The recipients of the 2021 First Nations Arts Awards were announced on May 27,marking the anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the start of National Reconciliation Week. The awards recognise and celebrate the outstanding work and achievements of First Nations artists.

Two respected elders received the prestigious Red Ochre Awards for Lifetime Achievement – Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung song woman Dr Lou Bennett and renowned Kimberly artist Yorna (Donny) Woolagoodja.

Dr Bennett AM received a Red Ochre for her contribution as a composer, singer and a researcher of First Nations languages.

Yorna (Donny) Woolagoodja is a cultural leader and successful artist from Mowanjum in the West Kimberly in WA. Among his achievements, his work featured in the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

The Dreaming Award for a young an emerging artist was awarded to 24-year-old old rapper and Gumbaynggirr man Tasman Keith. And another musician, singer and songwriter Kutcha Edwards was the recipient of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Fellowship.

The Awards also acknowledged the many First Nations artists who have received other Australia Council awards in the last year including Jazz Money (First Nations Emerging Career Development Award), Justin Grant (First Nations Emerging Career Development Award), William Barton (Australia Council Don Banks Music Award) and Marianne Wobcke (Australia Council Ros Bower Award for Community Arts and Cultural Development.

The only visual artist, Yorna (Donny) Woolagoodja is the patriarch of the Worrorra tribe – a spiritual leader and artist from the West Kimberley. Yorna is a quietly spoken, thoughtful and respectful man whose unconditional commitment to teaching his young people shines in all that he does. He mentors and gently leads through his art and his culture.

It was only in 1997 that Yorna and others in his community started painting on canvas. They wanted to follow their old people and to keep their Culture strong, as they had always done in repainting rock art Wandjina images every year, both to preserve them and to ensure the monsoon rains will come, a practice that has continued for 4000 years. The lines around the Wandjina’s head typically represent lightning, but there’s never a mouth, because Worrora believe that if they had a mouth the rain would never stop.

Yorna became the first Chairperson of Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation incorporated in 1998. He was instrumental in establishing Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre which was completed in 2006. Yorna contributed to the design of the Centre. When viewed from the air, the centre depicts the facial features of a Wandjina. Under Yorna’s leadership, Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation started the Mowanjum Festival in 1998.

Coincidentally with the annual Mowanjum Festival, on July 9th a new museum celebrating the culture and history of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunambal and Gaambera peoples was opened at Woolagoodja’s Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre.

The Mowanjum Museum has been many years in the making and has been guided by a team of cultural advisors from the Mowanjum community, with the aim of creating a shared learning space for local community members and visitors alike.

Featuring an interactive cave and rock art experience, the museum contains displays of significant objects from the Mowanjum Collection, such as Jack Wherra carved and decorated boab nuts and Kimberley spearheads.

A room dedicated to Junba (traditional song and dance) features multimedia projections as well as the historic Selsmark Collection, an exceptional set of dance totems, costumes and musical instruments made in the early 1970s by senior Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunambal men and women.

Donny Woolagoodja also became active in the pursuit of native title, and it was at Yaloon on 26 May 2011 at the Dambimangari Native Title determination court hearing he received a copy of the determination document from Justice John Gilmore.

Through his art and teachings Yorna is as equally committed to representing his Country, Culture and Wandjina to aalmara (non-Aboriginal people) both across Australia and internationally. He has worked with researchers, anthropologists, linguists, film-makers, mining companies, a plethora of government agencies, along with creating a tourism venture, Wandjina Tours. It is through this role that Yorna brought the Worrorra culture to a world-wide audience during the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when he designed the giant Wandjina Namarali that rose spectacularly into the night sky. This was a moment of unbelievable emotion and pride for Yorna and Mowanjum.

As appropriate, back home Yorna consulted with his Worrorra mob before permission could be granted. They said it was about time he should show himself to the world. This Namarali is now housed at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.