Eight Hundred and Forty Four entries and Tangentyere artist from Alice Springs/Mparntwe, Rhonda Sharpe emerged today as the proud winner of the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize. So far from the Alice, in a brand new Harbourside art gallery – Redleaf – where the Prize was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
The works may be small, but the reputation of the art is high. Over the years Jan King, Mikala Dwyer, Alex Seton, Archie Moore, Julia Deville and Sanne Mestrom have come out on top and left their works in the Woollahra Collection – also on show.
This year, Sharpe was up against 51 other finalists including Anne Ferguson, Natalie Guy, Maria Teresa Kuczynska, Stuart McLachlan, Rodney Pople, Patricia Smart and Scotty So. Do I spot a preponderance of female names. Well, an all-female judging panel – consisting of Dr Lara Strongman, Jenny Kee and Joanna Capon – chose a female winner, a female Special Commendation in the Laotian-referencing condiment jars of Mechelle Bounpraseth, and only one male Highly Commended, the cheeky nude (male) politicians of Michael Harrell.
Rhonda Sharpe is a pioneer of the Tangentyere Artists repurposing of mission blankets to make stuffed cloth figures – the urban equivalent of Tjanpi grass weaving. Back in 2015, she won the 3D Art Award at the Telstra NATSIAAs in Darwin, and this was my comment then:
“Another wheelchair-bound winner was 3D artist Rhonda Sharpe from the very different world of the Alice Springs town camps. She’s been here before with her stuffed ‘creatures’, sewn and decorated on old ‘Mish’ blankets. But, bravely, she’s now progressed to portraying herself “as a two-headed Hydra; both red-eyed, drunken Rhonda and her clear-eyed sober self. It’s brave stuff, which she shyly resisted bragging about. But Tangentyere Artists co-ordinator, Sophie Wallace lets her know how proud they are of her. The wheelchair, by the way, was necessitated by an unsteady fall while dancing on a cruelly slippery floor at home!”.
So, a character. For Woollahra, she’s produced the wonderfully titled ‘Desert Woman with Mustache, Coolamon and Pretty Clothes’, which pretty much says it all. In fact, Rhonda has accompanied her sculpture with a wonderful statement of philosophy which admits, “Sometimes a woman might get a mustache, but that doesn’t matter. We all family….Aboriginal people are really good at doing things; like hunting and knowing culture, and making art and looking after each other, and not laughing when someone is looking different and always sharing everything”. Wow!
I also discern an impressive development in her technique since 2015 – this work is beautifully sewn, styled and decorated. I can imagine Jenny Kee admiring the work. Judge Joanna Capon, who attended the announcement, may not have had the advantage of seeing Sharpe’s work in Darwin or Alice – though Gabriella Roy sells out whenever she shows Tangentyere in her Aboriginal and Pacific Gallery in Sydney – but, on behalf of her fellow judges she spoke of “originality and joyousness” after the past year (or two) of pandemic. And the trio had been unanimous in their selection of this “standout” work for Woollahra’s $25,000 prize.