Dhungutti artist Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill) has won the $100,000 Archibald Prize for his portrait of Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens — the second Indigenous artist to win the prize in its 101 years, following Western Arrernte artist Vincent Namatjira in 2020.
This is Douglas’s fifth time as an Archibald finalist, and accepting the prize at the Art Gallery of NSW ceremony, the self-taught painter said: “This painting represents 20 years of taking the risk of pursuing a dream [and] surrendering normalised employment. And I’m sure many of my artist colleagues can relate to that.”
Douglas painted Dickens, a friend and in his words “legendary practitioner”, knee-deep in the muddy floodwaters of her hometown in Lismore, Bundjalung Country — holding a leaking pail of water in each hand, and looking grumpy.
His painting reflects on the damage and after-effects of the devastating February and March floods in the Northern Rivers.
“And so to be able to further aid some of my dearest, closest friends up there, through this win — not only metaphorically, but also financially — it’s a big plus.”
The portrait, titled Moby Dickens, also speaks to Dickens’s frustration with the government response to the February and March floods.
Speaking to ABC Arts in April, she said: “[I told Adam] ‘As long as you make it grumpy. I want to be grumpy.'”
Speaking via live video link from her home, during the ceremony, Dickens said she was “over the moon”, and thanked her friend for “acknowledging everybody up here on Bundjalung Country that has gone through so much”.
“I’m so proud of you, Adam. Such a killer painting,” she added.
The judges also highly commended artist Jude Rae’s portrait of Australian engineer and inventor Saul Griffith.
The $40,000 Sulman Prize (for “subject painting, genre painting or mural project”), meanwhile, was awarded to artist duo Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro for their mixed-media painting Raiko and Shuten-dōji, depicting the fight between the warrior Raiko and the demon Shuten-dōji.
The $50,000 Wynne Prize for landscape painting went to Nicholas Harding for his work Eora.
First Koori winner’s long road
Accepting the award, Douglas acknowledged his ancestors: “My Irish Scot, German and English mob, as well as … the Dhungutti of mid-north coast New South Wales.”
Douglas is a self-taught painter whose pop art aesthetic is informed by training in graphic design, illustration and photography.
“My dear family have been supportive all the way along through this career to get to this point,” he told assembled onlookers.
“Particularly the matriarchs in my family; women are a very strong part of my family.”
Speaking to ABC News afterwards, he described the path to his winning painting as “a long haul”.
“It felt like building part of the Great Wall [of China] just painting this thing; it’s quite a task to paint something that big.”
It’s Douglas’s largest Archibald entry so far, and he said “whilst Karla is physically diminutive in stature, it’s important that we memorialised [her in this way]”.
“And that’s what I try and do with my paintings often — because we need to memorialise First Nations people en masse.”
Douglas was previously a finalist for the Archibald Prize in 2020 (with a portrait of young Arrernte and Garrwa activist Dujuan Hoosan), 2019 (with a portrait of Bidjigal artist Esme Timbery), 2018 (Wiradjuri artist Uncle Roy Kennedy) and 2015 (Budjedi elder and “Aboriginal cultural entertainer” Uncle Max Eulo).
“It’s nice in any way to honour another artist,” Douglas told ABC News last week.
“We are a minority in terms of vocations in this country.”
At the award ceremony, he said he was “proudly represent[ing] a legion of creatives consistently dealt the rough end of the stick, unfortunately … But that may change with a change of government, perhaps”.
Exhibitions for the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes will open on Saturday May 14 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.