66th Blake Prize exhibition

Visual evocations of spirituality, religion and belief ruminate in the Hopper, Switch and Upper Turbine galleries at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) in the 66th Blake Prize exhibition, which is on until 11 April.

The voluminous showcase presents an extraordinary array of works by 86 national and international finalist and winning artists selected from the 1,200 entries received for the prize in 2021.

Jack Nawilil, Bininj (human) bones, 2018, paperbark, kurrajong, natural ochres and PVA fixative on wood, 18 x 80 x 26cm. Acknowledgements: Maningrida Arts & Culture. Courtesy the artist and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre

The 66th Blake Prize winners include Balinese-Australian artist Leyla Stevens, who won the major prize for her work titled Kidung/Lament. Using the modes of three-channel video, in this work ‘Stevens explores the spectral traces of Bali’s histories of political violence and the complex manifestations of these concealed pasts amongst human, physical and metaphysical environments,’ the judges explain.

‘The work anchors the incredibly moving stories contained in the whole exhibition – stories of personal and collective tragedy that connect broadly to notions of religion and spirituality as they manifest in contemporary worlds.’

Digital media artist Eddie Abd from Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains won the Blake Emerging Artist Prize for the work titled In Their Finest (2020). This one channel video explores the preservation of cultural tradition by families who have been displaced from their ancestral lands, which the artist brings to visualisation with a combination of long-exposure Victorian death portraits and traditional textiles and garments from Greater Syria.

Eddie Abd, In Their Finest, 2020, one channel video. Courtesy the artist and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre

The Blake Established Artist Residency and Exhibition was awarded to Wollongong-based artist Zanny Begg. In this film project Begg investigates the impact of colonisation and civil war on Tamil communities living outside of their homeland, Sri Lanka. Featuring collaborations with Australia-based Tamil writers Niromi de Soyza, Shankari Chandaran and Srisha Sritharan, Begg reimagines 2,000-year-old Stories of Kannagi.

Not only do these winning works speak to the incredible talent we have in Australia they are also a shining example of how the rich diversity of cultures that make up our society can provide us with unique perspectives and powerfully moving artworks…

‘… The whole exhibition is a fascinating snapshot of the state of belief now: passion, anger, ecstasy, reflection, trauma and doubt, leavened by moments of wit, humour, beauty and playfulness,’ says CPAC Director Craig Donarski.

Religious iconography, Indigenous culture, spirituality, religion in colonialism, tributes to loved ones, Insta-tourists and self-worship, the cycles of life, animal symbols in ancient culture, queer identity, sex and love, among various perceptions and concerns for the human spirit are just some of the themes explored in the Blake Prize exhibition.

Zanny Begg, Stories of Kannagi, 2020, video, 2 single channel HD videos, durations: 6 mins 8 sec and 12 mins 15 sec. Acknowledgements: Jiva Pathipan, Creative Director. Courtesy the artist and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney

Highlights are many, but to name just a few. Jack Nawilil’s paperbark sculpture Bininj (human) bones (2018), depicts the burial ceremony of the Balngarra Clan; Kirsty Burgu’s Creation Story (2020) features Wandijna, sacred ancestral beings who created the land and brought law, culture, and language; Deanne Gilson’s intricate painting tells the tale of the Wadawurrung Creation Story of South-Eastern Victoria in Karringalabil Bundjil Murrup, Manna Gum Tree (The Creation Tree of Knowledge) (2020); and Blak Douglas describes his work Three strikes and you’re out (2019) as one that ‘personifies my lifelong frustration of being wrongfully encouraged to embrace the religion of colonialism and white suppression.’

Liam Benson’s Community Participatory Embroidery, Thoughts and Prayers (2018) is a textile-based assemblage of intricate embroidered flowers sparkling with glass and acrylic beads, sequins and tulle. This collaborative mandala-like piece created by many hands is ‘a memorial that is both an expression of public emotion and private mourning, but also a shared celebration of love and the living.’

And, a fully functional vending machine destined for a dystopian world stocked with Holy Water wipes, Communion Snacks and Blood of Christ poppers, in Joaquin Gonzales sculpture aptly labelled Holy Convenience (2019) brings the artist’s concerns for the absurd and archaic Catholic ideologies in modern society, to the stage. But that’s not all.

The works on view in the 66th Blake Prize are powerfully provocative, at times personal, and deserve our time. You have until 11 April to check it out! Head to the website to read more about the artists and their works and a virtual sneak peek.

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney