Grafton on Bundjalung Country. A typical, unassuming regional town in the Clarence Valley, NSW, Australia. About an hour’s drive south of the well-known vibrant Byron Bay, Grafton is known for the mighty Clarence River that runs through it and the Jacaranda trees that bring an annual purple bloom to this relatively quiet city.
What’s becoming clear in this part of Northern New South Wales, is that Grafton is a rising star within the creative arts world. Thanks to the innovative and vibrant evolution of the Grafton Regional Gallery, Grafton is being put on the tourist map. Right now there is a buzz in town as it hosts one of the country’s favourite art awards, The Archibald Prize.
Australia’s most significant portrait art award, affectionately known as the Archie’s, the Archibald will tour six Australian towns over the next few months following its residency at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. And Grafton is one of them.
I’m a tourism officer in the Clarence Valley and promoting the region to visitors is part of my job. The Visitor Information Centre, where I welcome tourists and offer advice on anything from the best camping spots in the area to the National Parks that surround us, shares its space with the Regional Gallery. Set in the entrance of a historic listed building that synchronises an original 1880 federation house, with the new, recently renovated state-of-the-art exhibition space, the Regional Gallery is my home three days a week.
Welcoming a mixture of regular gallery goers and new out-of-towners arriving for the first time, gives me a unique opportunity to people-watch. I might greet them as they arrive, talk about the area, and the gallery, and then chat with them as they exit through the gift shop like they’re part of a Banksy documentary.
Typically, some might say, big art prizes and galleries in general, come with a certain connotation that art is only for a stereotype – the “art people”. You must be an artist yourself, have studied art, collect art. Know a thing or two about colour pallets and techniques.
The Archibald prize blows this unfair overtone to pieces. The portraits we admire are of all types of people, illustrated in various forms, all perfectly positioned to create a vision of pure amazement. Life-size yet larger-than-life, they create an experience visitors describe as extraordinary.
The Archibald is an example of how art is for anyone, by anyone, of anyone.
Visitors of all ages, come and enjoy art and learn about the stories behind them.
The Local heroes, famous faces, and personal inspirational figures depicted in the works are all here under one roof. Some are so realistic you think they are photographs, while others offer an abstract view of someone we recognise but can’t quite figure out where from.
The unknown become known.
A small write-up, the artist’s vision, an explanation into the who, why and, how, is carefully positioned next to each piece allowing us to discover the stories behind the drawings. Details missed by the untrained eye, now are clear, the words are just as inspiring as the paintings themselves. If the talent wasn’t evident enough, reading the stories behind each painting allows us to search for what inspires us. Who inspires us?
My favourite finalist, a piece by Mostafa Azimitabar entitled KNS088 shows a refugees self-portrait, painted in coffee. A look into the soul with a story drenched in humanity and hope. And also in coffee, the only available supplies the artist had while detained on Manus Island before he was set free.
A number, not a name. Now an Archibald finalist. Forever his story is told.
This year the Archibald Prize saw the highest number of entries from Aboriginal artists, and Blak Douglas’ Moby Dickens entry is the first winning piece to portray an Aboriginal woman. We are reminded of our First Nations connection to the land on which we work and paint. It’s encouraging that more traditional landowners are being recognised for their ability to portray their true connections and we can learn about the First Nation peoples. By being face to face with the subject we can look them in the eye and see their stories, their vision, and the history of this land.
One of the most incredible parts of the exhibition for me is the Young Archie’s. Encouraged by parents and local schools, it’s an opportunity for local children to enter a portrait to be displayed next to the main event, The Young Archies on Bundjalung Country.
I watch children come into the art gallery, perhaps for the first time, looking for their piece of art. A door has been opened for them to enjoy, create and learn about their own expression. And behind the door, the next generation of creatives are born.
This is what art is about. Expression, curiosity and most of all courage.
You have to be brave. Vulnerable. Fearless. Trusting.
You can create a masterpiece, admire a masterpiece. Be a masterpiece.
I was lucky enough to have a casual tour, a walk and talk if you will, with Caity the exhibitions officer, and one of the curators who put the exhibition together in this space. To be given a first-hand account of the many cogs that need to turn to create an experience like this was extraordinary. From hanging work that weighs over 50kg, to positioning spotlights at a certain angle to emphasise a silhouette, each corner of the gallery is selectively chosen for each individual artwork and it shows. A perfect example of teamwork making the dream work.
For our small city, the Archie’s arrival in town brings people from surrounding areas that may not have known our gallery even exists. The dedication of the gallery team to put Grafton on the map and grow our creative industries is truly remarkable. An incredible achievement to host Australia’s most significant art award, the regional gallery continues to grow and conquer.
Sketched and etched in history, the Archie’s are in town , and the money I’ve spent on art supplies to learn this craft has absolutely nothing to do with being inspired by it. I promise!