A series of tough, striking portraits of young men as walking targets has received the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

Twenty young men stare down the barrel of the camera as though it’s a gun.

They’re shirtless, with large red targets painted on their chests. Some stand with arms crossed, some with their hands on their hips or behind their backs. All are Aboriginal.

The series of twenty portraits, called We Can Be Heroes, is the overall winner of this year’s $50,000 prize at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA).

Photographer Tony Albert, from Sydney, said he was inspired by the 2012 shooting of two indigenous boys by police in Kings Cross, when protesters drew targets on their own bodies.

“For me it was a very potent statement about the way in which we’re walking targets in society, whether that be through police violence or brutality, or being followed around in shops,” he said.

The boys in the work are aged between 17 and 21, all from Sydney’s Kirinari Hostel, where they board while attending city schools on various scholarships.

“I don’t let that target stand in the way of what I do or where I’m going,” he said of his effort to be a role model for the boys.

“We won’t be able to change the way media or parliament or police portray us, but it’s how we portray ourselves that’s really important,” Albert said.

Judge David Broker, director of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, said he hopes the selection of the work will be controversial.

“The more you look at it, the more you talk about it, the more exciting it becomes,” he said.

Now in its 31st year, the award features a shortlist of 65 works from all around the country, whittled down from about 300.

The general painting award was won by West Australian artist Daniel Walbidi for his work Wirnpa and Sons 2014, which depicts the living water of his ancestor’s country.

The work depicts what he saw from the air flying over his family’s country in the Great Sandy Desert.

“It was amazing. Like how you see the light shining off the corner (of the painting), it was exactly like that,” he told AAP.

This year is the first time a youth prize of $5000 has been offered, and won by 20-year-old Kieren Karritpul from Daly River in the Northern Territory.

“I’d like to see other young people doing painting,” he said.

“It’s good to do for future generations … Art can get other young people off grog.”

His work Yerrgi, a large piece screen-printed and painted on linen, tells the story of watching his mother and grandmothers weaving baskets.

The Bark Painting Award went to NT artist Garawan Wanambi for his work Marrangu, which depicts country on the coast of Arnhem Bay, and the Work on Paper Award was won by South Australian Nici Cumpston for Scar Tree, Barkindji Country, about her family’s ancestral country in the central western desert of NSW.

The Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award went to Queensland artist Alick Tipoti for his enormous work Kaygasiw Usul (shovelnose shark dust trail reflected in the heaven as the milky way), which recounts the tale of the tide always changing when the constellation swings as though it’s dancing with the moon.

“Like all artists, Aboriginal artists are reinterpreting their cultures,” Mr Broker said.

“All the work references traditional customs, practices, ideas, but the work itself is actually contemporary.”

* The 31st NATSIAAs are on display at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin until October 26.