The second highest number of Indigenous entries came in this year for the Art Gallery of NSW’s annual Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prize feast. And 27 have been selected – with, I suspect, firsts in the Wynne, where three sculptural works by Aboriginal artists will be up for the prize announced next Friday.

Huge works seem to be the key to getting selected if you’re Indigenous. As my key photo shows, Gallery Director Michael Brand was completely dominated by the Blak Douglas Archibald entry behind him, a portrait of fellow First Nations artist, Karla Dickens. She gives every appearance of disapproving his presence, but in fact Douglas was referencing both the floods suffered by Dickens on Bundjalung Country in northern NSW and “The rising muddied waters (that) are a symbol of the artist’s position within the art world – trepidatious, unchartered and ominous,” Douglas explains.

Meanwhile there are at least six outsize landscape canvases from APY Collective artists, who’ve taken out the Wynne quite a lot of late. Some are, frankly over-wrought. One however deserves noting as it’s surely the first appearance in Sydney of art from the Umoona Senior Women’s Collaborative at the very new Art Centre in Coober Pedy. The artists involved here are Jeannie Minunga and Kay Finn who are sisters-in-law, and Minunga’s daughter. They only picked up brushes last year!

Despite this novelty I have a feeling that Nellie Coulthard’s smaller and subtler picturing of the wattle blossoms that she recalls from her childhood might find greater favour in the judging.

But then there’s a work credited only to Tjapaltjarri, because, tragically, this major Papunya Tula artist has died so recently that his passing has not been announced by family or community. The work is ‘Untitled‘ (2022) and features the Silky Pear Vine/Yunala that grows around Kiwirrkurra on a canvas that enjoys a suitably silky surface. Definitely stronger than the other PTA work, Yakultji Napangarti’s big sand-dune canvas.

Or will the Indigenous sculptures get noticed? A quartet of Tiwi artists have collaborated on the largest work – ‘First Death on the Tiwi Islands’ – which features substantial figures of Purukupali the great warrior, his wife Wa-ai, their son Jinani, and Purukupali’s brother Tapara, the Moon Man. It’s the islands’ foundation myth. For Wa-ai and Tapara were having illicit sex, forgetting poor Jinani as the sun moved around to his crib, and he died. Purukupali then refused to accept Tapara’s offer to revive him, instead striding into the ocean with his son’s body, decreeing what ceremonies should take place now that death had come to the Tiwi. The Pukumani Ceremony continues to this day.

The group is certainly more striking than the pair of Hermannsberg pots that have been selected. Which aren’t really ‘figurative sculptures’ as required by the Wynne Prize conditions. But is Dhambi Mununggurr’s dynamic blue bark, ‘Muŋgurrawuy fights the bulldozer’ – representing her grandfather’s fight to save a sacred tree from miners’ bulldozers – ‘a landscape’, as is also required by the Wynne rules? Whatever, it’s a magnificent bark, a worthy successor to her 2021 NATSIAA bark winner.

Also competing for both Wynne and the Roberts Family Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Prize (where are the TSI entries, I wonder?) are Ngunnawal man Dean Cross, Billy Kenda from Bindi, Danie Mellor, Thea Perkins and the Tiwi’s Alison Puruntatameri. A crowded field; and one mustn’t forget that there are non-Indigenous finalists as well – notably Angus Nivison and James Powditch.

Over at the Archie, it is almost inevitable that Vincent Namatjira, last year’s winner and the first ever Indigenous honoree, would be there again. I have to wonder, though whether he’s given up on bothering with a true likeness of himself, as he undoubtedly achieved in the 2018 ‘Soldiers‘ show at Hazelhurst. For his ‘self-portrait with a dingo’ is positively casual – especially compared to his delightfully witty work in the Sulman. There he appears on the Buck House balcony with the Royals – all ignoring him and engaging the public, while the future King William, as a baby, looks askance.

Other First Nations artists in the Archie are the aforementioned Blak Douglas – in with a real chance, I suspect – and the unexpected presence of Daniel Boyd. The glue-stick specialist – who gets a big solo show at the AGNSW in June – does not reveal the features that one might expect in a portrait. But his blurred vision of the Mount Druitt three-man hip-hop group, ‘OneFour‘ giving the finger has nevertheless found favour. Surely not to whet appetites for the solo show???

I suspect a non-Indigenous Archie winner this year – could Anh Do’s intense Peter Garrett find favour, or would the quieter and more complex works of Natasha Walsh and Michael Zavros be preferred?

Which leaves the wacky Sulman Prize for a ‘genre painting’ – an almost undefinable concept. There’s the humorous Namatjira, and a very serious Danie Mellor (again) juxtaposing historical images of naked Rainforest men in deep ceremony against a background of colonial destruction. A piece of cultural survival – as is Rosie Tarku King’s charming older artist’s simplification of the natural world. Inawintji Williamson’s ‘Honey Grevillea‘ could easily have won the Wynne, while Sally Mulda and Adrian Robertson bring their ‘art brut’ naivity to the competition.

The Trustees – headed by David Gonski and including the statutory pair of artists in Tony Albert and Caroline Rothwell – who judge Archibald and Wynne Prizes, don’t get a say on the Sulman. The witty Joan Ross – who, like Mellor, also critiques colonial destruction – will decide.

And the winner is – Blak Douglas, taking out the Archibald Prize of  $100,000 for his portrait of fellow First Nations artist, Karla Dickens. She called in from the still-muddy Bundjalung Country where she lives to call it “a killer painting”. He called it a first for Koori artists; though of course Vincent Namatjira beat to the Aboriginal post with his win two years ago. Meanwhile, the only other Indigenous winner was APY woman Sally Scales who won the restricted Roberts Family Prize for an ATSI artist, a sub-sect of the Wynne.