A confronting and stunningly prescient work by an early-career Adelaide artist has wowed judges and the public at the nation's top indigenous art awards.
A clever and savage riposte to those spreading racial hatred through social media, Raymond Zada's large-scale piece features the graphically familiar word Racebook which, when looked at closely, is made up of dozens of appalling anti-Aboriginal taunts. Underneath is the thumbs-down sign accompanied by the line, "Too many people like this."
Racebook won the $4000 work-on-paper prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Art Award, announced in Darwin on Friday evening.
Zada's piece was made many months before the current controversy in which the social media site Facebook has been accused of acting too slowly to take down racist remarks.
Zada used hateful postings he found on two racist Facebook pages– "Aboriginal Spongebob" and "Giving ya wife a sniff of ya petrol cos ur a top noonga". What shocked Zada is that the two groups had more than 43,000 likes.
Remarkably, it is only the second exhibited piece by 40-year-old Zada, who works as a freelance computer programmer.
Zada is not blaming Facebook for the problem, which he sees as a symptom of a deeper and wider racism that still exists in Australia.
"It's not good enough to simply report a racist Facebook page which gets taken down. It doesn't change anyone's opinions or attitudes," he said.
What amazed Zada, who is an Aboriginal with Afghan and Scottish heritage, is that many of those making the hideous comments excerpted in his work made no attempt to hide their names.
"People have become clever about disguising their attitudes but not on the Internet. They don't seem to see it as being connected to real life," he said.
The overall $40,000 Telstra Art Award went to Tiwi Islands painter Timothy Cook, whose large work on canvas Kulama depicts the coming-of-age ceremony in the Melville and Bathurst Islands 80km off the Northern Territory coast.
The most striking aspect of Cook's painting is bold use of symbolism drawn from both Tiwi and Christian cultures, with a cross floating within a moon encircled by a soft golden ring, the lunar sign that kicks off the commencement of the rights-of-passage ceremony.
"What distinguishes Tim from other Tiwi artists is his sense of freedom, confidence in using his materials and a natural understanding of composition," said one of the three Telstra judges, Art Gallery of WA indigenous art curator Glenn Iseger-Pilkington. "He is an innovator exploring his own practice at the same time as respecting and reaffirming culture and ceremony."
The judges were excited by the overall quality of the work submitted for this year's awards but were deeply concerned about the downturn in the market for Aboriginal art, which has been suffered even more than contemporary art since the GFC.
Other winners in the categories of general painting, bark painting and sculpture were: South Australian artist Barbara Moore for her eye-popping untitled painting depicting the Anangu Pitjantjatjara lands; Arnhem Land artist Djirirra Wunungmurra's bark painting Yukuwa, a breathtakingly intricate piece that dazzled viewers at a media preview; and Arnhem Land artist Jack Nawilil for Namorroddo, a ceremony pole that has been delicately bound with handmade twine and finished in midnight purple and charcoal black.
The finalists will be on show at the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT until October 28, and online at: nt.gov.au/natsiaa