Ramsay Art Prize finalists tap into universal human concerns

A showcase of superbly curated new works by the 27 Australian artists shortlisted for this year’s Ramsay Art Prize confirms that the heart of the nation’s contemporary art scene – as relevant and dynamic as ever – continues its powerful beat.

Jun 02, 2023, updated Jun 02, 2023
An installation view of the 2023 Ramsay Art Prize at the Art Gallery of SA, including Olive Gill-Hille’s 'Nocturne' (foreground) and works by JD Reforma, Daniel McKewen and Carla Adams. Photo: Saul Steed / supplied

An installation view of the 2023 Ramsay Art Prize at the Art Gallery of SA, including Olive Gill-Hille’s 'Nocturne' (foreground) and works by JD Reforma, Daniel McKewen and Carla Adams. Photo: Saul Steed / supplied

Ramsay Art Prize 2023 exhibition
Art Gallery of South Australia

The biennial Ramsay Art Prize offers the opportunity for contemporary Australian artists under 40 to win a career-transforming $100,000. Bequeathed in perpetuity by South Australian cultural philanthropists James and Diana Ramsay, the generous prize money allows the most promising of Australia’s artists to develop their work unencumbered by the distraction of having to earn a living.

It is a precious legacy, not only for the nation, but also for the Art Gallery of South Australia, which acquires the work of each winning artist for its permanent collection.

This year’s selection, as in previous years, incorporates a broad range of media, from audio-visual installation, photography and painting, to textile, ceramic, cast metal and sculpted wood.

While the works are a manifestation of each artist’s personal foci, they also elevate – as good, engaging art so often does – the micro to the macro, tapping into the universal human concerns in our rapidly changing world. These range from the overwhelming developments in screen-based technology to environmental degradation, from the impact of industrial development on ancient, sacred lands, and social and economic inequality, to the constant negotiation of cultural identity in a changing world.

The shortlisted works are curated in AGSA’s upper galleries in a way that highlights the universality of many of the themes explored by the individual artists, the interconnectedness elevating them to the collective human experience.

The increasing domination of technology and social media over the human psyche is highlighted in Brisbane artist Daniel McKewen’s unsettling video installation A Dark Forest, in which a giant iPhone illuminates a night-darkened forest, continuously spewing a fusillade of emojis. Juxtaposed with this is Perth artist Olive Gill-Hille’s Nocturne, a sculptural and fleshy carving from black walnut that is both beautiful and ominous, borne from a period in which the artist suffered from insomnia.

The contrast between the mundane texts that intersect government and industrial development and the impact of the destruction of sacred sites such as the Juukan Gorge in WA is incorporated in Alana Hunt’s A very clear picture. Politics and poetics intersect in a protest procession of objects in Venezuelan-born, Naarm-based artist Nadia Hernández’s sensibles dueños de nuestra Felicidad, which takes its title from a letter written by the artist’s mother in which she reassured her that “we are the owners of our own happiness” – a phrase that is both reassurance and a call to arms.

2023 Ramsay Art Prize exhibition installation view, featuring Emma Buswell’s Suburban Turrets; Art Gallery of SA. Photo: Saul Steed / supplied

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Nearby, in Western Australian artist Emma Buswell’s Suburban Turrets installation, jumpers embellished with high-end car logos, Grecian luxury mansions and statements such as “I’m a luxury” are arranged on suburban-style gate-frames, along with a Tiffany-style lampshade that contrasts with its papier-mâché base, decorated with a frieze of garbage and detritus.

Perth artist Jacobus Capone’s video of a vast Norwegian icescape against which a tiny human struggles highlights both the destabilisation of glacial melt and the overwhelming forces of nature. Next to this is Adelaide-based Sundari Carmody’s The Mountain, an installation of ritualistic metal objects made mysterious through the movement of water and mist, evoking the human instinct for ritual and ceremony, placing hope in otherworldly powers and the divine.

2023 Ramsay Art Prize exhibition installation view, featuring Sundari Carmody’s The Mountain and Jacobus Capone’s Forewarning (Act 4: Demarcation); Art Gallery of SA. Photo: Sam Roberts / supplied

Gian Manik’s Victory and conflict explores the increasingly fraught intersections between sexuality, masculinity and combat through the traditional medium of painting on canvas, while Sarah Drinan’s Milking Mother and Daughter explores the absurd and sometimes perverse intersections between sexuality, motherhood and vulnerability.

This year’s winner, South Australian artist Ida Sophia’s performance-based video work Witness, was chosen unanimously by the judging panel (Aaron Seeto, director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Nusantara, Jakarta; Perth-based visual artist and creative producer Erin Coates; and Nici Cumpston, artistic director of Tarnanthi and curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at AGSA).

An alumna of the Marina Abramovic Institute, Sophia’s performance art viscerally taps into the beauty and pain of the human condition through the personal. The 12 minutes and 12 seconds of video in Witness, shot on location in the Pool of Siloam in Beachport, South Australia, emerged from the artist’s childhood obsessive drive towards religiosity for the sake of winning back her father’s love, which she felt had been usurped by his love for Jesus after witnessing his baptism.

A still image from 2023 Ramsay Art Prize winner Ida Sophia’s performance-based video work Witness; courtesy the artist. Photo: Thomas McCammon

Sophia’s repeated and increasingly rapid submerging in water for the duration of the film transcends words. The imagery is beautiful and compelling, while evoking the anxiety and suffocating, obsessive drive for completeness, love and connection in the face of unpredictable outcomes, and particularly of our vulnerability and mortality.

The full list of 2023 Ramsay Art Prize finalists is: Abdul Abdullah (NSW), Carla Adams (WA), Badra Aji (VIC), Tom Blake (NSW/WA), Yuriyal Eric Bridgeman (QLD), Emma Buswell (WA), Jacobus Capone (WA), Sundari Carmody (SA), Ida Sophia (SA), Corban Clause Williams (WA), Henry Curchod (NSW), Sarah Drinan (NT), Zaachariaha Fielding (SA), Aidan Gageler (NSW), Olive Gill-Hille (WA), Pascale Giorgi (WA), Nadia Hernández (VIC), Alana Hunt (WA/NSW), Alfred Lowe (SA), Gian Manik (VIC), Daniel McKewen (QLD), Amy Perejuan-Capone (WA), Alison Puruntatameri (NT), JD Reforma (NSW), Teho Ropeyarn (QLD), Yasmin Smith (NSW) and Katie West (WA).

The works of all 27 finalists artists are on show in the 2023 Ramsay Art Prize exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia  until August 27. Voting is open for the $15,000 People’s Choice award winner, which will be announced on August 11.

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