Uncle Jack Charles and Aunty Lola Greeno were honoured with a prestigious award Monday night at the Sydney Opera House for their lifetime contributions to the creative arts.
Uncle Jack and Aunty Lola received the Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 12th National Indigenous Arts Awards alongside up-and-coming visual artist Jenna Lee, 26, who was awarded the Dreaming Award for emerging artists and a grant of $20,000.
Uncle Jack, a Boon Wurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung Elder from Melbourne and venerated performing artist, told NITV News that he “never thought it was possible” to win the award.
“Practically hitting 76 I am acknowledged as the old man of the theatre as it were…. Uncle Bob [Maza] would be really chuffed to see me in this position because he has won the Red Ochre of Lifetime Achievement Award so it’s a blessing,” he said.
“I’m counted among some of the icons from the past and living… to be included among that is a real hoot.”
Since his first role in The Blood Knot at the New Theatre Melbourne in the early 70s, Uncle Jack has lived his life in the spotlight and even co-founded the Melbourne-based Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana, alongside the late Bob Maza in 1972.
His long career in theatre plays, movies and television continues today, with Uncle Jack soon to work collaboratively with Te Rēhia Theatre, a Maori theatre in Auckland, on the play Black Ties.
His most famous works include the theatre show Jack Charles v The Crown and the television drama Cleverman.
co-winner, Aunty Lola, a Palawa Elder from Tasmania, is a shell-stringer who said she is “absolutely humbled” to receive the prestigious award.
She said it’s important to pass on to younger generations the craft of designing necklaces in order to keep the tradition alive.
“It’s really about telling our story about Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s cultural... It’s really important that we hand that on to our young women, I have already shown my daughter and granddaughter,” she said.
Aunty Lola is wisely selective about where she finds her shells, saying she is “very conscious of what our environment is doing”. She predominately goes to her home on Flinders Islands to collect the maireener shell, a traditional shell used in the curation of shell necklaces.
Over the past 30 years, Aunty Lola has had her works showcased in a handful of museums and exhibitions across the nation, including the Museum of Arts and Sciences, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria.
The awards were presented on the first night of National Reconciliation Week.
A member of the Stolen Generations, Uncle Jack spent many years of his early adult life homeless in Melbourne, fighting alcoholism and heroin addiction.
He was also a repeated burglar and was sent to prison around 23 times between the 1970s and 2006.
Uncle Jack was inspired to start rehabilitation after seeing himself in the 2008 film Bastardy, a documentary that followed his life for seven years.
Alongside acting, Uncle Jack regularly visits prisons hoping to be a mentor and inspire the people on the inside to turn their lives around.