The Winner - Trevor Nickolls' 'Metamorphosis' (2011), an Aboriginal man ascends into the Dreamtime

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 17.10.13

Dates: 17.10.13 : 16.11.13
Location: COFA Galleries, cnr Greens & Oxford Streets, Paddington, Sydney

The Blake Prize is a funny one. Unpredictable, you might say. Over 62 editions, it's mutated from very straight religious imagery to works that are deliberately irreligious or critical of religious authority. I'm not at all sure how the work called 'Two Boys Jerking (with a Shit Frame)' falls within any category covered by the motto, “Exploring the Religious Imagination and the Spiritual through art and poetry”. Indian spirituality, perhaps? For the artist was called Ramesh Nithiyendran.

Seemingly Blake Society Chair, Rod Pattenden has faith that “sexuality is part of spirituality”. And so must judges Lisa Havilah of Carriageworks, Jay Johnston of COFA and the artist Tim Johnson. For beside the wankers is a really nasty Vagina Dentata by Tom O'Hare, which surely says more about Mr O'Hare's misogyny than about either female spirituality or sexuality?

Could you get away with this in a Muslim country? I only ask because the Muslim presence in the new COFA Galleries in Paddington is greater than ever – 7 of 72 entries would seem to have Arabic names. And one is specifically Koranic – 'Al-Falaq' by Abdul-Rahman Abdulla, a sculpted man's face (surely not Mohammed?) referring to one of the last chapters of the Koran in which a Muslim seeks Allah –The Splitter's protection from all evils, headed by “I seek refuge with the Lord of the dawn". This refers to the all-pervasive power of Allah which extends from splitting a plant's seed to create the young shoot to the manoeuvring of huge planets to divide night from day.

My favourite Muslim, though was Alia Mahmoud, a dark-eyed Eritrean-born poet, declaiming in English, thank heavens, about 'Cotton Summer Dresses' with spiritual abandon.
She could easily have won the Blake Poetry Prize as well, which actually went to Anthony Lawrence, a name that has been in news recently for his campaign against poetic plagiarism. His pair of finalist poems were utterly original!

As was the big winner! For Trevor Nickolls is so indubitably spiritual there can have been little discussion about his victory with 'Metamorphosis'. Sadly, the Ngarrindjeri artist from Adelaide died in 2012 from the bronchitis that threatened him every winter. 'Metamorphosis' was amongst his last works in 2011 and his wish was for it to be a Blake entry. For it shows an Aboriginal man mutating into his totem butterfly as he rises up from the mundane world of the city into a sky peopled by delicious angels and Christian doves. He seems to be holding his own head, looking steadfastly upwards and out!

That clash between the Indigenous Dreamtime and the urban/white Machinetime was present in much of Nickolls art from its beginnings in 1970. By the end of the 80s, his pioneering of urban Aboriginal art lead to his selection alongside Rover Thomas for the 1990 Venice Biennale representing Australia. Interesting that no Aboriginal artist is trusted to represent Australia on his or her own! Even the peerless Emily Kngwarreye had to share.

The hunger seemed to go out Nickolls' work immediately after that, but reappeared this century with entries in three NATSIA Awards and the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards.

By a wonderful coincidence, one of the men who taught Nickolls painting, Franz Kempf was also a Blake winner this year in the intriguing category of Human Justice, sponsored by the Maritime Union of Australia. 'The Outrageous Has Become Commonplace' is a moving pile of human bones against a bleak background. Which may (or may not) be associated with the moving DVD Installation by New Zealander Greg Semu called 'The Head of John the Baptist', appearing to show not one but three heads on plates – but are they the fruits of Islander head-hunting, of colonial extremity or of ethnographer greed? 'Incarnation Amare' is written all over the wall/screen – an idea in concrete form, made flesh, one might say.

Previous Indigenous finalists have included Shirley Purdie (winner in 2009) and fellow Kimberleyite, Nelly Gordon. In 2013, finalists included Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray, Cowboy Loy Pwerle and Margaret Loy Pula. The late Trevor Nickolls' prize-winning $25,000 will go towards a scholarship for fellow-Aborigines to study art professionally.

URL: Blake Prize

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Still from Greg Semu's DVD Installation, 'The Head of John the Baptist' (2013).


Shirley Purdie's 2009 Blake winner, 'Stations of the Cross'.


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