Yesterday, Dhungatti artist Blak Douglas was awarded the 2022 Archibald prize and $100,000 for his work Moby Dickens — the largest painting in this year’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).
Douglas is a six-time Archibald finalist and a 2009 Wynne Prize finalist, renowned for his portraiture of First Nations people. “I’m making up for lost ground in the failure to memorialise First Nations people,” the artist who lives and works on Bundjalung Country in Lismore has said.
In his acceptance speech, Douglas highlighted that “this is incredibly historic given that I’m the first Koori to paint a Koori to win the Archibald Prize.”
“This painting represents 20 years of taking the risk of pursuing a dream,” Douglas said.
The winning portrait depicts Wiradjuri woman and artist Karla Dickens, knee-deep in muddy flood waters. According to Dickens, it is a homage to each person who has similarly found themselves “deep in mud, physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially after the natural disaster that has destroyed so many lives in the Northern Rivers of NSW and beyond”.
The monumental work blends elements of realism and graphic styles to create a unique aesthetic. Muddy waters and dark storm clouds extend into the background almost indefinitely, and the daring eyes of Dickens reflect a deep defiance in anger while looking at the face of climate disaster in this country.
The work’s title is in reference to Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick. Here, in Douglas’ painterly reflection, Karla Dickens represents the story’s titular whale who is “ready to rip the leg off any fool with a harpoon who dares come too close”.
The graphic ‘flat-bottomed’ clouds in the painting’s sky are a recurring political motif in Douglas’ work. Their flat bases represent what Douglas describes as the “false ceiling of government.” Additionally, the 14 clouds represent the number of days the rains and floods devastated the Northern Rivers area. Water leaks through the ineffectual buckets in the hands of Dickens, serving as an allegorical representation of the climate crisis slipping through our hands and the nearly insurmountable challenges it poses to communities.
It is gratifying to see the prize be given to not only a First Nations artist and subject, but also a robustly political painting in a time when it is demanded most. Douglas is an undeniable visionary in his artistic practice and philosophy — Moby Dickens is set to become an icon of the Archibald for years and decades to come.
Prior to the award announcements, Emma Grey, an ANZ Group Executive, spoke on behalf of ANZ: “The Archibald is part of the cultural fabric of this country.” ANZ has been a sponsor of the Gallery and presenting partner of the Archibald Prizes for 13 years.
David Gonski, President of Art Gallery of NSW Trust, delivered the awards and emphasised that although “[the board of trustees] had many an argument and lots of robust debate” all final decisions made about the winners were “all done in a unanimous fashion”.
“The creativity of Australia continues,” he declared before announcing the duo Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro as the winners of the $40,000 Sulman Prize for their work Raiko and Shuten-dōji.
Healy and Cordeiro’s winning work is a reimagining of the Japanese folk story of the fight between the warrior Raiko and the demon Shuten-dōji. Materiality is perhaps this work’s most notable aspect, painted on the ‘fuselage’ — the main body of an aircraft — of a Vietnam War-era helicopter. Further, the work has pinned threads of jute that extend across the work from a single plait like a web, creating a visually interesting and dimensional facade.
The prize was judged by artist Joan Ross, who said of the collaborative duo’s work that she “immediately felt the dynamism of this work, its curved metal surface, its physical quality and beauty, its conceptual nature”.
The $50,000 Wynne Prize was subsequently announced and given to Nicholas Harding for his work Eora — who exclaimed that it was “quite marvellous and unexpected.”
Harding is a 19-time Archibald finalist (winning in 2001), a 9-time Wynne finalist and a 3-time Sulman finalist; this year, his winning work is an oil paint landscape in dominating hues of green and earthy browns. The work’s leafy imagery is a teeming amalgamation of plant life from the Northern Beaches area and Narrabeen Lakes. Investigating the ways nature has been shaped by colonisation and the impacts of industry land-clearing, Harding’s work holds a clear message and is a deserved winner of the prize.
“Eora stands as a memorial to how extraordinary the landscape must have been before white people got here and invaded the place and encroached on the landscape itself,” Harding has said of his work.
Lastly, the winner of the Wynne Prize’s Roberts Family Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prize was Pitjantjatjara woman Sally Scales’ painting entitled Wati Tjakura. The vibrant work is a representation of her ancestral family land ‘Aralya’ in South Australia on Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands.
The 2022 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes open to the public today. For further information about the prizes and this year’s stand-out finalists read Honi’s analysis here.