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A Nod to Resilience

The much loved and always anticipated Portrait of a Senior Territorian Award returns this month, showcasing Territory artists and senior characters of the Northern Territory through the art of portraiture.

Held annually, switching locations each year between Larrakia Country in Darwin or Alice Springs/Mparntwe, it’s the Red Centre’s turn to play host, the 2022 Awards housed at Araluen Arts Centre.

By Hannah Muir

Respect for elders isn’t a new concept by any stretch, but it is one that’s not often embraced by society at large. Regularly forgotten or unintentionally missed, the deep gratitude and respect for our older generations seems a bygone trend. Darwin artist Thomas Higgs, who won last year’s competition with his portrait of Garlil Jane Christopherson or ‘Janey’ as she’s affectionately known, see’s the exhibition as an opportunity to inform younger Territorians.

“The opportunity to recognise their lives and honour them is actually raising awareness for the younger generation of who their elders are and the lives that they’ve lived. [Senior Territorians] have had the opportunity to contribute significantly to our society in ways that are often unrecognised or not remembered,” he says.

“Often stories are forgotten, the past fades away into the distance and remembered no more. But when you actually get to know somebody in the process of painting their portrait, and hear their story, you’re actually unearthing their life and their history.”

Northern Territory Minister for the Arts Chansey Paech agrees, acknowledging Portrait of a Senior Territorian was meant to be a one-off in 1999 in celebration of the International Year of the Older Person.

“It has continued because it is an ideal opportunity to showcase characters from across the Territory. From homelands in some of the country’s most remote locations, to our major urban centres, and everywhere in-between.”

Life as a Territorian can be enduring. Isolation and challenging weather conditions can get a bit much at times. From plant-destroying frost in a Red Centre winter to mould forming Wet seasons in the Top End – plus temperatures upwards of 40 up and down the Stuart Highway – Territory conditions can have a significant impact on its inhabitants.

Felicity Green, Senior Director of Araluen Arts Centre, has worked on the last three Alice Springs-hosted Awards, and says these conditions make people resilient.

“I think to live a long and healthy life in the Northern Territory, you need to have a degree of resilience and a degree of strength. It’s a great place, but there’s some harsh realities,” she says.

In the past, the exhibition has honoured the varied lives and contributions of health professionals, survivors of the Stolen Generation, and activists, to name a few. In her time working with the exhibition, Green has noticed that, inevitably, there are always some familiar faces.

“It’s a much loved exhibition. The general public really enjoy it. Portraits are accessible to everybody, you don’t have to be an art expert to appreciate good portraiture,” she says.

While the exhibition may be well loved, and the prize money lucrative for an NT art award – including the first-placing $7,000 Acquisition Award and $1,000 for People’s Choice – Thomas Higgs reflects on, not only working with Janey, but her whole family throughout the process, and says that’s the real reward.

“You know, when you’re 96, your children become the gatekeepers to your world a bit, they take care of you. As the painter, there is the accolade of winning the Award, but actually, it was the fact that they’ve let me get to know the matriarch of their family, their mother, and let me in to get to know her.”

To mention a few feathers in her cap, Garlil Jane Christopherson, now 97-years-young, was Australia’s first Aboriginal guide leader, formed the first NT Aboriginal netball team, and is also an author.

“She knew she could take the bull by the horns and make things happen!”

Painting her portrait was not only a way for Higgs to gain an understanding of Janey and her contributions to the Territory, but offered her family a lasting moment of reflection and pride.

“There was a sense of recognition and honour. They felt a tremendous sense of pride in their mother’s life.”

What senior Territory characters will adorn the gallery walls of Araluen? What stories will be shared and what will we learn? Head along to find out.

Portrait of a Senior Territorian Exhibition

Thumbnail: 2020 Portrait of a Senior Territorian Exhibition at Araluen Arts Centre
Inset left: L-R: 2021 winning artist Thomas Higgs, Don Christophersen (son of Garlil) and Minister Chansey Paech. 
​Header & inset right: Thomas Higgs, 'Matriarch and Pioneer Garlil' (detail), 2021, portrait of Garlil Jane Christophersen. Winner of the Portrait of a Senior Territorian Art Award 2021. 

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