The art world likes to see itself as a place of openness, inclusiveness and tolerance but that is perhaps far from the truth. Whether immersed in this world or on the outside looking in, we all have our firmly held views and well-guarded boundaries, that are nowhere more on display when viewing or commenting upon the art that hangs in our public galleries.
But it is something special when a brash, controversial artist is welcomed with open arms, while challenging the very prejudices we may like to think are buried far from view.
It is not so surprising when the Art Gallery of New South Wales' throws in a few contentious artists among its Archibald Prize finalists each year, but it is something special when the winning portrait - usually a painting selected for its zeitgeist quality rather than artistic merit - earns its artist wide praise.
This year's coveted Archibald Prize was awarded to Sydney Indigenous artist Blak Douglas for his painting of fellow artist Karla Dickens, entitled Moby Dickens.
At first glance, the choice is a curious one, igniting I ashamed to say those innate prejudices. Why was this painting selected above all others, seemingly the more worthy choices? And why now?
But this is a worthy winner. Viewers perhaps will agree, after sitting with the image for more than a moment. It is a painting that engages the viewer in a conversation, beginning unapologetically with the naive question: What is actually going on here?
The rather angry figure of Karla Dickens, her steely eyes fixed straight ahead, stands partially immersed in the muddy flood water that swamped Lismore and the Northern rivers region of New South Wales earlier this year. Dickens is holding a leaking bucket in each hand.
The painting speaks to the never-ending challenges that face First Nation peoples, the floods a metaphor to the aftermath of natural events and experiences of human injustice.
And the win could not have happened to a nicer person. In his acceptance speech, Douglas was gracious, acknowledging the broad grouping of supporters and friends that had brought the self-trained artist to this point. This was not for the cameras either. Douglas is genuine.
Understanding this artist delivers an invaluable insight into his artwork. Unlike some earlier Archibald winning paintings and painters, Douglas brings no ill will while still forceful in his calls for the advancement of First Nations people. This painting too is about the community affected by floods as a whole.
Douglas remains frustrated with government and their response to the tragedy, and he is entitled to be angry. But today he can savour the accolades, knowing his point is well made.
The strength of this year's winning portrait will not diminish as it goes on public display in Sydney and tours the country in the months ahead. For my part, judging the merit of the indigenous artist's work will involve resolving the lingering of one's inborn sense of white-privilege first.
And that is a good and necessary thing. Then the job of this artwork is done.
Congratulations Blak Douglas, a worthy Archibald Prize winner.
Andrew McIlroy is a Ballarat region artist
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