‘Provocative and relevant’: What this year’s Archibald winner says about Australia

Politics is never far away from the Archibald Prize, but it’s often that nebulous strain called “art politics”. This year, with the winner being announced in the middle of a federal election campaign, it was always going to be hard to keep attention focused on the aesthetics.

Blak Douglas, born Adam Douglas Hill, proved to be just the man for the occasion. He used the soapbox of the winner’s platform to let us know his views on who should be running the country. “It’s time,” he announced, “for an Albo-original prime minister.”

Blak Douglas in front of his winning Archibald portrait, Moby Dickens.Credit:Brook Mitchell

One wonders how many of the trustees, who awarded Douglas the prize, would endorse his political choices. These are the same trustees who chose not to hang Zoe Young’s portrait of teal candidate, Allegra Spender and her sister, relegating the picture to the Salon des Refuses. They will argue it was purely a question of quality, but the Spender double portrait is surely superior to many of the works that made the final hang.

Douglas’ subject, Karla Dickens, has lately become a great favourite with the gallery, being one of the chosen few asked to undertake a commission to be permanently installed on the front of the existing building.

To be blunt, the trustees had few alternatives. Moby Dickens by Blak Douglas was the stand-out picture in the show. Other portraits may be more subtle or technically proficient, but nothing else has a comparable impact or ticks so many boxes. If the Archibald has any deep cultural value, beyond its perennial status as public entertainment, it’s as a reflection of the changing face of Australian society, with all the problems, issues and conflicts that entails.

Moby Dickens shows Dickens, shin-deep in brown, Lismore floodwaters, holding a bucket in each hand. She looks really grumpy, as might anyone who has battled through the floods and witnessed first-hand the slow, ineffective responses of government. If Scott Morrison gets turfed out of office on May 21, one of the major contributing factors will be the way he has reacted to natural disasters such as the bushfires and the floods. The prime minister may claim to have done wonders for the citizens of Lismore, but those citizens are not buying his story.

Archibald 2022 winner: Moby Dickens by Blak Douglas.Credit:Mim Stirling, Art Gallery of NSW

There’s no ambiguity about how Blak Douglas and Karla Dickens will be voting, and it was thrilling – in a slightly naughty way – to hear these views expressed so freely from the winner’s podium in front of a media scrum that would be any politician’s dearest fantasy.

For those who growl about the trustees’ growing sense of political correctness, it must have been a delicious irony to see the soft politics of showing greater consideration to Indigenous artists, female artists, and so on, colliding heavily with the hard politics of Coalition versus Labor. It was a warning against institutionalised hypocrisy – a challenge to take all those earnest protestations about race and gender that make us feel like good people and calibrate them with our actual voting intentions.

Can one profess undying respect for Aboriginal people, but elect a leader who has refused point-blank to consider a voice to parliament? Are public questions of morality, ethics, and conscience of lesser importance than private business interests? These are the kind of questions raised by an Archibald Prize winner that asks people to stop paying lip service to Aboriginal rights, or to those poor, poor flood victims, and stand up to be counted.

It’s rare this venerable art fest manages to achieve something so provocative and relevant. Perhaps there’s life in the old prize yet.

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