Wow, was my headline last time prescient! I touted, “First Nations Take Over the AGNSW Prizes” last week. And now that we know and have met the winners, I can reveal that two of the three prizes did go the right way – Zaachariaha Fielding took out the Wynne and sang his Pitjanjatjara Inma/Ceremony; while Doris Bush Nungarrayi came away with the Sulman Prize and delighted the crowd with 6 minutes of impassioned speech in Pintupi/Warlpiri. Sadly no one translated it!

Fielding (son of artist Robert and lead singer with Electric Fields) delighted with a high-pitched rendering of his artwork, which he’d described as “The sounds of Mimili”, his remote APY Lands community. Not that he lives there now as his musical career is international and his painting is done in the APY Art Centre Collective’s Adelaide studio when he’s not touring. This he bravely declared he was “so proud of”, and he thanked the APYACC manager, Skye O’Meara, at the centre of recent allegations of inappropriate assistance to her elderly artists. Fielding’s work in black and white clearly needed no assistance.

Doris Bush’s work Mamunya ngalyananyi (Monster coming) is a crazy work that could only have won the oddball Sulman Prize – it’s a field of multi-coloured, shock-haired “cheeky ones” that must infest her nightmares at Papunya. Certainly her unstoppable tirade in a mix of Pintupi and Warlpiri delighted the crowd, and several attempts by art centre helpers failed to stem the flow. But as Doris had also been selected for the Wynne final, she probably felt justified in having a lot to say. Sulman judge (and artist) Nell is quoted as admiring the Aboriginal artist’s ability “to give her Mamu an individual character that is simultaneously scary and cheeky…these shapeshifters look like they are popping off the canvas”.

Meanwhile, the Big One – the 100th Archibald Prize for portraiture went to Sydney’s Julia Gutman for an image of another pop singer, Montaigne. The artist justified, “We are both interested in creating our own forms and approaches. I’m so grateful to be working at a time when young female voiuces are heard”. The 29 year old created her portrait out of found textiles and embroidery, and material works were a signficiant feature of this year’s prizes.

Last week I backgrounded:

“Just three percent of the nation and just over four percent of the 2348 entries for Sydney’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes, but Aboriginal artists are a whopping 26.5% of the finalists on show at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Superior artists? Politically correct judging?? Or has it just become accepted wisdom that our First Nations artists are absolutely the best at understanding and interpreting the landscapes they’ve lived with for 55,000 years???

For it’s in the Wynne Prize for landscape (and sculpture) that 17 of 41 finalists are Indigenous. And, predictably, seven of those come from the land of big colourful Tjukurpa story-telling, the APY Lands of South Australia – frequent winners in the past.

For the AGNSW Trustees who make the selection (and include Blak artist Tony Albert) have ignored the recent brouhaha over allegations that white staffers at remote art centres and in the APY Art Centre Collective’s Adelaide studio have played an excessive role in painting these canvases. And it appears that at least three of the APYACC works were painted in the Adelaide studio, though works from the remote art centres at Mimili and Iwantja may well have been created at home.

In a statement yesterday when the three prizes’ finalists were unveiled, the Art Gallery of NSW said, “We are following the issue closely. We also strongly believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the right to self-determination in their cultural affairs and expression of cultural matters. The processes for selecting the 2023 Wynne Prize’s finalists and judging the winner remain unchanged”.

I fear this may mean that Sydney is following the National Gallery’s line that outside commentators can’t criticise an Aboriginal artist’s choice in letting AN Other finish off their work. Meanwhile plenty of other First Nations experts have pointed out that that decision clearly has to be the artist’s alone, not simply a matter of rushing a canvas to market.

Bad timing! But not something that should cast a shadow over the other Indigenous work in the three prizes. In the Wynne, Naomi Hobson from Coen on Cape York has been justifiably selected for the first time, as has Dharug man Billy Bain for his ceramic assembly of First Nations sporting hero figures. In terms of good timing, Dhambit Mununggurr’s startlingly blue bark’s claims for a Yolngu Voice to be heard in Canberra may well be the first such tribal voice we’ve been allowed to hear/see in this debate. And talking of sounds, singer Zaachariaha Fielding of Electric Fields fame challenges perceptions when he claims to be capturing “the sounds of Mimili” in his bold black and white canvas.

In the Archibald Prize, Aboriginal subjects are well ahead of selected artists – nine to four. Given that qualification for entry has to be a portrait “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in arts, letters, science or politics”, I think we must have got somewhere in terms of First Nations recognition. And who are the distinguished subjects – Latrell Mitchell heads the list with two portraits, admittedly by the same artist; Regina Pilawuk Wilson from Peppiminarti looks a hell of a lot more regal than King Charles can hope to do on Ryan Presley’s ‘Blood Money’ note; Zaachariaha Fielding gets a pharaohnic makeover from Michael Simms; and the late Archie Roach could be a winner in Anh Do’s mighty tribute.

But some remote artists know themselves better than they do others. So the Iwantja double-act of Kaylene Whiskey and Tiger Yaltangki both appear courtesy of themselves – the one witty and, of course accompanied by Dolly Parton et al, the other dominated by his dogs and, once again, the music that makes his art go round.

Who’ll win next Friday? I have no idea – but my personal favourites are James Powditch’s wacky portrait of Sam Neill wearing a woven pig’s head, Ryan Presley’s Regina Wilson, and (though not eligible) the 8 year old Phoebe Raft’s amazing self-portrait in the Young Archie competition!

Fourteen First Nations artists in the Sulman explains nothing about this weird prize for a “genre” painting, but more about artist Nell’s tastes. For she is the sole selector. Kaylene Whiskey’s there again with a vastly improved tourist poster for Central Australia. But the Indigenous hits for me are the 84 year-old Ronnie Allen’s heartfelt painting of Pentecostal desert ceremony, more Christianity from Johnathon World Peace Bush’s Tiwi take on God reaching out to Adam on the Sistine ceiling, and Iluwanti Ken’s plunging Mother Eagle as she hunts for her family.

Good news, the Wynne Prize is touring NSW regional galleries for the first time this year after it, the Archibald and the Sulman wrap up in Sydney on 3rd September.