A weaver, a cultural development teacher and a rapper have taken out the Australia Council’s 2016 National Indigenous Arts Awards.

The winners were announced last night at a ceremony at the Sydney Opera House.

The Red Ochre, Australia’s most esteemed peer-assessed award for an Indigenous artist, was won by world renowned Ngarrindjeri weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie, from South Australia.

Awarded since 1993, the $50,000 prize acknowledges an artist’s outstanding contribution to a lifetime of achievement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts at a national and international level.

Interdisciplinary artist, consultant and community cultural development teacher Vicki Couzens from Victoria won this year’s Fellowship, providing $40,000 a year for two years to create a major project.

The Dreaming Award provides $20,000 to an artist aged 18-26 to create a major body of work through mentoring or partnerships. It was awarded to lyricist, rapper, composer and producer Nooky (Corey Webster) from NSW.

Australia Council Chair Rupert Myer AO said he looked forward each year to paying tribute to eminent Indigenous artists through the awards, which are by some regarded as the highest accolade bestowed on an Indigenous artist.

“The awards put a spotlight on the significant contribution Indigenous artists make to the artistic vibrancy and cultural life of Australia. They encourage us to experience, appreciate and learn about the diverse cultures and ancient stories of our First Peoples through the broad range of work created by Indigenous artists across Australia,” Mr Myer said.

Yvonne Koolmatrie was born in 1944 in Wudinna, a small town in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, and grew up in the state’s Coorong wetlands and Riverland districts.

Yvonne’s remarkable career as a master weaver began in 1982 after attending a one-day workshop in Meningie in South Australia presented by elder and weaver Dorothy Kartinyeri – Aunty Dory – thought to be one of the last people practising the ancient coiled bundle weaving technique.

With her first exhibition in 1987, Yvonne’s art has been widely showcased over four decades around metropolitan and regional Australia including at ‘Beyond The Pale’ (2000 Adelaide Biennale); the ‘Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition’ (Art Gallery of NSW); ‘Tarnanthi’ (2015 Art Gallery of SA); and ‘Off Shore: Onsite’ (Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre), which brought together Indigenous visual artists from around Australia and the world as part of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ ‘Festival of the Dreaming’ in 2000.

Yvonne also has works held in collections of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan; South Australian Museum; National Museum of Australia; Art Gallery of Western Australia; National Gallery of Victoria; and National Gallery of Australia.

Nooky’s story is somewhat different. The 25 year-old was born Corey Webster. The story behind his nickname, like so much of what defines him, leads back to Nowra on the NSW South Coast, and family.

“I got the name because of my Dad, Noel. He had a pet chicken called Chooky when he was young. Here he was, this little blackfella country kid going everywhere with a chicken. Someone nicknamed Dad Nooky – a cross between Noel and Chooky. So whenever I went to the football with Dad everyone called me and my brother ‘Lil’ Nooky’ or ‘Yung Nooky’. When I started my music I just used what people called me – Yung Nooky – I was maybe 19 when I dropped the ‘Yung’. Nooky’s not like a stage name or anything – people mostly call me Nooky but some call me Corey – it’s all good,” Nooky says.

Nooky has done a lot in 25 years, including dancing with a group of Indigenous singers and dancers from Australia during the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He supported Indigenous hip hop group The Last Kinection for his first national tour, and was a 2011 Deadly finalist in the category of Most Promising New Talent in Music.

He has composed and produced music for short films, television and theatre, including productions at the Sydney Opera House, Malthouse Theatre and Carriageworks. He completed a brief paid internship at Harvard University during which he worked on the play ‘Finding Neverland’, now playing on Broadway, in its pre-production and off-Broadway phase.

He has also recorded a track in Los Angeles with the Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo.

Vicki Couzens has distinguished herself with her interdisciplinary artwork, or as she prefers, “creative cultural expression” – painting, installation, visual arts, printmaking, mixed media, performing arts, language, ceremony and teaching.

But she is best known for her central role in the revival of the possum skin cloak making tradition, which began in Victoria, and is now established across south-eastern Australia.

Yvonne Koolmatrie. Australia council for the Arts, Red Ochre Award recipient 2016.
Yvonne Koolmatrie. Australia council for the Arts, Red Ochre Award recipient 2016.
Vicki Couzens.
Vicki Couzens.