Was this the first time an Indigenous photographer has won the National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize? I can’t find any official word of celebration. But Wayne Quilliam, the Palawa man is having a great month in Canberra, for his co-curation of ‘Connections‘ has also just opened at the National Museum. A Grande Experience, you might say.

And Quilliam has a fine First Nations subject for his winning work – which is appropriately called ‘Silent Strength’. He features Eric Yunkaporta from Aurukun, an artist himself, imbued with the Wik and Kugu culture. He was about to go on to dance in the Laura Festival. “I called Eric and told him the amazing news,” Quilliam told AAP. “His community were just ecstatic because he was sharing not only his image but also the culture of Aurukun” – where the Yunkaporta’s are a well-established cultural family.

Here’s what Quilliam had to say about his work:
“In its purest essence, the evolution of culture connects us to Mother Earth. She inhales and exhales with us, has a heartbeat, and sings songs for all to hear. My role as a storyteller continues to evolve and this capture is akin to a trickle of water merging into a small stream then into the ocean”.

In making their decision, the judging panel – award-winning press photographer Nick Moir together with Sandra Bruce, the National Portrait Gallery’s Director of Collection and Exhibitions, and Associate Curator Rebecca Ray – said Quilliam’s portrait was a work of immense power and beauty; “Everything about this portrait is exceptional. The composition, the contrast, the richness of the colours in the ochres and feathers, and also the sense of pride the subject is portraying – all of these layers and details carry such power in connecting the subject and his story with the audience”.

Coincidentally, the Art Handlers’ Award for this 2022 Award was also a wonderful Cape York Indigenous subject, a Tjungundji man in a work called ‘Cordy in the Clouds’, the work of Adam Haddrick, who commented:
“I first saw ‘Cordy’ (which means ‘Spirit of the Sunrise’ in the traditional language of the Tjungundji people of Far North Queensland) when he walked past me on my first day in Charters Towers. I was immediately mesmerised by his presence. Months later I had the chance to meet with him. He shared his story and told me of a visit to India for an archaeology conference where the locals greeted him as a holy man. I hadn’t seen clouds in the sky for weeks but while taking his portrait they rolled in behind him as if on cue”.

The judges had to narrow down the selected 39 finalist portraits from over 2400 entries, and would encourage everyone to vote for their favourite in the People’s Choice Awards.

Wayne Quilliam will nab a $30,000 cash prize from the National Portrait Gallery and $20,000 worth of Canon equipment thanks to Imaging Partner Canon Australia.