Tony Albert hits Telstra prize target
Tony Albert with his work We Can Be Heroes.

A confronting photographic work depicting a group of young Aboriginal men with large red targets painted on their chests has won Australia's most prestigious prize for indigenous artists.

Queensland artist Tony Albert's We Can Be Heroes, which was inspired by the non-fatal shooting of two Aboriginal boys in King's Cross in 2012, beat a field of 65 finalists to win the $50,000 prize for overall best work at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

This is the second major win for Albert, who recently claimed the $100,000 Basil Sellers Art Prize for work taking sport as its theme. His winning piece deals with racism in sport and includes portraits of AFL stars Nicky Winmar and Adam Goodes hung over a large red target.

Both the Telstra and Basil Sellers' winning works are part of Albert's series titled Brothers and places him at the forefront of urban Aboriginal artists.

WA artist Daniel Walbidi won the general painting prize for Wirnpa and Sons, a large piece in which he uses metallic paint to capture the stark bleached saltpans and the parched dunes of the Great Sandy Desert.

A new category introduced this year honouring the work of young Aboriginal artists was won by 20-year-old Kieren Karritpul, from Daly River in the Northern Territory.

The prize for bark painting went to Northern Territory artist Garawan Wanambi for his work depicting country close to Raymangirr on the coast of Arnhem Land, while the prize for work on paper was awarded to South Australian artist Nici Cumpston for a series of images created in response to her Barkindji family dynasty in the desert of central western New South Wales. The three- dimensional award was picked up by Queensland's Alick Tipoti for a piece depicting a shovel-nose shark in the Milky Way.

Albert's winning work was inspired by the outcry that followed an incident in which police drew their weapons on a group of teenagers who had been joyriding and lost control of their car, injuring a female pedestrian. Two boys, aged 14 and 17, were shot and wounded.

Friends of the victims who marched in protest ripped off their shirts to reveal painted targets on their chests.

"It was a very potent statement of the situation of Aboriginal men in society in which we are walking targets, either directly through police brutality or simply being followed around in shops," Albert said.

Each of the 20 uniformly photographed young men depicted in We Can Be Heroes are from the Kirinari Hostel in the southern part of Sydney. Rather than selecting a few of his subjects for the finished work, as he has done before, Albert chose to present them all, which he sees as a gesture of solidarity and defiance.

"There is a quiet beauty and a sense of intimacy evident in each photograph as each man represents all Aboriginal men, one people proud and defiant," the judging panel said in giving Albert the Telstra Art Award.

Albert explains: "There is an optimistic thread running through the series. I'm not telling the boys they are important: they are in the photo telling the viewers they are important."

"If you are constantly told you are bad you are going to be bad. This is about challenging stereotypes, such as those blanket statements that were bandied around during the intervention about Aboriginal men being paedophiles and women bashers. It was a hard time for us as men and it is still continuing."

Albert does not consider himself an overtly political artist but his work does have social and political connotations. "I want my work to be a vessel for bringing these issues (the struggle for justice and equality for the Aboriginal community) to the wider public," he says.

Walbidi, from Bidyadanga, 50km south of Broome, was thrilled to win the award for general painting, the 31-year-old's first major prize.

"There is a lot of interest in art in my community but winning the Telstra prize will hopefully increase it even more," says Walbidi, who was named among Australia's top 50 most collectible artists in 2011.

The exhibition of Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award finalists is at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory until October 26.

The West Australian

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