Queensland College of Art (QCA) graduate Sky Parra has won the inaugural BMG Legal Art Prize, which puts the spotlight on victims of wrongful conviction in Australia.

The prize was sponsored by Gold Coast law firm Behlau, Murakami and Grant (BMG Legal) as part of a long-standing partnership with Griffith University’s Innocence Project, which helps free Australians who have been wrongly convicted.

The entries feature in an exhibition at the Webb Gallery at the QCA South Bank, before going on display at the offices of BMG Legal on the Gold Coast.

For QCA fine art major Sky Parra, the prize has inspired a year-long nationwide project to capture portraits of people exonerated of committing a crime.

Sky Parra’s portrait of Henry Keogh

The subject of Sky’s winning entry was Henry Keogh, who served over 20 years for a crime which never occurred.

Although his conviction was found to be based on false expert testimony, the courts were unable to review the case until a change of legislation.

The portrait was completed during a sitting last year — an experience that was life-changing for the young artist.

“We spoke on the phone for hours, many, many times before we met,” Sky said.

“He was able to tell me stories and convey details of the case that really moved me and informed the work.

“During a brief visit to Queensland, we arranged a sitting — I made several sketches and photographs and then got stuck in.

“I am normally quite deliberate, but I felt like I had never painted issues and emotions like this before.

“I knew I had to do something radically different to my style, and I sort of wanted to put myself through the emotions.

“I want the painting to have a greater meaning than just being a nice portrait, it’s a privilege to tell a really profound story like Henry’s.”

This year, Sky is expanding the project – travelling the country, making a series of portraits of people still incarcerated and waiting on their appeal.

“It gives me a tremendous sense of purpose,” she said.

“I wake up with such determination every day because it actually weighs pretty heavy on my heart. After you talk and connect with these people. You think ‘wow, I really want to help’.

“Art is a great way to get people’s attention and to raise awareness about these issues.”

The two legal eagles who sponsored the prize have longstanding connections to the Innocence Project at Griffith University.

Griffith University Adjunct Law Professor Jason Murakami has volunteered with the Innocence Project since the Gold Coast chapter was founded at Griffith Law School in 2001. Ron Behlau is a Griffith Law School alumnus and newly appointed Co-Director of the Innocence Project.

Jason Murakami

Mr Murakami said the art prize was intended to support emerging artists while raising awareness of wrongful conviction in Australia.

“We were aware that art students were graduating at an uncertain time, due to COVID,” he said.

“I am a keen artist myself, and the quality of the entrants was just astounding.

Ron Behlau

“These works really convey the stories behind the subjects.

“It’s a powerful exhibition and the paintings evoke strong emotions.”

Ron Behlau began volunteering with the Innocence Project as a Griffith law student, later worked pro bono on the project, and was recently appointed co-director with Dr Robyn Blewer.

“When you’re trying to make changes in the justice system, you’ve got to bring people with you,” he explained.

“We have wrongful convictions in this country and there are some real problems with the justice system.

“This exhibition reminds everyone that wrongful convictions are an issue that needs to be on the agenda.”

Fellow QCA students Ruth Greig and Anna Weston were Highly Commended.

The Innocence Project is part of a global legal network that brings together lawyers, academics and law students to help free people wrongly convicted in Australia.

16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
UN Sustainable Development Goals 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions