Wiradjuri artist SJ Norman has won the 2022 Blake prize for an artwork that saw him receive 147 wounds to his back, representing the number of Aboriginal deaths in police custody over the last decade in Australia.
Norman was announced the winner of the $35,000 prize at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre on Saturday, for his performance piece and photographic diptych titled Cicatrix (All that was taken, all that remains).
The artist received 147 incisions with a razor in 147 minutes as part of a 2019 performance commissioned by Performance Space New York. The resulting scars, the artist said, are also part of the art work.
The Blake prize is awarded biennially for art that explores religion, spirituality and faith.
Norman, a non-binary transmasculine cross-disciplinary artist, said definitions of religion and spirituality were inherently colonial and problematic. The practice of bodily scarification could be variously described as a religious practice, cultural practice, spiritual practice, a knowledge practice, a political practice, or all of the above, he said.
“For the many Aboriginal people on this continent who still practise scarification, the distinction [between spirituality and religion] is completely clear. For myself, as a south-eastern Koori, this work represents a very personal, referential gesture to a practice which has been suppressed, and which colonisation has divested me of,” Norman told Guardian Australia.
“This is a work of body art, which is generated from a point of tension between the western canon of performance, which I inhabit and am influenced by, and my Indigeneity,” he said.
“I was not invoking individuals in this work, rather I was invoking a number, a piece of hard cold data, which is inscribed in my flesh, gesturing to the weight of hard data on the body.”
The prize judges said Cicatrix was unanimously selected as the winner.
“This is a subject of national importance, and the judges anticipate this prize will bring new attention and continued engagement by the public with this topic,” their statement said.
“The judges were also impressed by the ways the artist explores ideas of scarification and ceremonial languages of Aboriginal peoples into the work. Cicatrix, and the artist’s practice, resonates with the themes of this prize but also has the potential to expand how contemporary audiences engage with the themes of spirituality, belief and religion in our contemporary Australian context.”
Norman said he was personally affected by the imposition of colonial Christianity, having inherited his mother’s trauma from being abused by Catholic nuns.
“How do I feel about taking out a prize which has historically recognised artists depicting white western civilisation religions? As an Aboriginal, transgender, queer, heathen weirdo? I feel great about it,” he said.
“I’m really prepared to stay with the trouble when it comes to religious iconography, religious history and religious praxis, especially when it comes to the intersections of social power and faith.”
Cicatrix is a continuation of what Norman describes as an exploration into the “volatile interstices of the social and the corporeal”, using his body as the primary medium.
His previous works include Take This, For It Is My Body, where viewers are invited to a traditional afternoon tea of scones made from batter with the artist’s blood as an ingredient. Another, Corpus Nullius, involved Norman inscribing the words Terra Nullius into his flesh with small, pearl-headed needles. And Heirloom, in which the artist used his blood to paint a collection of found ceramics.
Norman said he found it “curious and frustrating” when people fixated on the confrontational aspects of his work.
“What I do find confronting is the stifling pressure so many Aboriginal artists feel to produce work that is comfortable and palatable, which centres white audiences over our own processes, and curtails formal and methodological experimentation,” he said.
“I’m confronted by the ‘spiritual’ v ‘political’ binary that is forced on Blak artists, and how this works to diminish and misrepresent us for the sake of preserving settler comfort.
“I find it confronting that non-Aboriginal people are able to disengage so easily from the ongoing genocide of our people, and get themselves in a lather over the sight of a bit of blood that has been consensually shed and aesthetically presented.
“I find it confronting that people could possibly imagine that a few razor cuts even begins to compare to the cultural pain that this work gestures to. What conditions anaesthetise a populace to the sight of certain kinds of pain and not others?”