Australia’s newest art prize, and one of its richest, was delivered on a stormy night in Benalla this autumn. More than 300 people braved wind and rain to view the 32 finalists in the inaugural Benalla Nude Art Prize and hear the winner announced: the Chilean/Australian artist Juan Davila’s After Image, &.

Benalla Nude celebrates the naked human figure depicted in oil, acrylic, watercolour or mixed media by an Australian citizen or resident. The inaugural competition attracted 650 entries from all states and from both emerging and established artists.

Davila’s After Image, & depicts two women, Japanese and perhaps Aboriginal, embracing tenderly in a surreal forest with, intriguingly, punctuation symbols implying unstated and unanswered questions… a large twisting ampersand, a single dash and an upside down and back-to-front semi-colon.

‘The ampersand invites you to add more at a political level,’ says Juan. ‘There is a need for same-sex marriage. The ampersand means there is still more to be said.

‘I saw this scene from a train years ago, for a second, and it has been in my memory. There is a struggle regarding what are they doing there in the middle of the night.’

Juan Davila’s genius unfolds as he speaks softly, revealing a surprisingly daring  quality. Uniquely inventive, this gentle man with an unexpectedly energised mind has crafted a work that is strikingly bold, both in size and colours, commanding attention.

The sole judge for the prize, Daniel Thomas AO, doyen of Australian art curators and retired director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, was deeply moved by the painting, seeing it as a symbol of love.

It took him barely a minute to decide that Davila’s work was going to be a finalist and a potential winner.

‘The painting had the strongest ideas and emotions in it. Overall the painting was about love, two women embracing, interracial and same sex love, intertwining lines, symbols of embrace.’

He was delighted with the symbolism of the ampersand and the ’agreeably mysterious’ semi-colon: ‘It’s all to do with the attraction, the wish to come together as lovers and the possible separation by cultural society and by race.’

Announcing his selection, Thomas encouraged the audience to ‘Think your own thoughts about any artwork you look at; I always do and I encourage all to.’

Thomas noted that Benalla Nude showed how today ‘women artists are more numerous and confident than years ago. Women tackle the nude subject differently to men, with more intimacy.

‘You don’t have women painting men in the way men paint women; calculated, objectified and sexy.’

Benalla Nude’s $50,000 non-acquisitive purse is equal to that of The Art Gallery of NSW’s Archibald Prize and was wholly funded by the Friends of Benalla Art Gallery. The entire town has been involved in promoting and celebrating ‘going Nude’. The prize money was raised through lunch and dinner fundraisers and by bus trips to many Australian galleries. Local businesses and residents have proudly flown the flag via a range of visual displays and by wearing the hottest art T-shirt design Essentials has seen.

‘We have successfully engaged the local community and are running a public program alongside the prize for the public so it’s certainly no one-trick pony,’ Jane Still, communications coordinator for the Benalla Rural City, told Essentials. ‘We hope to get new audiences through the gallery both locally and regionally.’

Benalla Nude is expected to bring in at least 25,000 visitors to Benalla, with a  modest $10 entry fee to raise money for next year’s award. Benalla Nude was conceived by Essentials’ arts editor, artist Ivan Durrant.

‘The idea was knocking around in my head for 10 years when I put a business case together to the Friends of the Benalla Art Gallery. The appreciation of the nude had sort of disappeared in the art world; not many people are really tackling it.’

It was important to Ivan that the competition be non-acquisitive: ‘Though most prizes are acquisitive, we needed Benalla Nude to be non-acquisitive to attract a wide range of artists. People like Bob Dixon and Juan Davila would just not have entered otherwise. They can sell their paintings for $150,000 plus, so why would they let Benalla Art Gallery keep it?’

One painting that captured Ivan’s discerning eye was 33 Weeks by Lily Mae Martin.

‘It is fresh, alive and reminiscent of Lucien Freud. We are allowed a peak at a private moment between the pregnant lady and a loved one. I like it because it is discreet, close and personal, interesting. You feel as though you are just there – it is simply a beautiful moment and a great nude.’

Until July 13 at the Benalla Art Gallery 
74 Bridge Street, Benalla,Victoria
Tel 03 5760 2619


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