It’s that time of year again when it seems all of Australia suddenly pays attention to art and artists. The Archibald Prize finalists have been announced. This year’s stellar lineup of portraits is diverse and in many cases mesmerising. Craig Ruddy, who won in 2004 with his extraordinary take on David Gulpilil is a finalist once again with ‘Dark Emu’ – a vibrant portrait of author/historian/farmer Bruce Pascoe.
The Archibald is awarded each year to the best portrait of a person, ‘distinguished in art, letters, science or politics’ painted by an Australian resident. The prize garners much of its buzz as it is a ‘who’s who’ of Australian culture. The People’s Choice and Packing Room awards also often highlight Australia’s present mood with an ‘of the moment’ subject. Craig Ruddy’s ‘Dark emu’ – portrait of Bruce Pascoe does just that.
The portrait incorporates a number of themes of our time including issues of personal and national identity, Indigenous sovereignty, and the current environmental crisis. Ruddy was inspired to paint Bruce Pascoe, a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man, after reading Pascoe’s Dark Emu. They met soon after devastating bushfires swept through East Gippsland, taking the life of Pascoe’s close neighbour and good friend.
“It’s my absolute honour to celebrate Bruce Pascoe and his work. He’s a beautiful, gentle man who’s courageously faced this country’s troubled past, in attempts to welcome a positive future of acceptance and solidarity. For someone who had suffered such loss, Bruce’s openness and vulnerability were humbling, but it was his gentility and resilience in seeking truth and reconciliation that I wanted to represent,” says Craig Ruddy.
When published the author’s theories that Indigenous people were not simply ‘hunter/gatherers’ proved controversial. The best-seller was pilloried by some academics and the most vocal shock jocks. Although the ‘Terra Nullius’ fiction had finally been dismissed by the historic Mabo judgement in 1992, Bruce Pascoe believes the myth did much to displace his people from country and an understanding of their culture. Although the author expected some attempts to discredit his theories he never anticipated his own heritage would be questioned.
The artist’s electric colour palette offers optimism; while the wild lines symbolise the ‘yarns’ that have been spun over generations and the many different threads of knowledge that become caught up and entangled. They also symbolise diversity and the infinite possibilities for a unified Australia. “… while charcoal derived from the spirit of fire signifies traditional wisdom and our potential to rise like embers together with new zest”.
The painting also implores us to “embrace our First People’s wisdom and develop our ability to see the whole picture, not just what we’ve been accustomed to see. The events late last year and this year show us that we are all one”, says Ruddy.
Craig believes he has come full circle with this work after winning the Archibald and People’s Choice prizes in 2004. “… when I painted Two Worlds, I felt a lot of frustration for how First Australians were treated. In Dark Emu, the painful realities are still there, but so are all kinds of colour. There’s room for it all.”
Along with the Sulman and Wynne prizes the $100,000 Archibald Prize will be announced on September 25.
The newest Craig Ruddy collection, completed alongside his portrait of Pascoe, is available to browse and purchase via his website or follow him on socials to learn more.