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Canberra Today 15°/19° | Wednesday, November 29, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

A nation’s art chases big prizes in Canberra

Robert Stephens at the National Capital Art Prize, with “Creation”, by Marcia Staples.

THE National Capital Art prize is on the up and up, fast gaining traction as a destination event on the cultural circuit. 

Now in its third year, it has attracted 840 entries, 50 more than last year, getting respectably close to the Archibald Prize’s 949 entries, with the 92 finalists representing every state and territory, including six indigenous entries from WA. 

Founded by Robert Stephens, the owner of Aarwun Gallery in Gold Creek, and handsomely supported by the Minerals Council of Australia, the prize offers not just a prize pool of $47,500 (The Open Prize, First Nations Prize and Sustainability Prize each $15,000 and a People’s Choice Award $2500) but a more open entry system than some other major art awards in the country, with few restrictions on media.

Although two sections, it is mainly for paintings, in the third, “Sustainability”, entries are accepted in sculpture, textiles, photography and ceramics.

I caught up with Stephens recently just after his team of celebrity judges, Wendy Sharpe, Sasha Grishin, John Sackar and Wayne Qulliam, had left the gallery on judging day, leaving him slightly reeling at the subtle power play in the process of reaching their unanimous decisions and aware of the huge difference for the judges in shortlisting from digital images and seeing the real thing. 

The public response had been “brilliant”, he said and this was important because all funds generated through partnerships, entry fees and sales commissions of 35 per cent were rolled back into the prize, making it in effect artist-funded. 

The number of items hung was deliberately down from the unwieldy 125 hung at The Fitters’ Workshop in 2022 and the prize exhibition was back in its natural home at Aarwun Gallery, easier to keep an eye on. 

“I’m not involved in politics, I’m interested in the art,” he said, but reported good support from Visit Canberra, interest from the National Arboretum and AITSIS, but so far not from the ACT government. 

Although mum was the word regarding who was actually going to win – that will be announced at a gala event on September 14 – he took me on a tour of the finalists, beginning with the First Nations paintings, which he described as “the standout, really good, exciting”. 

Mostly large in format, the First Nations artworks are seen to advantage in the gallery’s expanded inner room and encompass an extraordinary range of techniques, including those familiar to art watchers, like cross hatching and dot painting.

But Stephens is fascinated by First Nations entries that struck him as more naturalistic, like “Bottle Tree Country Dreamtime”, by Andrew Nelson, depicting a time before colonisation and land clearing in south-western Queensland and “Mannalargenna Day”, a charcoal drawing by Louise Daniels, depicting an annual celebration held on country in Tebrakunna, north-eastern Tasmania.

The eye-catching “Creation”, reimagined ceremonial poles by Marcia Staples surprised him with its, in one case, unexpected owls.

On one wall is a series of joyous naive paintings, “Longtaim Ti Didei” (Long Time Till Today), by Karen Rogers, embellished with captions in the Kriol language of her community. 

Stephens was not sure he agreed with the judges that this year’s Open Section was the weakest of the three, pointing to works hanging by the 2022 Open winner John A Rowe and to several portraits, although those had “not been sought particularly”. 

But the most fascinating start of the part of the show was undoubtedly the “Sustainability” section.

This, I discovered, had involved quite a complex judging process, as aesthetic considerations had to be balanced against environmental concerns, much in the manner of the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize. 

In the central space is an arresting black work, “The Things We Find In The Stars”, a sculpture by Sophie Lampert from NSW, slated to travel to Venice after the show. 

Inspired by 17th century female astronomer Elisabeth Catherina Koopmann, it was made using recycled items and discarded waste, upholstered and embellished with faux fur, embroidery, sequins and beading to fulfil an agenda of “gender equity, quality education, reduced inequalities as well as responsible production and consumption”.

In marked contrast is “Fruits of the Sea,” by Alyson Bell, a video installation with sound in a plywood display box containing tiny screens, video a playback device and speaker and made of aluminium sardine cans, mirror, felt and hand-made wire key openers.

One of the most caustic entries in this category is “Lapsed”, five photopolymer etchings, by SA lawyer-photographic artist Tricia Ross, of Australian coastal areas under threat, with digital text showing five protective environmental parliamentary bills proposed but never promulgated, “a triple entendre”, she said, referencing bills that have lapsed in time, lapsed for want of support, or lead to a “lapsed” environment.

Far more modest is ACT artist Lyn Davidson’s eloquent sculpture “Hope”, woven from NZ flax grown in the artist’s garden.

Setting subtlety aside, there’s no mistaking the meaning of the show’s piece de resistance, “Big Foot”, a huge papier mâché foot coated with carbon and coal dust by Ben Laycock and Rilka Laycock-Walsh. The meaning is plain and the carbon footprint is large indeed.

2023 National Capital Art Prize Finalist Exhibition, Aarwun Gallery, Gold Creek.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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