Q&A/Visual Art

Freo artist wins NAIDOC prize

14 July 2020

NAIDOC week may have been postponed but its prestigious national poster competition is right on schedule, and the winner is Fremantle artist Tyrown Waigana.

Yamatji writer Michelle White caught up Tyrown Waigana to find out more about his work and the impact of winning the big prize.

To borrow a quote from Murri comedian Sean Choolburra, “In 2018 our NAIDOC theme was ‘Because of Her We Can.’ In 2020, it’s ‘Because of COVID, we can’t!’”

Normally at this time of year we would be beyond the point of exhaustion from trying to attend as many NAIDOC week celebrations as possible. We would have caught up with people we hadn’t seen for ages and gorged ourselves on as much kangaroo stew and damper as we could physically manage.

For community, it’s an incredibly empowering time of year as we see our culture, language, stories, art, strength and survival proudly celebrated. For the non-indigenous community, it’s a time to walk with us and appreciate being a part of a country that has the world’s oldest continuing culture.

But with Aboriginal people in the highest risk groups for COVID-19, the national NAIDOC committee made a decision very early in the pandemic to cancel our July NAIDOC celebrations and, for the first time in 45 years, move the events later in the year to November.

Thankfully, one tradition that did go ahead, in spite of COVID-19, was the announcement of the winner of the annual NAIDOC poster competition. This is a prestigious national award for Indigenous artists. As well as coming with a handy $10,000 dollar prize, the award gives the winning artist significant national exposure. Their artwork features on thousands of posters and flyers that are distributed and displayed across the country and prominently on social media.

I had a yarn with year’s winner, Tyrown Waigana, a 23 year old artist from Fremantle.

Michelle White: Who’s your mob? Where are you from?
Tyrown Waigana: My heritage can be traced to Wardandi Noongar people from the Busselton region and Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. I was born in North Fremantle and grew up out in the surrounding suburbs.

MW: What was your reaction when you found out you’d won the NAIDOC poster comp?
Just contained excitement and surprise. I was just going to have a midday nap when I got the call. For me the win validates my practice and my talent. This is my first big win and it’s given me more exposure in a few weeks that I could have got in years grinding as an artist.

The winning poster by Tyrown Waigana

MW: Can you tell us the inspiration behind your NAIDOC work and the story you wanted it to tell?
The inspiration is the story of the rainbow serpent and the way it shaped the land. I wanted it to show Indigenous peoples’ connection this story, our culture and how this is our home, spiritually and physically. This connection is far deeper than any legal, bought or foreign claim to this land.

MW: When I looked at your work, it felt to me like the bright line elements are reminiscent of style used by some Pilbara artists and the line detail is a tribute to X-ray art, so I’m curious… what were the influences behind the styles you have used in this painting? 
The aesthetic comes from a lot of different places. What I tend to do when I start creating Aboriginal art is saturate myself with images from social media, books or galleries. I couldn’t tell you where I saw the brightly coloured line that represents the Dreamtime but they’re so simple, complex and effective in artwork. The figure in the middle references Aboriginal depictions of people and certain spirits. I have always admired the look of these spirits especially from the Pilbara region. The overlaying white oval pattern on the black that forms the mass of Australia is a reference to Torres Strait Islander art forms that I have been exposed to.

MW: How is this years’ theme “Always Was Always Will Be” visualised in your NAIDOC work?
It’s visualised by the connection of the Dreamtime colours that reflect on the snake and the people. The land was colourless and flat, then the Rainbow Serpent came out of the Dreamtime and bought the colour with it. The snake shaped the land and gave its colour to the original people. Through the Rainbow Serpent are we connected to the Dreamtime and the land, therefore this “Always Was and Always Will Be Aboriginal Land.”

MW: Has winning the NAIDOC poster competition opened up other opportunities for you? What’s it been like since you were announced winner?
It’s been a little hectic since I was announced as the winner! I have had a few jobs that have come up because of the win and these jobs will probably lead to bigger and better things. The biggest opportunities I’m getting out of the win is exposure – people wanting to give me interviews and stuff like that, meeting new people who have networks, lots of social media attention and becoming a nationally recognised artist overnight.

MW: When and how did you discover your passion for art?
I’ve been creative from a very early age and I always knew I wanted to take that passion into a professional capacity. A lot of my family members are artists or creative, so I grew up with it in the household or with it constantly around me. I have always loved cartoons as well so that also been a big drive in my style and why I create the way I do.

MW: What have been your greatest influences and how would you describe your style?
TW: My biggest influences are Aboriginal art and cartoons. All my family is Aboriginal and art is so present in our culture so it’s always been there. Cartoons are just cool and I have always loved them because their worlds are limitless.

I guess my style is simple and complex. The forms are simple and easily read but there is so much happening in my work which makes it complex. I started with illustration and picked up painting, sculpture, graphic design and animation.

‘Too much information’ was one of a series of cartoons by Tyrown Waigana featured in this year’s ‘Revealed’ exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre.

MW: You are featured as an emerging artist in this year’s “Revealed: New and Emerging WA Aboriginal artists” exhibition at Fremantle Art Centre with a series of animated clips. What does it mean to you to be a part of this particular exhibition?
This is my second year in “Revealed”. In 2019 I entered a painting, sculpture and Illustration. This year I entered a series of little animations that focus on comedy. Growing up in the Fremantle area I guess it’s a bit of a goal and dream to have your artwork displayed there. So being in “Revealed” validates my career. It’s like I can officially call myself an artist.

MW: You’re 23, at the start of your career, are there any big goals or ambitions you’ve set yourself? What’s top of you wish list?
Top of my wish list is getting my comic book published and turning it into an animated series. I want to get more exposure for my art, get into more exhibitions, talk to people about gallery representation, take on more freelance jobs, become a full time artist and get into writing/directing. I want to be one of the best creatives this country has ever produced.

National NAIDOC Week 2020 celebrations will be held from the 8-15 November.
If you’d like to see more of Tyrown Waigana’s work, check out

Pictured top is Tyrone Waigana.

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Author —
Michelle White

Michelle White is a Yamatji storyteller with more than 30 years writing and producing for televison, radio, print and online. She has extensive experience working in the arts and currently serves as Partnerships and Platforming Manager for Community Arts Network. Favourite part of the playground? The flying fox or wherever the food is!

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