Winner: Nicky Schonkala
Title: Girl Looks Backward Girl Looks Forward
Medium: jacquard woven textile, wool & cotton
Judge: Anne Kirker
As sole judge of one of Australia’s oldest and most prestigious art prizes, what do I look for in choosing a work from the short-list of 58 images out of a record total of 375 entries? What pre-conceptions might I have of what will be on display when I arrive at the Araluen Centre on Wednesday for a quick overview after getting off the plane from Brisbane? Its not my first encounter with the Alice Prize; I’d acted as a pre-selector in 1996 and so I knew the ropes. All the same, I was the judge this time and the buck stopped with me. I was mindful that some of the names were already familiar to me and many were not; would this affect my assessment? How politically correct was I going to be in my choice of the “winner”? Should it go to an indigenous artist; how mindful should I be of the residency opportunity that goes with the award? After all, four weeks away from an artist’s usual living and working situation can stir the imagination in radically new ways and prompt a fresh body of practice. And this practice can have considerable national impact. I mulled over these questions during the first evening and then at Araluen the following day. Then I discarded the self-questioning and went with my gut feelings of what I believed was imagery of conceptual power, inventiveness, and of course, excellence in technical terms.
For this year’s Alice Prize, I decided to split it between two artists, namely Tony Coleing from Stuarts Point in New South Wales and Nicky Schonkala from Alice Springs. Yes, you could say I had a bet both ways by choosing a local female artist and a male artist from interstate. You could probably also get involved with the different generations they represent as well, or you could go back to the old essentialist arguments that women are concerned with the personal and men like hi – tech machines better than weaving to make art. But really, these factors are only the stuff of chatter at social gatherings and dinner parties; and possibly under-graduate critique sessions.
Good artists work outside of these concerns. They are responsive to what they perceive society is on about, what the pressures and delights are that it holds, what the complexities and nuances are that shape our daily lives. In the private studio or commercial context where they make their work, artists of calibre are primarily up against themselves, not answering to what others think their practice should and might be. Both Nicky Schonkala and Tony Coleing are two such practitioners.
For the Alice Prize, Schonkala presents a multi-panelled woven textile installation titled Girl looks backward girl looks forward. Based on a series of 15 self-portraits, it depicts the gradual physical transformation that occurs after brain surgery. Stark – yet softly tonal – from black through white, Schonkala has used a computer to assist in transferring her likeness before and after the medical treatment, to the process of weaving. In doing so, she has elevated a traditional craft-based activity into the mainstream of visual arts. The image is emotionally compelling as the viewer traces the shifts in the physiognomy of the portrait from being fairly conventional, to a head with features that has courageously faced major surgery. As a consequence, we perceive renewed strength and individuality of character in the final panels.
Tony Coleing is a better-known artist who has developed a quirky political edge to his diverse imagery, over some thirty-five years. For the Alice Prize he presents a large-scale paint on vinyl statement. Printed by Metro Media in Brisbane, according to his specifications, CommandF is both a chilling statement of contemporary warfare, which itself employs advanced technology, and the amorphous fish-tank like environment that we in a computerised world are part. A typical Caucasian family group stands on the sidelines staring into a lap top computer while a weapon in a contested war zone is featured opposite. An all-seeing eye (Big Brother?) holds centre stage in this all too familiar scenario of our times. It is a bold and striking image that will arguably draw attention to itself long after this year’s Alice Prize exhibition has closed.
WHERE IS MY HOME?
oil on canvas 173 x 250 cm
Additional works acquired by the Alice Springs Art Foundation for the Permanent Collection are