Archibald Prize winner Blak Douglas creates his bold and political art out of a studio in Marrickville, Sydney, where he is in demand like never before.
The phone hasn't stopped ringing for Inner Western Sydney-based artist Adam Hill, better known as Blak Douglas, since he was announced as the winner of the Archibald Prize for 2022.
"It seems like eight times more people want you each day - I'm kind of hoping that dissipates but my mates who've won the Archibald tell me you've pretty much got to be prepared for that for the year," he says.
Douglas took out the win for his enormous three-metre by two-metre portrait of Wiradjuri woman Karla Dickens, a fellow artist based on Bundjalung Country in Lismore. In the painting, Moby Dickens, a stern looking Dickens stands knee-deep in flood water clutching leaky buckets in either hand - a reference to the devastating floods in Lismore on the NSW North Coast earlier this year. Overhead storm clouds loom, painted in Douglas's signature flat-bottomed style.
Asked how Dickens responded when she heard news of the win, Douglas says, "she cried".
"You're not meant to tell anyone but I rang her straight away when I found out, after I got the phone call, and she just burst into tears, she was overjoyed. And that reaction was repeated a couple of hours later when we did the Zoom live cross to her living room."
Political at heart, depicting the Lismore floods in the nation's top portrait prize was a no-brainer for Douglas. He visited Lismore immediately after it was hit with the first deluge in January which claimed more than 3600 homes in the northern rivers region and says he saw "the shock and horror on people's faces". In the midst of the flooding Dickens harboured three families in her Lismore more.
When I saw Lismore for the first time after the first deluge you may as well have been in the Ukraine - it was like a war zone, people were seeking refuge, they were homeless instantly- Blak Douglas
"The floods were so omnipresent in the media. Either you were talking about Lismore floods or Ukraine," Douglas says.
"And when I saw Lismore for the first time after the first deluge you may as well have been in the Ukraine - it was like a war zone, people were seeking refuge, they were homeless instantly. It immediately came to mind as a subject to paint, and I needed a canvas big enough to show the depth of those waters."
The win makes Douglas the second Aboriginal artist to claim the Archibald Prize in the competition's 101-year history - the first being Vincent Namatjira who took out the top prize in 2020 with his painting Stand Strong for Who You Are featuring himself and Indigenous footballer Adam Goodes.
While Douglas studied graphic design at the University of Western Sydney his painting was self-taught. Born in Blacktown to a Dhungatti father and a caucasian mother, Douglas grew up in Western Sydney and it was there he won his first ever art competition, the inaugural Blacktown City Art Prize in 2002. The following year he took out Liverpool Council's Mil-Pra Art Prize with the painting he was previously best known for, Clear Fella-ing.
"Winning your first award makes you feel a bit more important and a bit more proper - and the council bought the painting. The painting was a political comment which featured a big white bulldozer and an Aboriginal father and his babies - the father was buried up to his waist in the road and the bulldozer had Aussie flags on it, a metaphor for government," Douglas says.
"I'd rather be painting nice things like a lot of trained non-First Nations artists paint, they don't have to paint about politics, but I feel I've been microchipped to be a spokesperson for the environment and First Nations people. Just look at the can of worms my Archibald portrait opens, there are so many conversations to be had about it and I think that's what got it over the line as the winner."
The award was the first of many Douglas would take out before winning the Archibald - in 2019 he won the prestigious Kilgour Prize at the Newcastle Art Gallery and he has been a finalist in other major art prizes including the Wynne Prize, Blake Prize, Mosman Art Prize, Paddington Art Prize, Muswellbrook Art Prize and Fishers Ghost Art Award.
Creating a stereotype
For this interview I caught up with Douglas in his Marrickville studio, part of a warehouse he shares with other creatives and creative businesses. The room is filled with huge canvases - some complete, others incomplete. One unfinished painting sitting on an easel catches my attention - dark skies contrasted with red dirt dominate the canvas; nestled on the right are the sun and Earth, and on the left are the unfinished outlines of Jesus and a trio of aliens.
"I've been chipping away at this for about five months, I do a bit and put it away. And I had to focus on the Archibald so everything else got put on the backburner," he tells me.
"I was inspired after NASA's Mars invasion - when they sent a rover up there. It's like colonisation is happening again, so in this painting you have Jesus instructing the aliens to get down to Earth. It's a metaphoric image as we blackfellas will often refer to the British as aliens who invaded. This is a modern take on that.
"I ride my bike to the studio here from Redfern and I ride past Victoria Park and there's this Jesus statue in someone's front yard, it's like five foot high. I also got the idea while riding past that statue."
Like his Archibald-winning work, his Mars invasion work-in-progress features bold lines and flat-bottomed clouds - two staples of Douglas's singular style.
"My style was something I forged as my own stereotype because when it comes to Indigenous art, dot painting has become the dominant, cliche stereotype. When I began painting many other Aboriginal artists around me, by default, started painting dots because they were selling to a tourist market," he says.
"That's why shops in Darling Harbour and the Rocks can still afford to pay their rent because they've been the upholders of an extensively over-exploited style that originated in the Western Desert. When I took myself there in my early days as a painter and met the survivors of the dot painting movement I came back and realised I didn't want to go anywhere near that. So I worked hard to create my own stereotype."
Painting is not the only art form for which Douglas has made a name for himself. He's also a classically trained didgeridoo player who's performed nationally and internationally accompanying the likes of Christine Anu, Casey Donovan, Jessica Mauboy and Peter Sculthorpe. He also dabbles in sculpture, such as the work he created as part of the Inner West Council's Gadigal Wangal Wayfinding project.
The Wayfinding Project is an art trail featuring award-winning works by local Indigenous artists showcasing Gadigal Wangal history and celebrating the continuing presence of First Nations people within the inner west - one artwork was commissioned for each of the five wards of the Inner West Council area. Douglas's contribution, created in 2019, takes the form of a steel grass tree and can be seen in Hawthorne Reserve on Darley Road in Leichhardt.
"'Cadi' is the grass tree in the Gadigal language, and there was no memorial to that totem. So I wanted to create the first memorial to the actual totem of the area. Sydney's the biggest city on the continent, and sits on Gadigal land, so the use of steel was a way of modernising the totem," he says.
Unfortunately, not all Douglas's public art in the inner west has stood the test of time. In 2015 the then-Leichhardt council commissioned Douglas to paint a mural on two federation cottages on Marion Street near the council chambers, as part of the Leichhardt Fringe Festival. His artwork, What's Your Point?, depicted two giant fingers pointing towards each other, one black representing the First Nations people and another white with a Union Jack cuff representing the colonisers.
Douglas describes the work as a metaphor for "bold attempts of co-existence between non-Aboriginal peoples and the original occupants of these lands we all occupy today."
The following year Douglas painted a second mural on the cottages, this time commemorating the Koori Knockout, a yearly rugby league tournament said to be the largest gathering of First Nations people in NSW. The 2016 Knockout was hosted by the Redfern All Blacks at Leichhardt Oval in Lilyfield with 62 men's and 16 women's teams.
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But in 2018 the cottages, which had stood on Marion Street for more than 100 years, were controversially demolished to make way for a council car park. The community at the time rallied together to protect the cottages, creating petitions and putting pressure on council, but to no avail.
When Douglas learned the buildings were set to be knocked down he was "dismayed": "This would be the first time that a significant contribution by an Aboriginal artist in making an artwork on a building, would be removed."
Things won't be slowing down for Douglas any time soon. Between media appearances he is busy preparing new work for an upcoming show at the Nanda/Hobbs gallery in Chippendale in December. It's a duo show with his "dear mate" Kim Leutwyler, who painted a vibrant portrait of drag artist Shane Jenek and his alter ego Courtney Act for the Archibald Prize this year, and both their works are expected to sell out.
"Kim and I became the unofficial darling couple of the Archibald because we delivered together one evening in my big ute and we got photographed together by The Sydney Morning Herald and they wrongly printed 'Blak Douglas and partner Kim Leutwyler'. We didn't mind though," Douglas says.
"I have a bona fide fraternity of followers and supporters - what you can amass in support on social media these days is a perfect indicator for whether your work is quantifiable or not. So that can easily correlate to how collectors look at your work."
Despite his success, Douglas hasn't forgotten the hard road to get to where he is today and certainly has no plans on quieting down when it comes to politics.
"It's been a long journey to get to where I am because not only am I speaking against the exploiters, but I'm fundamentally speaking against the establishment. But it's the push back that keeps motivating me to keep painting what I paint. Everytime someone asks me to tone it down I switch the dial back up."
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