Thursday, September 22, 2011
LITTLE could appear more exotic or unusual to most contemporary Australians than a group of Eastern mystics - who rarely allow outsiders into their inner circle - going through the centuries-old ritual chanting they believe will eventually bring them closer to God.
Except these Naqshbandi Sufi Muslims - subject of Khaled Sabsabi's winning multimedia entry in this year's $20,000 Blake Prize - couldn't appear more, well, ordinary.
The men and women are wearing everyday clothes. Their children run around in the background, oblivious to the spiritual ceremony, anxious to get on with their Saturday. And the prayer room itself is just a western Sydney scout hut.
Yet it was the very mundanity of Sabsabi's video, Naqshbandi Greenacre Engagement (2010), which made it the unanimous choice of the three judges in the 60th anniversary year of a prize originally set up to improve the standard of religious art in Christian churches.
''There's no paraphernalia, no religious robes, nothing to create a barrier between observer and the participants,'' said one of the judges, Dr Julian Droogan, a lecturer in religious history at Macquarie University. ''Nothing to give the religion any exoticism or mystique. It is an inviting piece of work that talks to the viewer of religion as normal daily practice, as social community, as being held together by family and kin.''
Sabsabi, 46, is in Istanbul, taking a break from creating new works in Lebanon as part of the Helen Lempriere travelling art scholarship he won last year.
''I haven't even thought about what I'll do with the Blake Prize money,'' Sabsabi said. The part-time artist, who works for Liverpool City Council as a community and cultural engagement officer, said he knew little about Sufism before undertaking his winning work.
He was commissioned originally by Lisa Havilah, then director of Campbelltown Arts Centre, for the Edge of Elsewhere project which formed part of the 2011 Sydney Festival.
Ms Havilah, now director of CarriageWorks, said: ''Khaled worked with the Sufi community for over 12 months, spending a lot of weekends with them to develop trust before he started filming.''
The multicultural, multi-faith nature of modern Australia was also apparent in the other winners announced yesterday. Carla Hananiah won the John Coburn emerging artist award for her painting Refuge while Abdul Abdullah received the MUA Human Justice Award for his digital self-portrait Them and Us.
''The Blake Prize is beginning to reflect that Sydney is right up there with London and New York as one of the most religiously diverse cities,'' Dr Droogan said. ''By far the greatest number of entries this year refer to personal spirituality than they do to any of the established world religions.''
The 60th Blake Prize Exhibition is at the National Art School Gallery, Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, until October 15.
Picture: Inviting piece … Khaled Sabsabi's award-winning video. Photo: Edwina Pickles.