Yesterday artist Dhungatti 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 2009 Wynne Prize finalist, recognized for his portraits of First Nations peoples. “I am making up for lost ground in the failure to commemorate First Nations peoples,” said the artist who lives and works in Bundjalung country in Lismore.
In his acceptance speech, Douglas pointed out that “this is incredibly historic given that I am the first Koori to paint a Koori to win the Archibald Prize”.
“This painting represents 20 years of risk taking to pursue a dream,” Douglas said.
The winning portrait depicts Wiradjuri woman and artist Karla Dickens, knee-deep in muddy water. According to Dickens, it is a tribute to each person who also found themselves “deep in the mud, physically, emotionally, mentally and financially after the natural disaster that destroyed so many lives in the rivers of Northern NSW. and beyond”.
The monumental work mixes elements of realism and graphic styles to create a unique aesthetic. Muddy waters and dark storm clouds stretch into the background almost forever, and Dickens’ bold eyes reflect deep defiance in anger as he gazes at the face of climate catastrophe in this country.
The title of the work refers to the 1851 novel by Herman Melville Moby-Dick. Here, in Douglas’s pictorial reflection, Karla Dickens depicts the story’s titular whale who is “ready to tear off any fool’s leg with a harpoon who dares come too close”.
The graphic “flat-bottomed” clouds in the sky of the painting 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 that rains and floods devastated the Northern Rivers region. Water leaks through the ineffective buckets in Dickens’s hands, serving as an allegorical representation of the climate crisis slipping through our hands and the almost insurmountable challenges it poses to communities.
It is gratifying to see that the prize is awarded not only to a First Nations artist and subject, but also to a painting that is decidedly political at a time when it is most in demand. Douglas is an undeniable visionary in his artistic practice and philosophy — Moby-Dickens is set to become an Archibald icon for years and decades to come.
Ahead of the awards announcement, ANZ Group Executive Emma Grey, speaking on behalf of ANZ: “The Archibald is part of the cultural fabric of this country. ANZ has been a Gallery Sponsor and Presenting Partner of the Archibald Awards for 13 years.
David Gonski, Chairman of the Art Gallery of NSW Trust, presented the awards and noted that although “[the board of trustees] had many arguments and many heated debates”, all final decisions made regarding the winners were “all made unanimously”.
“Australia’s creativity continues,” he said before announcing duo Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro as winners of the $40,000 Sulman Prize for their work. Raiko and Shuten-doji.
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. The materiality is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this work, painted on the “fuselage” – the main body of an aircraft – of a Vietnam War-era helicopter. Additionally, the work has pinned jute threads that stretch across the work from a single braid like a web, creating a visually interesting and dimensional facade.
The award 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 metallic surface, its physical quality and beauty, its conceptual nature “.
The $50,000 Wynne Prize was then announced and awarded to Nicholas Harding for his work Eora – who exclaimed it was “utterly wonderful and unexpected”.
Harding is a 19-time Archibald finalist (winner in 2001), 9-time Wynne finalist and 3-time Sulman finalist; this year, his winning work is a landscape painted in oils in dominant hues of green and earthy brown. The leafy imagery in the work is a teeming amalgamation of plant life from the Northern Beaches and Narrabeen Lakes region. Investigating the ways nature has been shaped by colonization and the impacts of industrial land clearing, Harding’s work carries a clear message and is a deserved winner of the award.
“Eora stands as a memorial to how amazing the landscape must have been before white people came here and invaded the place and encroached on the landscape itself,” Harding said of his work.
Finally, the winner of the Wynne Prize’s Roberts Family Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prize is the painting by Pitjantjatjara woman Sally Scales titled Wati Tjakura. The vibrant work is a depiction of his ancestral family land ‘Aralya’ in South Australia on Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands.
The 2022 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes are open to the public today. For more information on this year’s awards and finalists, read Honi’s analysis here.