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Excerpt of 'Moby Dickens' by Blak Douglas
Photograph: AGNSW/Mim Stirling | Excerpt of 'Moby Dickens' by Blak Douglas,

Blak Douglas has won the Archibald Prize for his portrait of Karla Dickens

The 2022 winner of Australia’s favourite portrait prize depicts the Indigenous artist standing in the Lismore floods

Alannah Maher
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Alannah Maher
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Five-time Archibald Prize finalist Blak Douglas has taken out Australia’s most-loved art prize, winning the 2022 Archibald Prize and $100,000 for his portrait of his good friend and artist Karla Dickens, titled Moby Dickens.

With his win Douglas, a Sydney-based artist with Dhungatti heritage, becomes the second Aboriginal artist to win the Archibald Prize in 101 years after Western Aranda artist Vincent Namatjira won in 2020. Moby Dickens also marks the first time a portrait of an Aboriginal woman has won the prize. At three metres tall and two metres wide, Douglas’ work is the largest painting in this year’s Archibald exhibition. 

“Karla is my favourite female First Nations artist, we are dear friends, we are birds of a feather when it comes to our sentiment in art, and I really admire the way she pieces together her work,” says Douglas.

Douglas depicted Dickens in the recent floods in her hometown of Lismore in northern New South Wales, which devastated her community.

“It just happens that I was there in Lismore immediately after the first deluge in January and saw the shock and horror on people’s faces. Karla had just reached a pivotal point in her career and almost immediately the flood catastrophe happened. So, when she should have ordinarily been excited about where her career was going, she was harbouring three families in Lismore as part of her own rescue mission.”

Dickens, a Wiradjuri artist who lives and works on Bundjalung Country in Lismore, is known for bringing a black humour to her unflinching interrogation of subjects such as race, gender and injustice, revealing her often raw pain. You may have recently seen her work in the 2020 Biennale of Sydney and her exhibition Return to Sender at Carriageworks in January.

Dickens says: “The painting – Moby Dickens – is a grumpy white sperm whale in muddy water ready to rip the leg off any fool with a harpoon who dares come too close. [Blak Douglas’] painting not only has an incredible likeness to me and my mood in the last three months, but this killer work pays homage to each and every person who has found themselves knee deep in mud, physically, emotionally, mentally and financially after the natural disaster that has destroyed so many lives in the Northern Rivers of NSW and beyond.”

Dickens is one of nine artists who have been commissioned to produce a site-specific work as part of the Sydney Modern Project, a transformative expansion at the Art Gallery of NSW. Her commissioned work, a panel depicting hooded figures, is a powerful consideration of the continuing legacies of colonialism and patriarchy. It will be installed in the niche above the front door of the Art Gallery’s historic building later this year.

The Archibald Prize, along with the Wynne and Sulman Prizes and the Young Archie competition is open to visit from May 14 to August 28 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Find out more here.

We spoke to Blak Douglas in 2020 for A local’s guide to Redfern.

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