BIRDLIKE and humble, Aurukun grandmother Janet Koongotema might not look like a leader, but she is spearheading an art explosion in her hometown of Aurukun.
The 86-year-old Winchanam Elder was earlier this year a finalist in the prestigious Wynne Prize, is in the running for Australia’s richest art award in Darwin later this year, and on Thursday took out the top prize at the annual Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.
A host of carvers and painters from Aurukun’s Wik and Kugu Art Centre attended CIAF, including Keith Wikmunea, Bevan Namponan, Lex Namponan, Nita Yunkaporta, Deven Wikmunea and Vera Koomeeta.
The proud Aurukun contingent was there to support Ms Koongotema as she received the $25,000 Premier’s Art Award for Excellence from Arts Minister Leeanne Enoch at the CIAF opening ceremony.
Despite the steadily-growing list of honours, Ms Koongotema remains humble and focused on her work and passing on her knowledge to the next generation.
“I’m 86; I’m still doing it, I’m working hard,” she said.
“I learnt when I was the age of 20 – my mother passed away when I was a baby and my mother’s sister looked after me.
“After school when I go out to home, I see her hands and that’s why I learn to paint. Later, I was teaching in Mapoon.
“The girls and women – I taught them to paint.”
Although she may not think so, the artistic grandmother is a big deal, being represented by Singapore-based Red Dot Fine Art Gallery where she currently has a solo exhibition.
Red Dot Fine Art Gallery director Giorgio Pilla said it seemed to be the year of Janet Koongotema.
“We’re absolutely delighted to announce yet another accolade,” Mr Pilla said.
“We are extremely excited to be representing this amazing new talent, in collaboration with Dreamcoat Paint and Wik and Kugu Art Centre.”
The CIAF judging panel, comprised of leading First Nations artists and creatives Archie Moore, Tony Albert and Leitha Assan, remarked on Ms Koongotema’s unique style and striking use of colour.
“Her intrinsic knowledge of country lays claim to sovereignty, strength and resiliency of her people – stunning work,” the judges said.
Ms Koongotema has been exhibiting her dramatic colour compositions at CIAF since 2010 with Aurukun Shire Council’s social enterprise, the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre.
Prior to picking up the paintbrush, the Elder was known for her weaving, making dilly bags and pandanus fruit bowls from fibres collected from her country around Archer River.