Pitjantjatjara artist Timo Hogan has won the 2021 Telstra Art Award, the most prestigious prize in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (Natsiaa). He’s the first artist from Spinifex lands (a large native title area on the WA-SA border) to do so. He’ll use the $50,000 prize money to buy a four-wheel drive car, a valuable asset in the remote region.

“Painting is important for Anangu [Western Desert Aboriginal people] to tell their stories,” says Hogan, whose impressive painting tells the Tjukurpa (creation) story of Lake Baker, Western Australia.

In his representation the men watch as the water serpent Wanampi departs his home and skirts the edge of the lake. “It’s a sacred place. My father showed me the Tjukurpa when I was a boy. It’s got a big story, but I can’t tell all of it,” he says.

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The 65 artworks selected for this year’s awards are exhibited at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (Magnt) in Darwin. You can see them in person or via a virtual gallery from Saturday August 7 to February 6, 2022.

Magnt’s curator of Aboriginal art and material culture, Rebekah Raymond, tells Broadsheet Hogan’s paining Lake Baker towers above you. “You feel enveloped by the work, especially when you’re directly in front of it. I think that’s what’s really beautiful about the work; the scale lends towards the power of the story that Timo is telling.”

She says Timo is a master of texture. “The work is largely open space, rendered in black acrylic, then he has these forms and textures by layering paint. He uses a palette knife to create these sandy forms of land that are quite gorgeous. When you’re directly in front of them you can see the razors, you can see slight undulations, and you really get a feel of the landscape there.”

Now in its 38th year, Telstra Natsiaa is Australia’s longest-running art awards for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Raymond says this year’s judging panel commented on the maturity of the artist’s work, even for someone relatively young in his art practice.

“It’s a fantastic triumph for him. He is a relatively young man in his 40s but he paints like a senior artist. The judges said he paints with such confidence and his knowledge of form, and his expression is that of someone much older. I think that connects to the fact that he has inherited that custodianship from his father [of Country], he’s got that responsibility already on him. [It] reflects his seniority as a custodian.”

Winners in the six other categories, which were awarded a slice of the total $80,000 prize money, include the late artist Ms M Wirrpanda from Alice Springs for her abstract and unexpected pen-on-paper work Untitled; Hubert Pareroultja and Mervyn Rubuntja’s landscape work Through the veil of time, painted on silk; and emerging artist Kyra Mancktelow, from Queensland, for her haunting work Moongalba 11, which tells of the impact of colonisation and assimilation through printmaking and textiles.

“I think a fantastic piece is the Hubert Pareroultja and Mervyn Rubuntja piece. It’s a groundbreaking collaboration between two significant Aranda and Western Aranda men – these are senior artists and successful in their own right; they come from two significant families of the Hermannsburg School. To see them paint watercolour at this scale is mind-blowing. It heightens the impact of the work.”

The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (Natsiaa) is on at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (Magnt) from August 7 to February 6. Explore the exhibition online via the virtual gallery.