By KIERAN FINNANE
Soft sculpture artist Marlene Rubuntja has won the inaugural Vincent Lingiari art award, with a work declaring proud self-determination, “My future is in my hands”.
The $15,000 award was created, by a partnership of Desart and the Central Land Council, to mark the 40th anniversary of land rights in the Northern Territory and the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk-off by Gurindji stockmen led by Vincent Lingiari. The 23 short-listed works are on display at Tangentyere Artists Gallery in Fogarty Street. From them curator Hetti Perkins, daughter of Charlie Perkins, the prominent Aboriginal activist and first chair of the CLC, chose the winning work.
It shows (pictured below) three soft-sculpted and colourfully stitched figures, a woman (the artist in self-portrait), with a coolamon on her head, and two little girls in front of an appliquéd backdrop of her home in Yarrenyty Altere (Larapinta Valley) town camp, the ranges rising behind, complete with telecom towers but also hovering birds.
Rubuntja’s artist’s statement reflects on the hard-fought changes for Aboriginal people living in town. She recalls living in the creek, “just like that homeless mob, poor things, who I saw in the city”.
“We had to fix thing up ourselves,” she says, remembering the work of her father and uncle (the late W. and E. Rubuntja) and “lots of other strong people” in creating the town camps of Alice Springs.
“Now we have 18 town camps, homes for our children. We have safety. I have my family living all around me. And I have a beautiful view. They can have their million dollar view in the city; I’ve got the MacDonnell Ranges for my view.”
She told the crowd gathered for last night’s announcement – swelled by visitors from bush and interstate for the Desert Mob events of the next three days – that she hadn’t been able to sleep in anticipation of the prize.
“I’m just proud of myself,” she said, adding that she made the work to show “that I am strong” and also did it “for my father”.
Hetti Perkins commended “the range and quality” of the works on show as an indication of “the national significance of land rights in Australian history”.
“Nowhere else is the connection between art and politics more clearly revealed than in the fight for land rights,” she said.
The work also shows what country means to Aboriginal people – it is “sentient”, and “infused with the spirit of ancestral presence”. The rights arising from its traditional ownership are “fundamentally different” to what some might consider as just the right “to exploit the land”.
They include the right to retain and maintain cultural heritage, to “defend and protect the intellectual property of our community”; the “right to a home” and “for some, the right to find a way home”.
“Land rights have given us a future,” she said, “it is the future of our people”, symbolised by the moment when Vincent Lingiari “received the soil of his country back into his hands for safekeeping”.
This celebrated moment of Australian history, titled simply “Our Future”, is the subject of a painting (at right) by David Frank, from Indulkana in South Australia, chosen by CLC delegates as their pick for the prize, when they gathered at Kalkaringi last month for a historic joint meeting of the Northern and Central Land Councils.
Note: Article modified 12 September to take note also of the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk-off, commemorated by the award.
'My future is in my hands': winning work
By KIERAN FINNANE