‘Flawed’ Aboriginal word dictionary wins the SA Museum’s Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize

Jenna Lee and her 2024 Waterhouse prize winning artwork

The winning works for the 2024 Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize, and all the finalists are featured in the SA Museum’s major exhibition.

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.

“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. Lee’s win was announced at the South Australian Museum earlier this month at the launch of a major exhibition showcasing the winners and finalists.

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 wins the Emerging Prize category for Coming Together

Andrew Gall's "Coming Together"

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.”

The winning works, alongside all the finalists across Open Prize and Emerging categories are being featured in a major exhibition running at the South Australian Museum until 10 June 2024. 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.

Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize
Exhibition open daily until 10 June 2024
South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide
Admission: $9/$11, but free for Museum members and children under 12.
Website: South Australian Museum

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