A CANBERRA diplomat, musician, philosopher, poet and raconteur was named 2023 “Canberra CityNews” Artist of the Year at the 33rd annual ACT Arts Awards, held in the ANU Drill Hall Gallery on Tuesday evening.
“CityNews” editor Ian Meikle presented Fred Smith with a certificate and a $1000 cheque and craft reviewer Meredith Hinchliffe gave him a fine ceramic bowl by artist Jeff Mincham.
It’s almost impossible to keep up with Smith, who has been spending most of his time on an Australia-wide tour of his concert, “The Sparrows of Kabul”.
The songs in the album formed the basis of an unprecedented (for a local artist) sellout concert at the 2023 National Folk Festival. This toured NSW, Queensland, SA, Tasmania, Victoria and WA over the past year, giving Australians, one critic said, “an understanding of the horrors of war and the beauty of peace”.
His book of the same name, released this year, recounts Australia’s airlift from Kabul in 2021 and his own part in it as an officer for DFAT, moving around Kabul airport with a makeshift table as part of the Australian team processing former Australian government staff and thousands of others through the human logjams at the airport’s gates.
On receiving the award Smith said: “I’m a product of this city. I was born in the old Canberra Hospital. I first started performing in the bars of this city – the Phoenix, the Wig and Pen, Tilley’s and the Gypsy Bar.
“And much of my recent output describes the work Canberrans do in difficult places offshore. Artists need encouragement, and a lot of people in Canberra have been kind to me. More than that, Canberrans seem to get my jokes.”
Smith has combined diplomacy and music for a long time and had already made his name as a musician years before for his original albums related to our peacekeeping missions in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.
The first Australian diplomat to be sent to work alongside Australian troops in Uruzgan province and the last to leave, he released the influential suite of songs “Dust of Uruzgan” in 2011 followed by a book of the same name.
“His songs reverberate with the prophetic voice of humanity,” one Canberra Critics Circle member said, while another praised his “quiet, compassionate attentiveness, a bird’s-eye view of world affairs, a wicked sense of humour that coincidentally meets Afghani humour.”
He returned to Afghanistan in March 2021 to work at the embassy in Kabul and ended up working on makeshift tables from Kabul airport. Smith recounts his experiences in his 2023 book, “The Sparrows of Kabul”, praised by a reviewer as “a rare bird; viscerally honest, packed with self-doubt, suffering and grace”.
With an easy Aussie everyman persona, Smith has become something of a national folk hero, travelling the country to sing songs of ordinary life and stepping into the shoes of our servicemen and women, sharing their pain through the driving lyrics of his songs.
Although his real first name is Iain, he likes to quip that “with a name like Fred Smith, you can only go so far”. You’d have to say he’s already gone a long way.
Earlier in the evening at the annual ACT Arts Awards, the Helen Tsongas Award for Excellence in Acting was presented by Canberra Theatre director, Alex Budd, to Jim Adamik.
The awards evening, hosted by the Canberra Critics Circle at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, also featured the circle’s own awards, which went to: photographer Wouter Van de Voorde; visual artists, Tom Rowney, Hannah Glason, Linda Dening, Kim Mahood, Sally Simpson, Wendy Teakel and Peter Maloney; musical artists Phillipa Candy, Edward Neeman, Larry Sitsky, Liam Budge, Fred Smith and Apeiron Baroque; writers Frank Bongiorno, Fred Smith and Zoya Patel; poets KA Nelson and Sandra Renew; dance artists Ruth Osborne, Natsuko Yonezawa, Itazura Co, Australian Dance Party, Gretel Burgess and Caitlin Schilg; theatre artists Jordan Best, Jim Adamik, Natasha Vickery, Andrea Close and Mill Theatre; musical theatre artists David Cannell, Canberra Philharmonic Society, Dramatic Productions and Heartstrings Productions; and screen producers Wildbear Entertainment.
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Ian Meikle, editor