‘Flawed’ Aboriginal word dictionary reclaimed in prize-winning artwork celebrating First Nations resilience

Gulumerridjin (Larrakia), Wardaman and KarraJarri Saltwater artist Jenna Lee has been named the Open Prize winner of the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize, the South Australian Museum’s biennial competition celebrating the intersection of art and the natural world.

Inspired by the resilience and renewal of First Nations languages, Lee’s winning sculpture Grass Tree – Growing Together spins the pages of a decades-old dictionary of Aboriginal words and place names into a black-and-white tribute to the native Grass Tree.

Jenna Lee, Grass Tree – Growing Together, 2024 Open Prize winner, Photo Credit_ Silversalt and Hazelhurst Arts Centre, courtesy the artist and MARS Gallery

“By transforming a flawed Aboriginal word dictionary into a pair of Grass Trees, I draw parallels between First Peoples’ linguistic resilience, and this plant’s ability to rise from ashes,” Lee said. “This work celebrates the enduring spirit of both traditional language and flora in the face of their ecologies’ near destruction.”

As winner of the Open Prize category Lee takes home a cash prize of $30,000, supported by IAS Fine Art Logistics.

This year’s judging panel included Dr Erica Seccombe (2018 Waterhouse winner and Senior Lecturer, Australian National University), Dr Jordan Pitt (Associate Dean of Indigenous Strategy and Services, Faculty of Sciences, University of Sydney), Robert Reason (Director, David Roche Foundation), and Justine van Mourik (Director, Public Engagement, South Australian Museum).

The judges said Grass tree – Growing together exhibited a moving connection to nature, culture, and art, while speaking to the colonial tensions inherent in western traditions of natural history.

“The words and knowledge gathered in publications like Aboriginal Words and Place Names were often recorded by missionaries, explorers, and anthropologists with a range of motivations, that rarely considered the agency and cultural authority of the people they were studying.

“Despite these inequalities collections and archives like those in the South Australian Museum are now being reclaimed by First Nations communities to celebrate and revive language and culture. By cutting up and reshaping these pages and the knowledge they hold, Lee’s winning work is a physical embodiment of that process of interrogation, reappropriation, and renewal.”

Andrew Gall, Image credit: Andrew Willis

The $10,000 Emerging Prize category, supported by Hill Smith Art Advisory, was awarded to Queensland-based pakana artist Andrew Gall, and his 3D-printed shell necklace Coming Together.

Gall said his work – the first time a traditional kanalaritja shell necklace has been made using 3D-printed porcelain – asks probing questions about climate change, as rising ocean acidity imperils the shells that form an essential part of this sacred cultural practice.

“My research was informed by published knowledge and first-hand accounts of pakana ‘shell stringers’, the custodians of kanalaritja,” Gall said. “I developed a process to make 3D-printed porcelain shells, so they look, feel and act like the natural shells, and are safe from climate change and its devastation.”

The judges said the understated beauty of Coming Together reveals a depth of meaning. “Gall’s work finds the similarities between the process of 3D-printing, and the natural cycles through which shells are made.

“Its beauty belies the technical precision of its creation, from the sheer number of shells to their rich colour and the pearlescent finishes. Gall has embraced new technology, but shell each has a sense of individuality and a clear connection to this diminishing natural resource.”

Coming Together, Andrew Gall, 2024 Emerging Prize winner, Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize – Photo Angus Northeast

The winning works, alongside all the finalists across Open Prize and Emerging categories will be featured in a major exhibition running at the South Australian Museum until 10 June. A $5,000 People’s Choice Prize sponsored by the K&S Langley Fund will also be awarded by public vote at the exhibition’s conclusion.

South Australian Museum CEO Dr David Gaimster said, “The Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize challenges artists to make us think about the natural world in new and moving ways, and this year’s Open Prize and Emerging Prize winners exemplify that mission.

“Both winners spark important but very different conversations that resonate deeply with the South Australian Museum’s own collections and history, and are worthy winners of the major prizes in this year’s Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize exhibition.”

Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize

Open daily, 12th of April – 12th of June 2024

South Australian Museum, Adelaide

Hero Image: Jenna Lee, 2024 Open Prize winner, Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize – Photo Angus Northeast


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