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Aurukun artists join Australian elite

[by Liz Inglis]


Keith Wikmunea. Image: supplied

Two senior artists from Aurukun Shire Council’s Wik and Kugu Arts Centre have been recognised nationally after being chosen as finalists in prestigious art awards.


Keith Wikmunea and Janet Koongotema were selected as finalists in the 2023 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and Mrs Koongotema was also selected to be part of the 2023 Wynne Prize Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


Her painting Mo’iam - Archer River is one of 41 art works on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until September 3. The 2023 Wynne Prize Exhibition attracted 726 entries from Australia’s top contemporary artists.


Mrs Koongotema said she was humbled to have her work recognised by such prestigious national art awards.


“I was telling my two grandsons and they were smiling as I was telling them, but I haven’t told my granddaughter in Cairns yet,” she said.


“I’m 86. I’m still doing it, I’m working hard. I learnt when I was the age of 20. My mother passed away when I was a baby and my mother’s sister looked after me.


“After school when I go out to home, I see her hands and that’s why I learn to paint. Later I was teaching in Mapoon. The girls and women – I taught them to paint.”


Wik and Kugu Arts Centre Manager Gabriel Waterman said the two art prizes had placed the work of Janet Koongotema and Keith Wikmunea among some of the top artists in Australia.


“The Wynne Prize has also given Janet recognition as a landscape artist among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous contemporary artists,” he said.


“Janet loves to work and always has a smile on her face while she is painting.


“She is one of the most prolific artists at the Centre who comes in most mornings to paint while it is nice and cool.


“She gets her meals delivered from the Council’s aged care centre so she can keep working.


“The Wik and Kugu Arts Centre ran workshops for the female artists in 2020 to encourage their professional development and assist with cultural maintenance.


“We wanted to build on the legacy created by the late artists Akay Koo’oila and Mavis Ngallametta.


“The ladies learnt to work on large canvases and many enjoyed the larger format, with some like Janet flourishing and earning international recognition from major art institutions.


“We have strong female representation in the cultural art produced at the Centre with Janet Koongotema, Vera Koomeeta, Devena Wikmunea, Nita Yunkaporta and Flora Woolla producing paintings for national exhibitions.


“It is a positive career for the women as they can practise their culture and bring money back into the community for their families.”


Mayor Keri Tamwoy congratulated Mr Wikmunea and Mrs Koongotema saying she was very excited and proud of the artists’ achievements.


“Aurukun Shire Council’s Wik and Kugu Arts Centre is always supporting our artists to achieve great outcomes for their cultural and artistic development,” she said.


“It is inspiring to see senior artists like Granny Janet carrying on with that vision, especially when she is communicating through her artwork and telling the stories that keep us connected to each other and to Country.”


Mrs Koongotema is a senior Winchanam artist who grew up in the Aurukun Mission. When she was a young child, her father, Edward, worked as a ringer on the southern Wik lands mustering cattle. On occasion, he would take his daughters Janet and Dawn to visit a place called Mo’iam and it is this story that Mrs Koongotema painted to earn her place in the 2023 Wynne Prize Exhibition.


She recalls: “We would travel a long way up the main Archer River and turn off up a long narrow creek … when we arrived, we could see many different colours in the land, even the colour of gold.”


Keith Wilmunea is a senior Apalech artist who was born in 1967 and raised in Aurukun.


His Country from his father’s side is Kencherang, north of Aurukun, where there is a large freshwater lagoon. During the wet season the salt water comes up the creeks with the high tides and one large creek splits out into his mother’s country, Ti-Tree.


Mr Wikmunea is known for his carvings of ku’ (camp dogs) and his totems thee’with (white cockatoo) and kallam (galah).


The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards are Australia’s richest art awards and will be presented by the Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and Telstra on Larrakia Country (Darwin) on August 11.


Aurukun Shire Council acknowledges the Federal and State funding which enables the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre to support local artists.


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