Ramsay art prize 2023: Ida Sophia wins $100,000 for ‘deeply emotive’ video work

South Australian artist Ida Sophia has won one of Australia’s richest art prizes with her video work, titled Witness.

Announced at the Art Gallery of South Australia on Friday morning, Sophia’s work won from the Ramsay art prize – an acquisitive award worth $100,000 for artists under 40 – seeing off 26 other shortlisted artists selected from more than 300 entries.

Now in its fourth iteration, the biennial prize is open to Australia-based artists working in any medium.

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Sophia is a 34-year-old multidisciplinary artist whose practice spans performance, sculpture and video. Witness, her winning entry, is a 12-minute film where the artist is dunked into a body of water again and again – to both disquieting and mesmeric effect.

“I am still a bit shaky, I’ll be honest,” Sophia says, speaking from the gallery after the prize ceremony. “It hasn’t settled in yet. I’m just processing it now.”

Shot in a single take at the Pool of Siloam – a salt lake in South Australia’s Beachport – Witness shows a baptism on infinite loop, with a man (Michael Schaefer) cradling Sophia in his arms and repeatedly submerging her in the lake from side to side like a swinging pendulum.

Throughout, the camera tightens, and the soundtrack grows ever more guttural, a cacophony of discordant, quivering strings drowning out the chirp of birds in the distance.

The piece is durational: both Sophia and Schaefer begin to show the seams of their physical labour. Often, the baptisms are interrupted by bodily necessities – a sharp intake of breath, a hand accidentally faltering.

Sophia’s work has often dealt with discomfort and stark images of the body. In previous performances, she has made impressions on her skin with volcanic stone and rocks, and invited audiences to write on her body with black marker. “My medium is the body and time,” Sophia says.

Witness was inspired by Sophia’s experience of seeing her father baptised when she was a child. “I was seven, and my parents were divorced,” she recalls. “[My dad] had found religion. And I perceived as a seven-year-old that I had lost my position as his favourite – to religion. When he invited me to see his baptism, I understood in that moment that it was a truncation from him.”

The younger Sophia turned to Christianity herself as a means to understand her father. “I went to Bible camp, and did all the praying, even though I knew it wasn’t going to change anything. So the work is about those relentless, everyday actions that we take [even though] we could be spending our energy better elsewhere.”

This year’s prize was judged by Aaron Seeto, director of Jakarta’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Nusantara; Perth artist Erin Coates; and Nici Cumpston, the AGSA’s director of Tarnanthi, the gallery’s festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

The judges agreed unanimously on Sophia’s win, praising her work’s sophistication and “deeply emotive” subject.

Witness, said Seeto in a statement, succeeds at “embodying and transmitting a very visceral experience through video, which can be technically difficult to achieve”.

Like Sophia, other Ramsay prize finalists also dealt in discomfort, in an exhibition that’s now open at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Abdul Abdullah – who was a finalist in the Archibald prize this year – was nominated for his painting Legacy Assets. Over a bucolic landscape, he scrawls the question: “What would our public collections look like if we divested them of sex pests and paedophiles?”

As in Witness, the body became a flashpoint across many shortlisted works.

Melbourne artist Sarah Drinan’s large-scale painting Milking Mother and Daughter depicts two bodies – nude, save for a pair of stilettos – whose figures are abstracted to absurd, rounded proportions. Both are doubled over, breast milk spilling from them on to a shadowy background.

For the Melbourne-based, Indonesian-born Badra Aji, the body becomes a battleground drawn on racial lines. His pencil illustration – titled Only In The Dark, You’ll Love Me Colourlessly / Hanya Dalam Gelap Kau Kan Mencintaiku Tanpa Warna – features a bare-chested, contemplative portrait, reckoning with his displacement both as a queer man, and an immigrant to Australia.

But the body is curiously absent in Emma Buswell’s installation, Suburban Turrets. Outsized knit jumpers hang in the Western Australian artist’s work, which flips the everyman appeal of a simple sweater with tongue-in-cheek slogans satirising the faraway dream of home ownership. “Delu$ion$ of grandeur,” reads one jumper, above an idyllic suburban street.

Witness is on show among the other finalists until 27 August at the Art Gallery of South Australia, with the winning work joining the gallery’s permanent collection.