147 Razor Cuts: Bloody Artwork Marking Indigenous Deaths in Custody Wins Blake Prize in Australia | Art
Artist Wiradjuri S.J. Norman won the 2022 Blake Prize for work that saw him receive 147 back injuries, which is the number of Indigenous deaths in police custody over the past decade in Australia.
Norman was announced the winner of the $35,000 prize at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Center in Sydney on Saturday, for his performance and photographic diptych titled Cicatrix (All That Was Taken, All That Remained).
The artist received 147 razor cuts in 147 minutes in a 2019 performance commissioned by Performance Space New York. The resulting scars, the artist said, are also part of the artwork.
The Blake Prize is awarded biennially for art that explores religion, spirituality and faith.
Norman, a non-binary trans-male interdisciplinary artist, said definitions of religion and spirituality are inherently colonial and problematic. The practice of body scarification could be variously described as a religious practice, a cultural practice, a spiritual practice, a knowledge practice, a political practice or all of the above, he said.
“For the many Indigenous peoples of this continent who still practice scarification, the distinction [between spirituality and religion] is quite clear. For me, as a South Eastern Koori, this work represents a very personal gesture of reference to a practice that has been suppressed and stripped of by colonization,” Norman told Guardian Australia.
“It is a work of body art, which is generated from a point of tension between the Western canon of performance, which I inhabit and by which I am influenced, and my Indigeneity,” said he declared.
“I was not invoking individuals in this work, rather I was invoking a number, a hard and cold datum, which is inscribed in my flesh, designating the weight of hard data on the body.”
Prize judges said Cicatrix was unanimously chosen as the winner.
“This is a matter of national importance, and the judges anticipate that this award will bring new attention and continued public engagement to this topic,” their statement read.
“The judges were also impressed with the way the artist explored ideas of scarification and the ceremonial languages of Indigenous peoples in the work. Cicatrix and the artist’s practice resonate with the themes of this award, but also have the potential to broaden how contemporary audiences engage with 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 the trauma of his mother after being abused by Catholic nuns.
“How do I feel about winning an award that has historically recognized artists representing the religions of white Western civilization? As an Aboriginal, transgender, queer, pagan crackpot? I feel good about it,” he said.
“I’m definitely willing to stay with the trouble when it comes to religious iconography, religious history, and religious practice, especially when it comes to the intersections of social power and faith.”
Cicatrix is a continuation of what Norman describes as an exploration of the “volatile interstices of the social and the bodily”, using her 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 consisting of scones made from dough with the artist’s blood as the 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 focused on the conflicting aspects of his job.
“What I find confronting is the stifling pressure so many Indigenous artists feel to produce comfortable, palatable work that centers white audiences on our own processes and limits formal and methodological experimentation,” said he declared.
“I am confronted with the ‘spiritual’ versus ‘political’ binomial that is imposed on the Blak artists, and how it works to diminish and distort us in order to preserve the comforts of the settlers.
“I find it difficult that non-Indigenous people can so easily disengage from the ongoing genocide of our people and get into the moss at the sight of a little blood that has been shed in a consensual way and presented in an aesthetic way.
“I find it hard that people can imagine a few razor cuts even beginning to compare to the cultural pain that this job represents. What conditions anesthetize a populace at the sight of certain kinds of pain and not others?