Brisbane artist, Leonard Brown, is winner of the annual Blake Prize for Religious Art with
a work titled If you put your ear close, you’ll hear it breathing. It’s a painting of subtle colour variation and interesting texture,
with repeating patterns designed to express the inner stillness and
silence of mystical experience. Brown’s faith journey has traversed
Catholicism, Anglicanism, and most recently Eastern Orthodoxy and
threads of these three Christian traditions inform his work.
The Blake has never been far from
controversy, and this year’s prize, announced in Sydney last night, is
no different. The work of Sydney artist Rodney Pople, which was highly
commended by the judges, is a provocative painting dealing with clergy
Entitled Cardinal with Altar Boy, its setting is the
interior of a beautiful baroque church, and it portrays a headless
prelate dressed in ecclesiastical finery, with an altar boy in his lap.
The boy’s genitals are vaguely visible through his white surplice. The
pose of the couple is reminiscent of the Pieta, of the Virgin cradling
the crucified Christ.
The Blake Prize was established in 1951, and is named after eighteenth
century eccentric English poet, mystic and artist, William Blake. On
of the Blake Society website, it’s described as ‘the oldest prize in
Australia dedicated to spirituality, religion and cultural diversity.’
In explaining its controversial nature, Chair of the Blake Society, Rod
Pattenden, says in his statement about the prize on the website, that
in contrast ‘to art prizes that are awarded for distinct subject areas
such as landscape or portraiture, the Blake has always invited a much
more open, personal and idiosyncratic response, so much so that it has
earned the criticism, ire, and sometimes applause of the critics and
There are four categories in the prize. Most important is the main
Blake Prize worth $20,000. The other prizes, the John Coburn Emerging
Artist Award, the Blake Prize for Human Justice, and the Blake Poetry
Prize are each worth $5000.
The video above features interviews with the three winners of the visual art
prizes, and their works, and some shots of Rodney Pople’s highly
The John Coburn Award was won by young Melbourne artist, Michelle
Sakaris. Her work, entitled Font, is an enlarged photo of – believe it
or not – an aluminium egg cup. But the way it is framed, positioned and
lit makes it resemble a gleaming brass baptismal font, or a gold
chalice. It lifts and transforms this mundane item into the realm of
the sacred and iconic.
And the Human Justice Prize was won by Sydney based artist, Fiona
White, for her very confronting painting called simply Age 36. It
depicts the true story of Aboriginal man, Ronald Mitchell, who was
tasered by police in Warburton, Western Australia, in July 2009. The
taser hit him between the eyes, and, because he’d been handling petrol
shortly before, he ignited in flames, and was severely burned.
As in previous years, the finalists in this year’s exhibition encompass
a wide variety of genres and content. There’s everything from
traditional artworks with devotional content, to pictures, sculpture
and video art that question and confront conventional notions of
religion and spirituality. This is its appeal, that it examines the
important and deep questions in life from multiple points of view. Long
may the Blake Prize be comforting and alarming, prickly and soothing,
revealing and confounding.
Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.