Artist Blak Douglas was on his morning walk through Redfern when his path crossed that of a Sydney fruit bat, which to his artistic eye looked stone dead.
After checking that the bat didn’t have a pulse, he tucked it into a small fruit box he found, took it home and put it in his freezer.
Five months later the bat—an important male totem—was resurrected as the inspiration for Douglas’ first move into sculpting. The Archibald prize finalist’s 18-carat gold sculptures of the bat will make their debut at Carriageworks Sydney Contemporary tomorrow.
The bat has also been immortalised in nickel and bronze.
“It’s a very important mammal,” says Douglas. “A very important relative of people all over the place. They carry a very diverse spiritual meaning. From east coast to Arnhem Land, there are various stories of how important they are in culture and what they represent. It’s too important to try to eradicate from the ecosystem as Sydney has attempted to do.”
Just like the bat, or Wirambi, Douglas’ transformation seems complete. From successful artist Adam Hill, he has transformed into Blak Douglas, who was once his experimental, artistic alter-ego. As Douglas, he became a finalist in Australia’s most prestigious art prize, the Archibald, in 2015, with his portrait of Aboriginal performer Uncle Max Eulo.
“It’s always under the moniker of Blak Douglas now,” Douglas says. “The main era of Adam Hill formally was 2000 to 2010 and then came Blak Douglas around 2014, and I guess it was an artistic alter ego to be able to experiment in a variety of stuff and so that included pop art, ephemeral arts.
“This is my first foray into sculpture.”
Hill doesn’t seem to have ever been afraid to jump in the deep end. As an artist he is self-taught, though he did study graphic design, illustration and photography at university.
He took up the paint brush at age 27 and proved a natural on the canvas. His artistic journey coincided with his discovery of his Aboriginal culture—he is a descendent of the Dhungatti people from Kempsey, on his father’s side. His mother was Caucasian.
For many years, Douglas says he was encouraged not to recognise his Aboriginal roots.
“It was somewhat challenging in that, you were pretty much encouraged to not celebrate your Aboriginality and that’s very confusing when it comes from a black father and then further enforced by your mother’s family and the general community,” he says.
“The suburb I lived in, the 1980s was not long after the referendum, and Penrith was pretty much a country town then. Now it’s a country city.
“I wasn’t speaking out about stuff then, but by the time I got to university in 1994 it was the first time you realised you could have a voice. You were among peers and an Aboriginal mob that encouraged you to speak out. You could do it safely at university.”
In his late 20s, Douglas says he reconnected with cultural values. He began painting and playing the didgeridoo, which he has now played in countries from Canada to Italy, South America, Vietnam and Japan and at events from the Rugby World Cup opening to Australian Idol.
“It was an age of artistic self-discovery,” Douglas says of that time.
He says being a self-taught artist has its advantages.
“The value of teaching yourself and not being influenced by the study of art is that it can be a very surprising thing coming out the other end,” he says. “It literally began in a factory unit in Western Sydney and I just developed my own thing. In those days, it was literally people in landscapes.”
He produced his first important pieces in 1998 and 1999 after visits to the desert and Arnhem Land.
“I have a painting I produced immediately after I got back from Arnhem Land and it tells the story of how the ‘didge’ connects with the culture up there, and it is a very important piece,” Douglas says.
“It’s actually the only piece where when people say, ‘Do you get attached to your artworks?’, that’s one that I won’t sell because of that pivotal story and the fact I can culturally translate the story I was told and how it connects the instrument to the people and to the earth and it’s told beautifully through the early style Adam Hill painting.”
Douglas says his art also gives a voice to Aboriginal people.
“I guess I make stuff to just jolt the social amnesia that exists today,” he says. “I speak on behalf of my family, my people, I guess, but just reminding the main stream population of the ironies that exist….
“What I mean by jolting the consciousness that demonstrates a cultural amnesia is the fact that my people, my family, my grandmother were oppressed and now we are expected to live within the colony and celebrate that….
“We live within a genocide. There’s no such thing as post colonialism. We’re in colonialism.”
Douglas says, for him, art is freedom and a pressure relief. For the Sydney fruit bat, he also hopes it helps to raise awareness of the sometimes-maligned mammal that has at times been moved on from botanical gardens using industrial noise. And what better way to do it than in gold.
“I wouldn’t say it was an easy transition,” he says of the move into sculpture. “It’s an expensive one, but you have to keep up with the Joneses in art.
“You can see individuals getting adulations through the major art centres and generally people love sculptural stuff. So, I thought, jeez, a 33cm long bat is pretty minimal compared to the lengths a lot of people are going to. I thought the least I can do is have a crack at that.”