Sydney artist Leyla Stevens wins the 66th Blake Prize

Sydney artist Leyla Stevens has won the 66th Blake Prize; one of Australia’s longest running and most prestigious prize, engaging contemporary artists, both nationally and internationally, with conversations on the wider experience of spirituality, religion, and belief.

Stevens, from Petersham NSW, was selected as the winner from amongst 86 finalists. Judges Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Maud Page and Kumi Taguchi had the difficult task of selecting the category winners from the exhibited finalists, before Stevens was announced the winner of the $35,000 cash prize at a launch event at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) on Saturday 13 February.

Stevens’ work, Kidung/Lament (2019), is a three-channel video work by the Balinese Australian artist. The video focuses on traces of Bali’s histories of political violence and the complex manifestations of these concealed pasts amongst human, physical and metaphysical environments.

Leyla Stevens, Kidung/Lament, 2019, 3 channel video, stereo sound

The judges commented: ‘It is a masterful, contemporary artwork that sits within the context of a sophisticated arts practice of a promising young artist. This powerful work is a sensitive and intimate exploration of a localised story with global resonance. Via a compelling narrative, Stevens explores the spectral traces of Bali’s histories of political violence and the complex manifestations of these concealed pasts amongst human, physical and metaphysical environments.   

‘The work anchors the incredibly moving stories contained in the whole exhibition – stories of personal and collective tragedy that connect broadly to notions of religion and spirituality as they manifest in contemporary worlds.  Yet, it is also poignant as a poetic invitation, provoking audiences to perceive, read and listen to landscapes beyond prescribed models.  For example, Stevens’ framing of Banyan trees as powerful and almost sentient cultural signifiers connects to global perspectives that consider trees to be responsive in ways humans are yet to understand. We forget and underestimate the power inanimate objects hold, when it comes to memory. It is through memory that we can access trauma, understanding and accountability. While the artist taps into a multitude of global conversations, perhaps most poignantly, the work invites us to think deeper about the tragic Aboriginal histories also embedded in the Australian landscape.’

Additional categories:

Eddie Abd, In Their Finest, 2020, one channel video

Hazelbrook resident Eddie Abd was the winner of the $6,000 acquisitive Blake Emerging Artist Prize for her work In Their Finest (2020), a video piece that combines long exposure Victorian death portraits with the traditional textiles of Greater Syria to explore the conservation of tradition by families uprooted from ancestral lands. Zanny Begg of Bulli was awarded the Blake Established Artist Residency and Exhibition for her video work Stories of Kannagi (2020), which looks at the impact that colonisation and civil war has had on Tamil communities living outside of Sri Lanka. The Blake Established Artist Residency prize includes a one-month residency and solo exhibition at CPAC.

Zanny Begg, Stories of Kannagi, 2020, video

CPAC Director Craig Donarski said ‘Not only do these winning works speak to the incredible talent we have in Australia, they are also a shining example of how the rich diversity of cultures that make up our society can provide us with unique perspectives and powerfully moving artworks. The whole exhibition is a fascinating snapshot of the state of belief now: passion, anger, ecstasy, reflection, trauma and doubt, leavened by moments of wit, humour, beauty and playfulness.’

‘The 66th Blake Prize Exhibition’ is currently open for viewing at CPAC until Sunday 11 April 2021.

Artists include: Antoine Veling (North Rocks, NSW), who captured a moment of ecstasy resembling religious iconography in Mark 5:28, when Iggy Pop invited the audience on stage during a show at the Sydney Opera House. Blak Douglas (Redfern, NSW) who explores their frustration with embracing the religion of colonialism in Three Strikes and You’re Out. Liam Benson (Baulkham Hills, NSW), whose large embroidery, Community Participation Embroidery, Thoughts and Prayers, was created through artist-led workshops in which participants made tributes to loved ones;  and Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro (Blackheath, NSW), whose video work The Pilgrims focuses on Insta-tourists and our decade of self-worship.