Keith Wikmunea, a Thu’ Apalech artist from Aurukun in Far North Queensland, has won the most prestigious award in this year’s Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (Natsiaa). His large-scale sculptural piece Ku’, Theewith & Kalampang: The White Cockatoo, Galah and the Wandering Dog 2023 – a celebration of his strong connection to Country and his totems – took out the $100,000 Telstra Art Award, one of the country’s richest art prizes.

“The colours on this tree are specific to my clan, the Thu’ Apalech people,” Wikmunea says. “In Wik-Mungkan, my first spoken language, we call this tree ‘yuk thanchal’. This tree is also known as ‘milkwood’ in English and is the same tree that my ancestors have been using since the beginning of time to create their artefacts. My Puulwuy (father’s totem) and my Kathwuy (mother’s totem) are represented here too.”

The white cockatoo and goanna are his father’s totems, and the galah and frillneck lizard his mother’s. Carved sculptures of the birds can be found in the branches of the tree in his winning work. The tree is painted with ceremonial dots identified with the Western Cape region, where Wikmunea was born and resides.

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Another key element of the work is the wandering dog at the base of the tree. The wood-carved dog is an animal that Wikmunea has created in many different forms. It appears in works displayed in a number of galleries across Australia, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2021 and 2022. One was also part of the Aurukun Camp Dogs exhibition at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in 2020.

Celebrating a milestone 40 years, Natsiaa is Australia’s longest-running award for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Adam Worrall, director of the Museum and Art Galley of the Northern Territory, says the prize provides a snapshot of the magnificent artworks created in Australia over its 40-year history. “I am filled with immense pride and excitement for the remarkable journey that Natsiaa has undertaken over the past four decades,” he said in a statement.

The winning works from this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards can be seen at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory from August 12 to January 14. Entry is free.

The writer visited Darwin with the support of Tourism NT