2017 Artist Stories

Dr Ken Thaiday Senior

Lynette Narkle

Ancestress / Teila Watson

Lisa Maza

Dr Ken Thaiday Senior Image


Dr Ken Thaiday Senior
Sculptural, Visual & Performance Artist, Dancer, Choreographer, Singer and Songwriter

World renowned Torres Strait Islander artist Dr Ken Thaiday Senior will be presented with the Australia Council’s prestigious Red Ochre Award for 2017 at the 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday, 27 May.

Over the past two decades, the work of this seminal Australian artist has attracted international acclaim and he is widely acknowledged as an inspirational figure whose art has reinvigorated the cultural identity of his people. 

Ken unique multidisciplinary art practice integrates visual art and installation, kinetic sculpture, dance and song inspired by the landscape of his Torres Strait birthplace, and is rooted in cultural customs and traditional forms using contemporary materials. 

Ken is best known for his extraordinary and elaborate ‘dance masks’ and headdresses. These include representations of the Beizam (hammerhead shark), which is his family totem, as well as works that contemporise the traditional form of the Dari. The Dari is a headdress historically worn by Torres Strait warriors in battle. It is a potent symbol of the Torres Strait Island people, appearing on their flag and enduring today as a sign of peace and harmony. 

Traditionally made from cane, pearl shell and feathers, Ken works with modern materials to fashion his works, using plastic, cardboard, plywood, fishing line, corflute, bamboo, feathers, beads, nylon line, acrylic paint, string, enamel, fibreglass and wire. 

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Ken’s interpretation of the traditional headdresses is his ingenious reimagining of them as kinetic sculptures that, when worn by a dancer, bring to life the songs and stories of a seafaring people whose natural environment is intrinsic to their culture.

Ken’s innovative articulated headdresses allow dancers to mobilise the various artefacts he creates, which are predominantly totemic, and move them in inventive ways to his choreography using a complex, intricate system of pulleys and strings so that wings of birds can flap and the mouth of a shark will open and close.

“When I'm dancing and wearing the Dari, I become the shark. From my observation I'm showing how it comes up to get the live bait by simulating its jaw movements”, he says.

Ken views the hammerhead shark as ‘the king of the saltwater’ and 'the symbol of law and order'. 

Ken’s practice is deeply imbued with the traditional song and dance of the Torres Strait taught to him by his father, Tat Thaiday, a cultural leader, choreographer, song writer and gardener, whose influence is evident in the drum rhythms and soulful vocals that are a trademark of Ken’s performances.

Born in 1950 on Erub (Darnley Island) in the eastern group of the Torres Strait Islands, Ken Thaiday is from the Meriam Mir peoples. He attended school on Thursday Island and when he was fifteen, he and his family settled in Cairns. He worked for Queensland Rail and in the mining industry in the Pilbara in Western Australia. Working at the railways for over a decade gave him experience at assembling and dissembling the moving parts of machinery, which has proved an invaluable part of his sculptural work.

Ken returned to Cairns in the late 80s and established the Loza Dance Group with other Torres Strait Islanders and began constructing dance artefacts. It was not long before his work was recognised internationally. In 206 he did a three-month residency at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. In July 2009 he presented a Beizam mask to the Australian Embassy in Washington DC and gave an artist’s talk at Kluge-Ruhe in Virginia, USA.

The work of Dr Ken Thaiday Snr has been shown in over 50 exhibitions during his career, all over the world, including at: Queensland Art Gallery; National Museum of Australia; Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory;Musée des Confluences, France; National Gallery of Australia; Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra; Queensland Museum; Art Gallery of NSW; Cambridge University Museum of Anthropology, UK; Museum of Victoria; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

In 2014, Ken was commissioned by Carriageworks and Performance Space in Sydney to present a major installation accompanied by a series of new dances. The exhibition marked a new ambitious level of scale and complexity for him, with its centrepiece a monumental and elaborate sculpture that referenced the Dari, plus traditional Beizam, frigate bird and sardine scoop dances performed by Erub Kebile, a Torres Strait Island dance troupe comprising several of Ken’s close family members. 

The scale of Ken’s work further escalated with the Dari he collaborated on with artist Jason Christopher, which featured in the Taba Naba exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco in 2016.

Ken travelled to Monaco for the exhibition and said: “When I saw my artwork there, I couldn’t speak, I just cried”. 

Ken was invited to exhibit in the 2016 Sydney Biennale and collaborated with artist Jason Christopher on a new work which University of Queensland Associate Professor in Art History, Sally Butler says “broke new ground in cross-cultural collaborative projects using technological innovations to bring the visual and performing arts into closer synergy, as they are in Indigenous traditions.”

In late 2016, Ken was recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Sunshine Coast, which acknowledged him as the ‘most distinctive artist of the Eastern Torres Strait’.

Ken is one of thirty Indigenous artists whose work has been assembled as part of the National Gallery of Australia’s 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, Defying Empire, from 26 May – 10 September 2017.

Ken is acknowledged as a consistent, tireless and unselfish contributor to important community celebrations in the Torres Strait Islands such as The Coming of the Light, of which he was Chairman for five years. 

A deep religious devotion informs every aspect of his work - Ken does not sketch the pieces he plans to make, rather he sees them in his mind and attributes their emergence to God. Kernus, the Erub landing place of the first Christian missionaries in the Torres Strait in 1871, as well as the church on Erub, are painted on many of his works. 

He has mentored many prominent and emerging Torres Strait Island artists and in the spirit of keeping traditions alive is keen to pass his deep knowledge of the sea, and his understanding of Islander cultural practice and connections with the animal world on to the next generation.

Australia Council for the Arts Board Deputy Chair Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin paid tribute to Ken, saying: “It is a thrill for us to honour one of our most influential and beloved Indigenous artists with the Red Ochre.  Not only is Dr Ken Thaiday Senior an innovative, world-class visual and performance artist, he is also a senior cultural custodian and hopefully through his profound love of the sea, his remarkable art and his mentoring of other artists, the unique and precious culture and traditions of the Eastern Torres Strait Islands peoples will be preserved and immortalised”. 

Ken said he is honoured to receive Australia’s most esteemed peer-assessed award for an Indigenous artist:  “This is a great honour and privilege to receive this prestigious award.  By showcasing my artwork and Torres Islander Culture this will open the doors for other Indigenous artists. I give all the glory and honour to God for giving me the gift to share my artwork.”


Lynette Narkle Image

Lynette Narkle
Actor / Director / Mentor / Performing Arts Cultural Advisor

Critically acclaimed and highly respected actor and director of Indigenous theatre and film Lynette Narkle will be presented with the Australia Council’s prestigious Red Ochre Award for 2017 at the 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday, 27 May.

Lynette, a proud Noongar Nation woman, was born in Wagin in Western Australia in 1946, one of nine children.

Her remarkable career spans five decades and she is recognised nationally and internationally as one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal actors and performing arts practitioners and a pivotal force in theatre.

“I started my career purely by accident in 1979. I was living in Bunbury and a telegram arrived to ring Perth Theatre Company about a theatre-in-education piece called ‘Kullark’, which in Noongar means ‘home’. I came up on the train to Perth and auditioned for the role of Rosie Yorla. Ernie Dingo was there in his Wildcats basketball shirt, rehearsing. I got the job and I haven’t stopped since,” says Lynette.

Her early career was dominated by her performances in many of Indigenous playwright Jack Davis’ stage classics including ‘Kullark’, ‘No Sugar’, ‘The Dreamers’, ‘Barungin’ and ‘Honey Spot’. Some of these productions premiered in Perth and toured to other parts of Australia, and some toured internationally, but they all played to critical and audience acclaim.

“Playing Jack’s matriarch”, as Lynette describes those early days, took her from remote bush workshops to the Sydney Opera House, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, Fitzroy Town Hall in Melbourne and the Come Out Festival in Adelaide -  and on international tours to the Portsmouth Festival UK, Hammersmith Studios London and the World Theatre Festival in Vancouver, Canada.

This work was significant both because Jack Davis was a talented playwright and it was performed by Aboriginal artists. An authentic Aboriginal voice was being presented to a wider general public audience, an accomplishment that has continued to distinguish Lynette’s work in the performing arts.  

In 1994 Lynette joined Western Australia’s fledgling Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company as Associate Director and took on many roles including youth workshop facilitator, director, performer and community liaison.  Over the course of ten years Lynette mentored and supported hundreds of young aspiring Indigenous writers, directors, stage managers and actors and played a vital role in Yirra Yaakin’s transition to one of Australia’s largest and most successful Aboriginal theatre companies.

A highlight of Lynette’s Yirra Yaakin years was performing in two of the company’s main stage original works. She played the lead in ‘Cruel Wild Woman’, which opened at the Perth International Arts Festival in 1999 to rave reviews and in the highly successful ‘One Day in 67’ in 2003. She also directed 'Aliwa' (2000), "Donkalonk' (1996), 'Ooh La Nah Nyungah' (1996) and 'Headspace' (1997).

Lynette studied Theatre and Drama studies for nearly three years from 2002 at WA’s Murdoch University in Perth.

Her impressive film and television career includes the award-winning film ‘The Sapphires’ and most recently Warwick Thornton’s ‘The Darkside’. Lynette pioneered the role of Indigenous Programs Officer at Screenwest and from 2004 to 2006 assisted emerging Aboriginal filmmakers to shape their screenplays, cast their work adventurously and secure backing and producers.

Lynette has volunteered her expertise and wisdom as a director on numerous Indigenous boards including the Australia Council's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Corporation Board and the Australia Council's Community Cultural Development Fund.

Revered by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous industry members for her untiring work as a performing arts practitioner and teacher, Lynette’s passion and dedication to ensuring Aboriginal stories are performed with an authentic voice - and heard in her own community, on a national stage and to international audiences - is unstinting. 

A leading pioneering figure in the development of contemporary Indigenous theatre in Australia, Lynette has now come full circle, returning to her own community in the south west of WA, where she has a deep and extensive knowledge of language, culture and history, as a respected Elder, coach, mentor and cultural advisor to a new generation of Aboriginal performers and creators, and representing the region on the Board of Country Arts WA.

The emerging contemporary Aboriginal dance company Ochre Dance appointed Lynette as their cultural advisor during their recent residency in the south west to engage with the local community on their latest work “Kaya”.

Renowned for her humility, Lynette said that whilst she had enjoyed the opportunities to tell Aboriginal stories around the world, the main highlight of her career was travelling to rural and remote communities across Australia. 

“The yarning after the shows with the community gave us a sense of belonging and helped us understand the issues facing Aboriginal people”. 

Lynette said she was extremely honoured to receive the Red Ochre Award, adding: “I have been very lucky in my career as it has allowed me as an actor to be a voice for indigenous people across Australia by telling our stories our way national and internationally.”


Teila Image

Ancestress / Teila Watson 
Songwriter / Singer / Writer / Actor / Poet

Queensland-born, multidisciplinary artist, Teila Watson, will be presented with the Australia Council’s Dreaming Award at the 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards on Saturday, 27 May.

Teila Watson is a Birri Gubba and Kungalu/Gangalu Murri woman born and raised in Brisbane. An established performing artist – singer, poet and lyricist (known as ‘Ancestress’), 25 year-old Teila is also a writer, actor and youth arts professional. Her respect and understanding of Murri knowledges, First Nations self-determination, and the preservation of culture, informs her artistic endeavours and fuels her many passions.

Teila's art practices revolve around: climate change; decolonising to create sustainable futures; the impact that First Nations knowledges and practice has on country and people; and consequently the importance of Land Rights and First Nations sovereignty when considering environmental and social issues.

These insights have been passed down to Teila by her family and other members of the Murri community in Brisbane where she grew up.

Despite growing up in an expanding city, Teila spent much of her time around a fire, listening to her elders tell stories about growing up in central Queensland on the Dawson River, in her Grandmother’s country. One of Teila's Aunties, the late Maureen Watson - an esteemed, world-recognised educator, poet, storyteller, artist, playwright and author - remains one of the most influential people for Teila. Aunty Maureen's community work, coupled with her passion for the arts, paved the way for not only Teila, but many other Aboriginal people, members of the wider community and women in the arts.

Inextricably linked with Teila’s art practice is the importance of cultural authenticity and she communicates often with family and community elders to identify protocols and deepen her understanding of cultural knowledge, logic and Murri terms of reference. Her strong sense of identity, grounded in Aboriginal philosophy, is ever present throughout her artistry.

Growing up, Teila was constantly surrounded by political discussion. Her father, the late Dr Ross Watson, was a political activist and the founding editor of Black Nations Newspaper from 1982-85, which published indigenous perspectives at a time when issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not covered by mainstream media. He was also a key founder of 'The Murri School' in Brisbane, and the Murri radio station '989fm'. Much of Teila’s political and academic knowledge stems from time spent with her father, when he was preparing his PHD.

Over the past 12 years Teila has established strong Aboriginal and arts community connections through involvement in various organisations, events, festivals, schools and political groups. She has been trained to plan and facilitate workshops to assist participants with scriptwriting, song writing, performance, percussion, movement, stage presence, presentation or knowledge; and has engaged countless young people to learn and perform Indigenous contemporary dance, music, poetry and Hip-hop.

At 15, Teila took up studies at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA), Australia’s largest Indigenous arts training organisation, and performed many times with them, including at the Garma Festival in Gove in the Northern Territory in 2009, opening for Black Arm Band at the Brisbane Festival in 2008 and in Reflections: 40 Years and to the Future, directed by Leah Purcell, as singer and actress in 2007 and again for the remount in 2008.

In 2013, Teila portrayed 'Olivia' in the development showing of 'Twelve' a hip-hop theatre adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' written and directed by Black Honey Company Artistic Director Candy Bowers for the Queensland Theatre Company. A previous collaboration with Bowers in 2009 saw Teila contribute to the development showing of 'Arden' a hip-hop version of “As You Like It”, as a writer, and actor and dancer in the role of “Celia” for Bell Shakespeare at the Casula Powerhouse, Sydney.

A career and performance highlight for Teila is the release of a film clip for her original song  

'Worthy', accompanied by a blog titled 'Are Aboriginal people in a violent and abusive relationship with the occupation of “Australia”?’ published through Medium in 2016.

Another highlight was the ‘Idle No More Invasion Day Mixtape’ in collaboration with Guerrilla Republic and ten other political Hip-hop artists worldwide, released on January 26th, 2013. Her song ‘Bring Buildings Down’ was featured on the 'Indigenous Leadership Forum Mixtape', in connection with the Indigenous Nationhood Movement in Turtle Island, Canada.

Teila has continued to work with some of the most exciting artists in the country, including her niece Kaiyu Bayles, Provocalz, Lorna Munro (Yilinhi), Triks and many others.

Teila's lyrics from her collaboration with Provocalz, ‘Rize Up, released on his album 'Only Built for Koori Linx', were published in 'Paper Dreaming Our Stories, Our Way' compiled and edited by Lorna Munro for Cambridge University Press in 2015.

In addition to her music, acting and writing pursuits, Teila is also a visual artist and has established a business called Bimbi Love with her sister Gaala Watson.

Teila intends to use the Dreaming Award funding to create, record and release an album of original songs based on the Murri perspective of humanness and the importance of respecting and valuing Elders, land, culture, knowledge, history and future in a way that she hopes will engage youth and the wider community.

She intends to work closely with Elders to ensure that the cultural, scientific, social, political and historical knowledge she portrays through her music is appropriately expressed and accurate from a Murri perspective. Teila intends to highlight the importance of cultural perspectives, the current situation of First Nations people and the effects that climate change and the destruction of land are having on humanity, while simultaneously acknowledging the power people have to be a part of the solutions.

“I want my album to be very insightful and thought-provoking, but I also want it to be relatable and something you can dance to and sing over the top of.”

Teila Watson has also been short-listed for The Carol Lloyd Award, presented by Queensland Music Festival and supported by APRA AMCOS and Hutchinson Builders and the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.This award will be presented to an emerging female singer-songwriter, who was either born in, or resides in, Queensland, at the Festival’s launch on May 30.


Lisa Maza Image

Lisa Maza
Actor, Singer, Writer, Producer

Actor, singer and writer Lisa Maza will be officially presented with an Australia Council Fellowship at the 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday, 27 May.

Lisa’s father, the late Robert (Bob) Maza was born in 1939 on Palm Island to a Meriam father from Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait and Yidindji mother from North Queensland near Cairns. Lisa’s mother, Vera Blankman was born in 1943 in Alkmaar in The Netherlands, moved to Australia when she was seven and met Bob Maza when she was 20.

Born in Brisbane on January 26th, 1967, Lisa and her family, including older sister Rachael, moved to Sydney in 1975 when her father was asked to be part of the national Black Theatre.

Bob Maza was a powerful influence in encouraging both his daughters onto the stage from an early age.  One of the forefathers of Black Theatre in Australia, as well as an actor, writer, director, activist, the First Indigenous Australian Film Commissioner and a Red Ochre Award recipient for his outstanding contribution to the Arts, Bob Maza’s political and theatrical life impacted the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre and dance for over sixty years and his legacy continues today.

Lisa recalls: “I was born into Black Theatre. My first singing performance was on the Adelaide Festival Stage when I was about seven and Dad called me and my sister up on stage to sing a song with him. My first acting role was playing a little boy named ‘Pumpkinhead’ in Robert Merritt’s ‘The Cakeman’ when I was eight. It was the first all Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander-run production performed at the newly formed National Black Theatre, and my father directed it.”

Like many Sydney teenagers during the 80s, Lisa regularly went to inner city gigs to see bands including The Hoodoo Gurus, Triffids, Sunnyboys, Lighthouse Keepers, Beasts of Bourbon, Hoi Polloi, Mental as Anything, The Herd, Lime Spiders, Allnighters, Saints, Do Re Mi and Scientists. When she was 19, Lisa sang in her first band, ‘Good Groove’, at Sydney’s iconic Trade Union Club, the Hopetoun and other Sydney inner city venues. Her sister Rachael played bass and sang with the band.

In 1988, Lisa moved to Lismore where she lived for a few years. She continued to sing, with her sister in the duo Two Women and a Piano at the local pub; in a trio called Three Blind Mice and busking at markets, before returning to Sydney. In 1998, Lisa moved to Melbourne and when the opportunity to study Improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts came up, she took it.

Lisa has worked as a professional singer and actor for more than two decades. She has travelled with shows that have taken her all over Australia as well as to Asia and Europe. She has performed anywhere from small cafés in Sydney’s Newtown to football stadiums in Melbourne; from great halls in China to the Box Hill TAFE, and has been part of creating small grassroots works as well as performing with Opera Australia.”

Keen to see more First Nations people tell their stories, Lisa began co-writing the semi-autobiographical ‘Sisters of Gelam’ with her sister Rachael in 2007, and the production premiered at Malthouse Theatre in 2009. She then co-wrote and performed in the Black Sheep Comedy Show production ‘Glorious Baastards’ in conjunction with Australia’s longest running Indigenous theatre company, Ilbijerri, as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2010.

Lisa describes ‘Sisters of Gelam’ as a turning point in her career.

“I applied for a grant in 2007 so I could write Sisters of Gelam, and it was my first go at writing.  It helped me break through some personal barriers, and then allowed me to co-create this very personal work. This encouraged me to continue writing for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and beyond,” said Lisa.

In 2009, Lisa did a Certificate III in Media at Open Channel, co-directing and co-editing the half-hour documentary ‘Living in Two Worlds’ which premiered at St Kilda Film Festival in May 2009. She directed and edited the short documentaries ‘Pomonal’ and ‘Better than Money’ at Open Channel, and her last documentary ‘Maza’s Got Talent’ premiered on NITV in 2014. Lisa completed a Certificate IV in Business (Governance) in 2011 and is now working on a documentary to be completed in 2018.

In 2016, Lisa performed in Kate Miller-Heidke’s award-winning ‘Rabbits’, a collaboration between Opera Australia and Perth-based Barking Gecko Theatre Company, adapted from the picture book by John Marsden and Shaun Tan by librettist Lally Katz.

In addition to her eclectic performance career and her theatre writing and documentary-making, Lisa expanded her skill set along the way in a range of other areas that include theatre administration, tour managing, project management, MC work, and associate producing.

Whilst working with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music theatre organisation Black Arm Band in 2014, Lisa was responsible for their Extended School Residency Primary School Project, which involved planning and scheduling four weeks of workshops with 80-100 Koroit Primary School children and managing travel and accommodation, contracts, wages & per diems, invitations, media releases, filming, hall set up with sound and lights, costumes, projections and budgets. It was her first experience of producing but Lisa realised it held the key to empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to tell their stories authentically. 

Lisa has strong opinions about Indigenous people still being discriminated against in arts and entertainment; about colourblind casting and about Indigenous people being used as consultants on non-Indigenous controlled productions with Indigenous content and characters and not being paid or credited.

She will use her Australia Council Fellowship to develop her skills as a Producer.

“There is a genuine hunger for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content and it’s a good time for people like me to step up and take on bigger roles. If we don’t, we risk non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continuing to speak for us. We must grab every opportunity to have our voices heard and to be the tellers of our own stories so they are told right,” said Lisa.

As part of her Fellowship, Lisa has already spent around six months participating in The Blakstream Program at Footscray Community Arts, an exciting new two-year producers’ program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples looking to up-skill and develop new pathways into the arts, culture and entertainment industry with a focus on the Indigenous sector.

Lisa is one of four Blakstream Producers who will participate in a range of skills development, mentoring and training experiences and gain hands-on experience within some of Melbourne’s most innovative and respected arts organisations.

Lisa’s Fellowship also involves her working on Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s 25th anniversary celebrations, which will require her to produce a documentary.

In May 2017, Lisa was involved in producing the Creation Lab for Yirramboi First Nations Festival in Melbourne where artists gathered from around the world to create at Testing Grounds for five days.

Lisa is also pursuing a film company producer placement.

“I want to gain experience and skills in all these areas and then decide which I’d like to focus on more in the future,” said Lisa.

“I am interested in telling the stories, human stories, indigenous stories, truthful stories, stories that educate, entertain, make people laugh, but most of all make people think. I personally want to see work that is authentic, inspirational, surprising, that educates, moves, delights and challenges me. I want to find progressive ways for us to move forward as an industry and as a nation.”

Lisa Maza is on the Board of Australia’s longest running Indigenous Theatre Co, Ilbijerri and a member of the Victorian Indigenous Performing Arts Awards Panel. She is also a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Performing Arts Advisory Group at Malthouse Theatre, a member of St Albans Community Centre and Performing Arts Consultative Committee, and Convenor of the Brimbank Greens.


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