Mumbai artist Yardena Kurulkar has won the 64th Blake Art Prize for her work, Kenosis, 2015.

The $35,000 prize is awarded to the work deemed best at encouraging conversation around spirituality and religion in the 21st century.

Kurulkar’s win beat a field of 80 international finalists, including Australian artists Reg Mombassa, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Alan Jones, whose works explore religions ranging from Islam to Christianity and Indigenous spirituality. It is the first time the prize has gone to an international artist.

Kurulkar’s series of photographs depict a raw terracotta replica of her own heart taken using a 3D printer, which was then immersed in water, causing it to slowly decay.

“I create moments of confrontations between life and death,” she says, pointing out that the heart is the first organ to develop in a foetus. “My works are acts of surrender to the inevitability of the end. They are presented as part of a cycle of continuous regeneration … discovering my own mortality and contemplating our collective fear of death.”

Her method of working with unfired clay emerged when she was living and working in Canada, and noticed the brutal winter climate sapping moisture from clay, leaving sculptures cracked and fractured.

“The unintentional and unstoppable decay sparked comparisons in my mind with human flesh, that allowed me to address a long-standing preoccupation with death,” she says. In Christian theology, kenosis refers to the act of emptying your own will to become totally receptive to God.

The now-biennial competition attracted 594 entrants from seven countries including France, Germany and America.

The winning work was judged by a panel of three including CEO of World Vision Australia, Tim Costello; Indigenous artist, Leanne Tobin; and University of Wollongong’s Professor Amanda Lawson.

Director of the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre Kiersten Fishburn says the judges were unanimous in their decision.

“The work has many allusions, from the Venus of Willendorf, to our common and universal understanding that eventually our corporeal form decays and ends,” she says.

South Australian artist Damien Shen won the $6000 acquisitive prize for his work, On the fabric of Ngarrindjeri body. Victorian artist Robert Hague’s work, Messenger, won the inaugural one-month Blake residency program at the Powerhouse, which will culminate in a solo exhibition at the same time as the 2018 Blake Prize exhibition.

A consistently controversial, provocative exhibition, the competition’s future was under threat when sponsors deserted it last year. However the Casula Powerhouse stepped in and increased the prize money, arguing it is crucial for artists to provide thoughtful responses to the state of the world today.

The Blake Prize exhibition is being held at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre until April 24 before touring to galleries around Australia. Entry is free.

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