Seven First Nations Artists You Should Get to Know Better This Year and Why – Concrete Playground

in partnership with

Australia’s longest running exhibition and art prize of its kind, the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) was established in the early 1980s when the commercial popularity of Aboriginal art was just starting to develop. The coveted award not only offers one of the biggest prizes for First Nations artists in the country, but it also aims to highlight the diversity and evolution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and its various forms.

This year, there are 65 artists who have been selected as finalists for the seven awards, which have a total prize value of $80,000. So we’ve partnered with Telstra to give you a rundown on seven impressive artists that we think you should get to know better — and support — as they share their artistry with the world. Make sure you visit the NATSIAA website on Friday August 7, from 6pm, to watch the Awards presented live by host Brooke Boney.


Inspired by walking the country near her two-acre property in Central Gippsland, Taungurung woman Cassie Leatham, from the Kulin Nation, is a true slashie. She’s an artist, designer, weaver, dancer and educator. Leatham is hoping her second entry in the Telstra NATSIAA — a woven artwork that tells the creation stories passed to her by her elders — connects with the Award’s judging panel. ‘Nugal-ik Liwik Bundjil (My Ancestors Creation Story)’ features a mix of pipe clay, emu fat, wattle sap, stringy bark, mud, ochre, sand crystals and wedge-tailed eagle feathers. The artist says her goal is to maintain cultural practices, with her dream being to create a teaching centre on her property to keep her culture alive.


Emerging artist Illiam Nargoodah is gaining acclaim for continuing an ancient tradition. Based out of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region, the 23 year old uses his skills to create knives by hand from found objects, crafting every part of the knife from handle to blade. Upholding knowledge that runs in the family, the young artist has been learning alongside his father — a leatherworker — since he was a young boy. The artist’s first Telstra NATSIAA entry consists of several special knives that were crafted out of metal objects and artefacts collected on community station properties near his home.


Using the iconographic traditions of Christian art as his launchpad, Marri Ngarr man Ryan Presley has his second entry in the Telstra NATSIAA this year. It’s a political work that depicts the “beauty, resistance and everyday heroism of Aboriginal people today”, he says. ‘Crown Land (till the ends of the earth)’ mixes oil, synthetic polymer and 23 karat gold on canvas. Presley, who was born in Alice Springs and now lives in Brisbane, is known for creating works that reference the impacts of colonisation on First Nations people, and the devastation of country and wellbeing from industries such as mining.


Proud Worimi woman Krystal Hurst brings the strength of the women in her family, and her ancestors before her, to her art. Working with banded kelp shells, bitjagang (pipis), fishing line and seaweed, Hurst has created a layered necklace for this year’s Telstra NATSIAA. This is her second time entering the Awards, and the jewellery maker’s artwork references an enduring connection to the sea and the continuation of knowledge passed on through generations. Hurst grew up on the Mid-North Coast and she continues to tell the stories of her people through her jewellery, and via weaving workshops that she runs at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.


Winner of the Telstra NATSIAA 2016 Telstra General Painting of the Year, Betty Kuntiwa Pumani enters the awards again this year — but this time in collaboration with her daughter Marina Pumani. Based in Mimili, a remote community in the APY Lands of South Australia, the mother-daughter duo has made two paintings that celebrate matriarchal knowledge. Painting Antara, a special site for the women in their community, Marina adds her knowledge to this particular diptych, referencing Maku Tjukurpa (the witchetty grub songline), which is central to all of Betty’s paintings, marked by her signature use of vibrant reds.


Mixed media artist Amala Groom is the only New South Wales-based artist to make the finalist list of this year’s Awards. Based out of Bathurst, the Wiradjuri artist has re-appropriated a beaten up print of a famed painting by Frederick McCubbin — a prominent member of the Heidelberg School movement — found discarded in a parking lot during the bushfire crisis, earlier this year. Groom’s piece ‘The Fifth Element’ is a “conceptual intervention into the Australian canon of art history”, she says. It comments on the uncertainty of our current times and remind us of ngumbaay-dyil — that ‘all are one’.


A previous Telstra NATSIAA finalist, Maningrida-based artist Deborah Wurrkidj has this year created a woven sculpture that reflects a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris taken in 2019. Alongside four other artists from the Bábbarra Women’s Centre, Wurrkidj was asked to exhibit her artwork at the Australian Embassy in Paris, which was then profiled in Vogue. This new work, woven from memory, is inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Wurrkidj says, “I saw that tower and I thought I’ll go back to Maningrida and I’ll make her. Yes, I can weave that tower in our way, our Aboriginal way, not balanda [a white/European] way. And I did it.”

Find out more about the upcoming Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards

Top image: Krystal Hurst

Published on July 31, 2020 by Emily Nicol