The Archibald Prize winning artist for nearly a century has typically been a white man – and the face on the canvas looked much the same.
Artist and Dhungatti man Blak Douglas wants to change that this year.
A finalist in 2015, 2018 and 2019, the 50-year-old is almost the first indigenous artist to win the award.
But if history has anything to offer, its chances of winning are slim.
“When I was first a finalist in 2015, we found out that 87 percent of the winning portraits from the past were white male faces,” he told SBS News.
Since 1921, no artists with a non-European background have won the top prize.
This year, Douglas submitted a portrait of 13-year-old Arrernte and Garrwa boy Dujuan Hoosan, who stars in My Blood It Runs, a 2019 documentary about growing up in Alice Springs. The teenager also spoke at the United Nations last year about Australian detention laws for young people.
Douglas says Dujuan sums up the hidden genius and ancient wisdom of the ancient indigenous culture and offers something different from the competition.
“There is a predictable yet distasteful past history… of the painting of the lord or the painting of the master,” he said.
“Photorealism is what has been the focus of winning portraits from those white portraits from the past; politicians stand in the boardroom with a book. We should consider looking at art across the board. ”
Douglas is not alone in calling for change.
UNSW Associate Professor Felicity Fenner, who specializes in art and design and has curated more than 40 exhibitions, says: “The rules set by Jules Archibald 100 years ago are from that generation and from that time and it is very different from today’s rules “.
She says she would support a change to the terms and conditions of the award as it would lead to more diversity.
The terms of the Archibald [subject] … it must belong to a man or a woman who is somehow acclaimed in the arts, letters or sciences. Not everyone has access to someone like that, ”she said.
“I think it would be great to update the rules and attract more contemporary artists.”
Lesley Wengembo from Papua New Guinea studies at the National Art School in Sydney and chose not to paint a nationally acclaimed figure.
Instead, the 23-year-old submitted a portrait of the man he is greeted with every day when he walks into the school; a security guard who has become a mentor to himself and other students.
‘It’s a statement in a way. You see, the Archibald is more of a famous person, but I’m a security guard, ”he said.
“He plays a role in art, that’s why I feel the connection with the subject and paint it.”
One of the few indigenous artists to study at the National Art School, Wengembo says he hopes for more diversity in the industry.
“We have to learn from each other, that’s what I’ll say – it doesn’t matter what color or background you come from, it’s about getting the knowledge of what other people see and what you see, that’s how you learn . “
In recent years there has been a positive shift towards more diversity in the arts, says associate professor Fenner.
“It’s a slow tide to turn, but it’s turning,” she said. “The problem with the Archibald is that there are no curators who choose the works.
“The curators are the gatekeepers of what goes into exhibitions, including price shows, and curators have very proactively embraced art from different cultures in recent years, especially over the past five to ten years.”
In 2016, the Archibald’s Sulman Prize for Genre Work was won by Pitjantjatjara artist Kaylene Whiskey, and for the past four years, the Wynne Prize for Landscape has been awarded to an indigenous artist or collective.
Last year, a portrait of Daisy Tjuparntarri Ward, an elder of the Warakurna community and N Goingyatjarra people of Western Australia won the Archibald’s People’s Choice Award, and this year there are several submissions from Indigenous artists or with Indigenous subjects. They include a portrait of former AFL player Adam Goodes by Vincent Namatjira and a portrait of Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi academician Dr. Lynette Riley.
Dr. Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which hosts the award, told SBS News that it “actively encourages artists of all backgrounds and all communities to participate in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman awards, which they did in record numbers in 2019 ”.
While there is yet to be an indigenous Archibald Prize winner, there has been an almost year-over-year increase in the number of entries to the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes by artists who have won them in the last five years. chosen to identify themselves as indigenous., ”he said.
Vincent Namatjira was highly praised in 2018 Studio self-portrait, which was purchased by the gallery for its collection. “
Douglas says he would love for a native artist to take home this year’s top prize and make history.
“We need to think about how we move forward and break existing boundaries,” he said.
“Who is the [first] First Nations performer who wins the Archibald prize is the artistic version of Cathy Freeman who won the 400 meters. “
The finalists for this year’s Archibald Prize, as well as the Packing Room Prize, will be announced on Thursday, September 17. The winner will be announced on September 25.
The exhibition is open to the public at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from September 26 to January 10, 2021.