrait Prize with her urban works. And finally, Wiradjuri non-binary trans person, SJ Norman, who has a terrifying practice that spans installation, sculpture, fiction, essays, poetry, video, sound and performance, including significant pieces of durational work quite naturally took home the Emerging and Experimental Arts Fellowship.

Alison Milyika Carroll is a senior Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara woman with four decades of work and 200 exhibitions to her credit. Amazingly, she also has a political life and is the current Chair of Ernabella Arts in her Pukatja Community while also working with the South Australian uber-body, Ku Arts the NPY Women’s Council. She has held advisory roles on projects such as ‘Songlines‘ at the National Museum of Australia. Whether making paintings or pottery, her stated belief is, Our stories are from a long time ago and they will live in the future with our children. When they grow up they will be working here. They will be the owners of our art centre and will keep our culture strong.

Djon Mundine, OAM, is one of the most familiar names in the industry, having entered it in the 70s to work for Peter Brokensha when he opened the first ‘primitive art’ gallery in Sydney’s The Rocks. By the end of that decade he’d be art and craft adviser at Milingimbi, then curator at Bula-Bula Arts in Ramingining, remaining for sixteen years. During that time he curated the ‘Aboriginal Memorial’ of 200 Dupun poles from Arnhemland to commemorate the 200 years of First Nations repression in 1988 “ now housed at the National Gallery. Of late he’s given much curatorial support to a new generation of fellow-NSW artists.

Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, Deputy Chair of the Australia Council and event co-host took a glass-half-full attitude to the event’s enforced COVID status: For the first time, everyone in Australia and globally had the opportunity to join the celebration of these outstanding First Nations artists. It was incredibly powerful to be able to come together online in this way to recognise and celebrate the centrality of First Nations artists to Australian culture and share that with a global audience.

And, in case you missed the Zoomed event, the 2020 First Nations Arts Awards will be re-broadcast on NITV on Sunday 31 May from 6:30pm, also available on SBS OnDemand.