On August 5, Indigenous Australian artist Harold Joseph Thomas (Bundoo) was honored at the 33rd Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA), hosted at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin. The work that won Thomas the prestigious Telstra Art Award, which came with a prize of AUD 50,000 (USD 38,400), was his painting Tribal Abduction (2016). The canvas provides powerful commentary on the violent British colonization of Indigenous Australians through its brutal depiction of white officers, one of which is ripping a baby away from his mother’s breast as she is forced to her knees.
This scene portrays the time of the “Stolen Generation,” a period approximately from the early 1900s through the 1970s, in which Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcefully removed from their families and relocated into both government and missionary institutions in a misguided effort to assimilate indigenous children into Euro-Australian society. Thomas’s already striking work becomes even more emotionally stirring upon the revelation that the artist himself is one of the Stolen Generation. A descendent of the Luritja and Wambai peoples of Central Australia, Thomas was removed from his family in 1954 at the age of 7, and relocated to an Anglican institution specifically allocated for the assimilation of Aboriginal boys. Fueled by his tumultuous past, Thomas is a long-time advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples and is best known for designing the Australian Aboriginal flag in 1971, when he was just 24 years old. The flag was later declared a “Flag of Australia” in 1995.
As an artist, Thomas has established a career as a landscape and nature painter, with Tribal Abduction marking a transition into the figurative. The panel of judges for this year’s NATSIAA—comprised of contemporary artists Vernon Ah Kee and Don Whyte, as well as Kimberly Moulton, senior curator of the South Eastern Australia Aboriginal Collection at Museum Victoria—praised Thomas’s technique and choice of topic, specifically citing his use of classical composition to portray an image packed with both anger and fear. Thomas says that the prize money will be allocated for his art supplies and an upcoming project.
Other winners of the 2016 NATSIAA are: Betty Kuntiwa Pumani (Telstra General Painting Award), John Mawurndjul (Telstra Bark Painting Award), Robert Pau (Telstra Work on Paper Award), Nicole Monks (Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award) and Ishmael Marika (Telstra Youth Award). Works by the 75 finalists are currently on view at the MAGNT until October 30, 2016.