Exhibition review: The Churchie Emerging Art Prize 2022

'The Churchie' is a prize that offers a platform for emerging Australian artists to be profiled on a national stage.

Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA) hosts the Churchie Emerging Art Prize 2022, an open category snapshot showcasing early career contemporary artists from across Australia, held annually since 1987. 

The mantle of a national emerging art prize is an ambitious category, especially when whittled down to just a dozen finalists accepted across all visual art forms. Twelve finalists were selected to contend for the $15,000 non-acquisitive prize, from a field of over 400 entrants.

‘The Churchie’ delivers an array of interdisciplinary new talent from every state and territory except the NT, showcasing a diversity and rigour of practice in the next generation of Australian artists. 

Interestingly, unlike most art prizes, ‘Churchie’ entrants are judged on their practice as a whole rather than a singular artwork. This holistic approach positions each finalist within the contemporary milieu, evaluating how they navigate their cultural experiences and personal perspectives through art making. 

Read: Lessons from an art prize judge

‘The Churchie’ also provides an invaluable opportunity for an early career curator. This year’s exhibition is thoughtfully presented around ‘themes of sustainable practice, notions of place, systems of authority, and cultural preservation and identity’ by emerging Sri Lankan-Australian curator and art historian Elena Dias-Jayasinha.

‘While the finalists grapple with the complexities of contemporary life, a sense of hope permeates many of the works presented in this year’s exhibition, and after a difficult few years, a bit of hope may be just what we all need,’ said Dias-Jayasinha. 

Sustainable practice is at the forefront as I enter the gallery, greeted by the low humming drone and buzz of Lillian Whitaker’s Mutualisms (2022). Three delicate wax structures created in collaboration with European honeybees sit atop speaker-plinths that emit the accompanying soundscape. They convey a message of ecocentric symbiosis and a rejection of human dominance over nature. I can’t resist the temptation to lean in far too close, taking in their rich honeyed scent.

Norton Fredericks’ softly scalloped textile triptych Identity Landscape (2022) deftly closes the sustainability loop. Organic, fecund, and earthy botanical landscapes of personally significant places are mapped in trails of scribbly eucalyptus on three felted panels. The eco-printed native materials are fully compostable, designed to be returned to the soil and regenerate Country. 

On entering the next gallery space my eye is caught by the glittering geometric stripes adorning Kevin Diallo’s Ode to Zouglou (2021). Shimmering patterns inspired by West African mud cloths are layered over the soft wash of dancing human forms. Printed from screenshots of YouTube Zouglou dance clips, the figures are blurred and ambiguous. I stand back at a distance and the details coalesce. The criss-crossed configuration of the four canvas panels echoes the glittering designs; an alluring textural combination. They reveal a cultural reconnection to Diallo’s Ivory Coast roots, rekindled over the internet during the pandemic, a symptom of his digital diaspora.

Themes of cultural preservation and identity are touched upon by many of the other finalists, notably in Linda Sok’s installation Salt Water Deluge (Tucoerah River) (2021). Salt encrusted strips of Cambodian silk suspended from half moon rattan frames speak of matrilineal craft, passed down and preserved despite attempts at erasure by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Installation view, ‘the churchie emerging art prize 2022’, Institute of Modern Art. In view: Agus Wijaya, ‘Procession’, 2020; ‘Jejadian’, 2022, ‘Taksakala’, 2021. Photographer: Joe Ruckli.

Continuing the theme of cultural identity Agus Wijaya creates a lexicon of digital characters to express feelings of isolation and prejudice faced whilst growing up with Chinese heritage in a small Indonesian village. He serves up a brain melting zap of lurid crimson and hyper teal, challenging my visual perception. The saturated tones of the pigment prints remind me of the enchanting time of day just before dusk, when our photoreceptors become confused and colours can take on an otherworldly glow.

The glitchy red and green duality of Procession (2020) and Taksakala (2021) resemble an anaglyph image. If you’ve got no idea what an anaglyph is (neither did I!) never fear. Wijaya has made a captivating deep-dive instructional video about the process, complete with avatar narration. Some may baulk at the conceptual status of digitally generated art in comparison to the more ‘traditional’ fine arts. This generous insight into Wijaya’s working practice only adds to my appreciation of the refined complexity in his digitised language.

In earth toned, hand-crafted contrast to Wijaya’s assemblage opposite, Jan Gunjaka Griffiths’ History Beneath the Beauty (2022) maintains her grandmother’s story and connection to Country. The floor-based installation of lily pads painted in natural pigment on paper is dotted with porcelain blooms. It recalls an account of her grandmother “slipping into the billabong to hide” from two unwelcome strangers. Standing above this freshwater pond it’s easy to imagine slipping down between the leaves, into the concealing smooth water of the billabong. The finely sculpted ceramic flowers float upon a riot of pattern and repetition, ready to obscure and protect.

Jan Gunjaka Griffiths, ‘History Beneath the Beauty’, 2022, natural pigment on paper, porcelain with underglaze, glaze, 171 x 228 x 3cm. Installation view: ‘the churchie emerging art prize 2022’, Institute of Modern Art. Photographer: Joe Ruckli.

Systems of authority are challenged in Emma Buswell’s playfully ironic pandemic knitwear series After Arachne (2020). The persistent cultural anxiety of 2020 is chronicled one sweater at a time. Each garment features a pop cultural glut of references, from the January bushfires through to the US election. Using handicrafts passed down from her mother and grandmother, Buswell’s title refers to the Greek myth of Arachne, a weaver woman transformed into a spider by the wrathful goddess Athena. The intricately detailed knitwear presents the labour of women’s craft making as an antidote to the upheavals and violence of recent major historic events.

With such a small sampling of artists across a diversity of mediums spanning painting, sculptural installation, textiles, video, drawing, and more ‘the Churchie’ cannot possibly display the full breadth of emerging talent present in Australia. Yet the exhibition delivers some delicious surprises and fresh innovative talent, with great anticipation on who will take out this year’s top prize. 

See the exhibition in person or online and have your say in the $3000 People’s Choice award. 

The twelve finalists of the 2022 Churchie Emerging Art Prize 2022 are: Darcey Bella Arnold (VIC), Emma Buswell (WA), Jo Chew (TAS), Kevin Diallo (NSW), Norton Fredericks (QLD), Jan Gunjaka Griffiths (WA), Jacquie Meng (ACT), Daniel Sherington (QLD), Linda Sok (NSW), Lillian Whitaker (QLD), Agus Wijaya (NSW), and Emmaline Zanelli (SA).

The Churchie Emerging Art Prize 2022 is showing at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, until 1 October. Sebastian Goldspink is this year’s guest judge.

Opening weekend talks will be held Saturday, 3 September at 11:00am – Artist talks hosted by curator Elena Dias-Jayasinha. To register And 1:00pm with Sebastian Goldspink: Anatomy of a Biennial. To register

Claire Grant is a freelance arts writer and visual artist with a passion for experimental and alternative photography. Originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, she currently lives in Meanjin (Brisbane). She studied fine arts majoring in photography at the University of Canterbury, and museum studies at the University of Queensland. Her writing has appeared in Garland Magazine, Lemonade: Letters to Art, and a recent publication for the Northern Sustainable Darkroom, UK. Visit and follow @_loudandclaire_