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National Indigenous Arts Awards mark Referendum anniversary

The Australia Council for the Arts celebrates four extraordinary artists who will be honoured at the 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards (NIAA) tonight at the Sydney Opera House.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the 25th Anniversary of the Mabo decision. Tonight at the National Indigenous Arts Awards (NIAA) –  the Red Ochre Award, the Dreaming Award and a Fellowship will be presented to recognise the artistic excellence and cultural leadership of four remarkable First Nations artists.

To mark these important anniversaries, this year two Red Ochre Awards will be presented –to one female and one male artist – to celebrate their extraordinary lifetime achievements and contribution to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts nationally and internationally.

Their awards laud these two individuals, not just for their distinguished careers in the arts, but for their lifelong endeavours to honour the importance of Indigenous arts and culture. They join a remarkable group of artists who have received this award since its establishment in 1993.

The 2017 National Indigenous Arts Awards recipients are:


  • Dr Ken Thaiday Snr and Lynette Narkle will each receive a Red Ochre Award, to recognise their lifetime achievement of outstanding contributions to the arts;
  • Teila Watson will receive the Dreaming Award, which recognises an inspirational young artist and provides the opportunity for them to be mentored and create a major body of work; and
  • Lisa Maza will be awarded the Fellowship, providing two years of financial support to undertake a major creative project.


Australia Council Chair Rupert Myer AO paid tribute to the Red Ochre Award recipients, two eminent Indigenous artists recognised by their peers for their extraordinary commitment and dedication, not only to their art, but also as mentors for young and emerging Indigenous artists.

“I congratulate Ken and Lynette for the significant contribution they have made to the vibrancy of Australian arts.  Their artistic practice, storytelling and cultural knowledge sharing plays a vital role in maintaining the strength and visibility of our First Nations cultures, and is central to our national identity,” Mr Myer said.

“The NIAA awards also recognise the achievements of the younger Indigenous artists and invest in developing their practice. I look forward with great anticipation to the work that Lisa and Teila will produce through the Fellowship and Dreaming Award.”

“The Council has long had a commitment to encouraging public-private partnerships in the arts and I am delighted to announce that the inaugural second Red Ochre has been generously supported by Louise Herron AM and Helen Lynch AM. We are deeply appreciative of their commitment to promoting female leadership in the arts and celebrating excellence in Indigenous arts.”

“Helen Lynch AM and I are delighted to join the Australia Council in supporting Lynette Narkle as the female recipient of the Red Ochre Award for lifetime achievement in the arts.  It is important that we celebrate artists who have led by example and created great work, and wonderful to see the country increasingly acknowledging the contribution and importance of First Nations culture to Australia as a whole,” said Louise Herron AM.

Dr Ken Thaiday Snr, Red Ochre Award  (QLD)

For the past two decades, Ken’s work has brought Torres Strait Islander art and culture to mainstream Australia, as well as to an international audience. His unique multidisciplinary art practice integrates visual art and installation, kinetic sculpture, dance and song inspired by the landscape of his Torres Strait birthplace, and is rooted in cultural customs and traditional forms using contemporary materials.  His deep religious devotion informs every aspect of his work.

Ken is best known for his extraordinary and elaborate ‘dance masks’ and headdresses, which include representations of his family totem, as well as works that contemporise the traditional form of the Dari. Historically a headdress worn by Torres Strait warriors in battle, the Dari is a potent symbol of the Torres Strait Island people, appearing on their flag and enduring today as a sign of peace and harmony.

Ken is highly respected as a community leader, both in the Torres Strait and also in the wider Aboriginal and non-Indigenous communities. A pioneering senior contemporary artist, he has inspired and mentored the next generation of successful Torres Strait Island artists, who have then forged their own national and international careers. His work has featured in more than 50 exhibitions: most recently at the Taba Naba Oceanographic Museum of Monaco where his collaboration with artist Jason Christopher which was seen by more than 400,000 international visitors; and in the 2017 National Gallery of Australia’s 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial Defying Empire, from 26 May –  10 September.

In 2016, Ken was recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of the Sunshine Coast and named ‘the most distinctive artist of the eastern Torres Strait’. A worthy recipient of the Red Ochre Award, Ken is widely acknowledged an inspirational figure who has reinvigorated the cultural identity of his people.

Lynette Narkle, Red Ochre 
Award  (WA)

Lynette’s remarkable career spans five decades and she is recognised as one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal actors and performing arts practitioners. Her early career was dominated by performances in many of playwright Jack Davis’ stage classics. Her work attracted critical and audience acclaim in Australia and overseas, taking her from remote bush workshops to the Sydney Opera House, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, Fitzroy Town Hall in Melbourne and the Come Out Festival in Adelaide – as well as on tours to the Portsmouth Festival UK, Hammersmith Studios London and the World Theatre Festival in Vancouver, Canada.

In 1994, Lynette joined Western Australia’s fledgling Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company as Associate Director and took on many roles including youth workshop facilitator, director, performer and community liaison.  Over many years with the company, Lynette mentored and supported hundreds of young aspiring Indigenous writers, directors, stage managers and actors and played a vital role in the company’s transition from a youth theatre company to one of the largest and most successful Aboriginal theatre companies in Australia.

Her impressive film and television career includes the award-winning film ‘The Sapphires’ and most recently Warwick Thornton’s ‘The Darkside’. Lynette pioneered the role of Indigenous Programs Officer at Screenwest, assisting emerging Aboriginal filmmakers to shape their screenplays, cast their work adventurously, and secure backing and producers to realise their films.

Lynette has served on numerous Indigenous boards including the Australia Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board (2003-2007), Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Corporation Board (2008-2010) and as the WA representative on the Australia Council’s Community Cultural Development Fund (1996-1999).

Lynette’s passion and dedication to ensuring Aboriginal stories are performed with an authentic voice – and heard in her own community, on a national stage and to international audiences – is unstinting.

A leading pioneering figure in the development of contemporary Indigenous theatre in Australia, Lynette, a proud Noongar woman, has now come full circle. Returning to her own community in the south west of WA, where she has a deep and extensive knowledge of language, culture and history, Lynette is a respected Elder, coach, mentor and cultural advisor to a new generation of Aboriginal performers and creators, and represents the region on the Board of Country Arts WA.

Ancestress / Teila Watson, Dreaming Award (QLD)

Growing up with a strong cultural and political grounding (her father was the late Dr Ross Watson, political activist and the founder and editor of Black Nations Newspaper from 1982-85) has influenced Teila Watson’s creation of music, poetry and other artistic pursuits. Teila, who performs as Ancestress, intends to use her Dreaming Award to create an album of poetic, soulful hip-hop, pop and RnB songs that discus global issues like climate change and forms of social governance from a Murri cultural perspective.

Teila intends to work closely with Elders to ensure that the cultural, scientific, social, political and historical knowledge she portrays through her music is appropriately expressed and accurate from a Murri perspective. She intends to highlight the importance of culture, the current situation of First Nations people and the effects that climate change and the destruction of land are having on humanity, while simultaneously acknowledging the power people have to be part of the solutions.

Lisa Maza, Aboriginal and Torres Strait and Islander Arts Fellowship 

Lisa has twenty years’ experience working as a professional actor and singer, with her career taking her as far afield as Asia and Europe. Her first acting role, when she was only eight years old, was in Robert Merritt’s ‘The Cakeman’, the first all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-run production performed at the newly formed National Black Theatre, directed by her father.

Born into a political and theatrical life, she was greatly influenced by her late father – Robert ‘Bob’ Maza AM – not only one of the forefathers of Black Theatre, but also an actor, writer, director, activist, the First Indigenous Australian Film Commissioner and the 1998 Red Ochre Award recipient – who took her to the Tent Embassy when she was just five years old.

Keen to see more First Nations people tell their stories, Lisa co-wrote the semi-autobiographical ‘Sisters of Gelam’ with sister Rachael in 2007, then co-wrote and performed in ‘Glorious Baastards’ in conjunction with Australia’s longest running Indigenous theatre company, Ilbijerri, as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2010. Along her career path, Lisa has always sought to expand her skill set, whether in administration, tour and project management, documentary-making or associate producing.

A strong advocate for growing and nurturing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island producers to create greater diversity and authenticity, Lisa has been working as a producer for The Blakstream Program at Footscray Community Arts as part of her Fellowship, providing her with the opportunity for skills development, mentoring and training, as well as developing new pathways into the arts, culture and entertainment industry. She has also been producing Yirramboi’s Creation Lab as part of the First Nations Festival in Melbourne.


The National Indigenous Arts Awards (NIAA) were established by the Australia Council’s former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, consisting of leading Indigenous artists, curators and arts managers, to recognise the outstanding work and achievements of their fellow artists. The awards are decided by a national panel of leading expert Indigenous arts peers.

The prestigious $50,000 Red Ochre Award has been awarded since 1993 to an outstanding senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait artist for lifetime achievement and their outstanding contributions to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts, both nationally and internationally.

The $20,000 Dreaming Award, for a young inspirational Indigenous artist aged 18-26, provides the opportunity to create a major body of work through mentoring and partnerships, either nationally or internationally. First awarded in 2012 to playwright Nakkiah Lui, photographer Rhonda Dick received the award in 2013, multimedia artist Tyrone Sheather in 2014, singer/songwriter Kahl Wallis in 2015 and lyricist, rapper, composer and producer Nooky (Corey Webster) in 2016.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Fellowship $40,000 annually for two years provides support to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artist to enable them to undertake a major creative project or program in their art form. Previous Fellowship recipients include Vicki Couzens, Richard Frankland, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Brenda L Croft, Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello, Jenny Fraser and Dave Arden.

The 2017 National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House will be hosted by Wesley Enoch, Sydney Festival Artistic Director and Chair of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Strategy Panel.

Red Ochre Award recipients 1993-2016

2016 Yvonne Koolmatrie (SA)

2015 Dr Gary Foley (VIC)

2014 Hector Burton (SA)

2013 David Gulpilil (NT)

2012 Warren H. Williams (NT)

2011 Archie Roach (NSW)

2010 Michael Leslie (NSW)

2009 Gawirrin Gumana (NT)

2008 Doris Pilkington Garimara (WA)

2006 Tom E Lewis (NT)

2005 Seaman Dan (TSI)

2004 John Bulun Bulun (NT)

2003 Jimmy Little (NSW)

2002 Dorothy Peters (VIC)

2001 Banduk Marika (NT)

2000 Mervyn Bishop (NSW)

1999 Justine Saunders (QLD)

1998 Bob Maza (QLD)

1997 Jimmy Chi (WA)

1996 Maureen Watson (QLD)

1995 Rita Mills (TSI)

1994 Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri (NT)

1993 Eva Johnson (SA)


Media resources:

NIAA Media Dropbox for captioned still images, detailed bios, Q&As and other collateral:



Brianna Roberts


(02) 9215 9030


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