Reckoning with Australia’s colonial archive: poet Natalie Harkin wins RAKA Prize

Natalie Harkin, winner of the 2020 Kate Challis RAKA Award. Picture: Supplied.

Narungga woman and South Australian poet, Natalie Harkin has won the 2020 Kate Challis RAKA Award for her work Archival-Poetics, an unflinching anthology that faces the violence the colony has inflicted on Indigenous women, and offers a roadmap for healing in the centuries ahead.

The Kate Challis Ruth Adeney Koori Award, or RAKA, which means ‘five’ in the Pintupi language, is worth $20,000 and is awarded to an Indigenous artist in one of five categories annually, including: creative prose, poetry, script writing, drama and visual arts.

The 2020 prize recognised the best poetry by an Indigenous writer published between 2015 and 2020.

Archival-Poetics was deemed a landmark piece of Australian poetry by the judging panel.  Rooted in archival interrogation and historical reflection, the collection is a critical and timely piece that examines the origins of contemporary Australia.

The judges were struck by the overall cohesiveness of the text and the manner in which Harkin weaved the archival, the familial and the political within the poetic form. They described it as: brave, innovative and challenging.

Speaking about what the prize meant for her, Ms Harkin said: “This Award gives me confidence to continue with this kind of poetic justice work, with potential to reach an audience beyond my wildest dreams.”

She acknowledged the award brought with it a strong sense of responsibility to continue writing for visibility, voice, recognition and respect for Traditional Owners in Australia.

Speaking about other Indigenous artists, she added that, “I think this kind of recognition encourages us to keep writing through all the emotional labour; to continue to be brave and write with the rupturing intention to affectively connect with others. Indigenous writers and creative artists have so much to offer, engaging with critical ideas, leading key debates about our lives, and speaking our truth and story through our creative work.”

Ms Harkin is currently working on the repatriation of state records to Indigenous families and using archival-poetic methods to research Aboriginal women’s labour stories and domestic services histories in South Australia.

RAKA Award judge and Co-Director of the Australian Centre, Faculty of Arts Professor Denise Varney said that the judges were deeply moved and grateful for the opportunity to experience the verbal richness and affective power of contemporary Indigenous poetry.

“The judging panel and I were impressed with the innovative presentation styles in which format, typology, and other graphic features enhanced the extended body of work by a single poet. Congratulations to the 2020 winner, Natalie Harkin and to the highly commended poets Ali Cobby Eckermann and Kirli Saunders.” Professor Varney said.

The Kate Challis RAKA Award was first awarded in 1991 to help advance recognition of Aboriginal artistic achievements. It is one of the earliest prizes for Indigenous artists in Australia and established by Professor Emeritus Bernard Smith to honour the memory of his late wife, Kate Challis, who was known in her youth as Ruth Adeney.

After his wife’s death, Professor Smith sold an art collection they had massed over their lifetime to set up the RAKA. Professor Smith believed in the restorative justice powers of the arts in all forms and as such, the prize is offered annually to encourage Indigenous creative artists to undertake literary works, paintings, sculptures, craftwork, plays and musical compositions, and to assist in advancing the recognition of Indigenous achievements in the arts.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother and Kirli Saunder’s Kindred received honourable mentions this year.

Full citations and past winners can be found on the Australian Centre website.