Tonight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and all who love the arts will celebrate the contribution of First Nations artists at the 12th National Indigenous Arts Awards being presented at the Sydney Opera House. Respected elders actor Uncle Jack Charles and Pakana shell artist Aunty Lola Greeno will be honoured with the prestigious Red Ochre Awards for Lifetime Achievement – now male and female awards given annually. They will be joined by Larrakia visual artist Jenna Lee, who receives the Dreaming Award for a young and emerging artist and Melbourne theatre maker Jacob Boehme who is the recipient of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Fellowship.

The National Indigenous Arts Awards (NIAA) recognise the centrality of First Nations artists to Australian culture. They celebrate the significant contribution of First Nations artists to the vibrancy of Australian arts. The event is held on 27 May each year to coincide with the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, and the beginning of National Reconciliation Week.

Australia Council Deputy Chair Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin said, On this auspicious date it is significant that we are supporting and celebrating our First Nations artists at important stages in their careers. There is a profound sense of cultural strength as we acknowledge these artists from across the generations, from emerging to mid-career, to some of our most celebrated and acclaimed elders.

Lola Greeno was born in 1946 on Cape Barren Island in the Bass Strait but now lives in Launceston, using her art to connect an ancient practice to contemporary communities. Greeno is one of a handful of women shell-stringers responsible for ensuring the craft is passed down from the Elders as it was passed on to her from her mother and maternal grandmother. This, coupled with her ongoing contribution to curation, writing, and story-telling through her craft, offers the stories of her ancestors to future generations. Greeno’s 30-year career has seen her work exhibited and collected by the Powerhouse Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Queensland Art Gallery. In 2014, Greeno was recognised with Australian Design Centre’s Living Treasure Master of Australian Craft Award. Her best-known exhibition, ‘Lola Greeno: Cultural Jewels’ features works using unusual and beautiful natural materials such as Echidna quill, feather, rare Maireener shell and bone, set in contemporary settings. The exhibition toured to 18 venues across Australia from 2014 to 2019. In 2015 she was entered in the Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women for service to Aboriginal Affairs and the Arts.

Jack Charles is a Boon Wurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung man, an actor, musician, potter and gifted performer. He is acknowledged as the grandfather of Aboriginal theatre in Australia and co-founded the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana Theatre, with Bob Maza in 1972. He has showcased his work in many nations including Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, the United States. His early career highlights included the feature film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. But Charles has also seen many struggles. A member of the Stolen Generation, he spent many years without a home, and in a cycle of addiction and prison time. The autobiographical ‘Jack Charles v The Crown’, co-written with John Romeril was first produced in 2010. The work brought the lived experience of being a member of the Stolen Generation to the world, with empathy and charm. The production won a Helpmann Award for Best Regional Touring Production in 2012. His recent credits include ‘Gods of Wheat Street’, ‘Cleverman’, ‘Black Comedy’, ‘Play School’, and the feature films ‘Pan‘ and ‘Wolf Creek’. He was the recipient of a Green Room Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 and in 2016 was named Victorian Senior Australian of the Year.

Jenna Lee is a Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman. She identifies as a queer, mixed race, Asian and Aboriginal woman, with her art practice strongly influenced by these overlapping identities. Through her art, Lee explores language, labels and objects, and how these intersect to create or challenge the concept of identity. Her practice spans curation, creative design, art making and production. Lee’s work has become a key part of Queensland’s visual identity through her work with Gillimbaa Creative Agency. The agency’s piece, ‘The Pulse of Our Ancient Land’, uses glass, watercolours and moving lights to showcase traditional life in Southern Queensland and can be seen by travellers arriving at Brisbane Airport. In 2018, Lee’s designs were featured on the Australian team uniforms for the Commonwealth Games and was a finalist in both the Blacktown Art Prize and the 35th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. She was an inaugural participant of the Blak Curatorial Exchange and is now working with museums in the UK where she hopes to uncover hidden artefacts and objects and with them the stories of her ancestors.

Jacob Boehme is a Melbourne born artist of the Narangga and Kaurna Nations in South Australia. He is a multi-disciplinary theatre maker and choreographer, creating work for stage, screen, and festivals. He was the founding Creative Director of Melbourne’s YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival. Boehme’s debut solo work ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’ premiered in 2016 in Melbourne to critical acclaim, followed by a season at the Sydney Festival. In Melbourne, it took out the Green Room Award for Best Production in 2017. The production has gone on to tour nationally and internationally. Boehme has worked in cultural maintenance, research, and revival of traditional dance with elders and youth from Indigenous communities across Australia.

First Nations artists have also received acknowledgement in the Australia Council Awards and the Australia Council Fellowships this year. Fellowship recipients Vernon Ah Kee (visual art) and Ali Cobby Eckerman (literature) will be joined onstage by three more outstanding First Nations artists, who received Awards earlier this year – Rachael Maza, Rhoda Roberts and Vicki Van Hout.

New Australia Council CEO Adrian Collette commented, It will be a proud moment when we see these nine extraordinary artists on stage being honoured for their achievements across multiple art forms. It’s a powerful demonstration of the centrality of First Nations arts in Australia’s cultural fabric.

Actually, on the night,Collette was more circumspect. “That centrality is not yet in existence”, he admitted. “But we’re working towards it”.

Also on the night, it was clear that ‘Indigenous’ is a word right out of fashion – ‘First Nation/s’ has almost totally replaced it. And, while we’re on political correctness trends, the National Indigenous Arts & Cultural Authority (NIACA), which I wrote about last October, is still en route to achieve First Nations self-determination in the arts with a national summit planned for November. Too late to comment in their online survey, I’m afraid.

And finally, it should be recorded that the Australia Council seemed to be saying something to the Victorian art establishment with the award of a Fellowship to Jacob Boehme. Chair of Ozco’s ATSI Arts Strategy Panel, Wesley Enoch made a point of suggesting that the surprise loss of his Directorship of the Yiramboi Festival which he founded might be put down to “others being intimidated by your drive and enthusiasm”!