The global debates about race and ethnicity are reflected in the prominence given to Indigenous artists in this year’s prize, was the reflection of Sydney Morning Herald critic John McDonald after the launch of this year’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes at the Art Gallery of NSW. Do you think he could be suggesting that the racial origins of artists (or their subjects) could be a determining factor in the selection of finalists by the Gallery’s august trustees?

Surely not!

But certainly, the clearest piece of First Nations selectivity this year is that the first-ever Indigenous artist has won the first cab off the Archibald rank “ the notorious Packers’ Prize. It’s chosen by the guys who receive, unwrap and man-handle the 2565 entries for all three categories “ an all-time record “ though it’s always put a mocker on any hope of the artwork going on to win the main prize later!

So Wongutha/Yamatji actor, playwright and (in his spare COVID-time) artist, Meyne Wyatt’s self-portrait wearing the look of disdain that we got to know when he delivered a marvellously acid speech from his play, ‘City of Gold’ on the ABC’s ‘Q&A’ TV program, is theoretically doomed. But, in a year in which seven of the 55 Archie finalists are Indigenous, why not buck the trend?

Of course, Aboriginal Art Directory invariably takes the Wynne landscape prize much more seriously than the trendy Archie, simply because landscape is such a vital aspect of any First Nations artist’s range of subjects “ it’s Country after all. And here, 15 of the 34 finalists are Indigenous “ almost half. Of course, at least one of them will win something “ for the recently established Roberts Family Prize is restricted to ATSI artists.

So, what stands out? Well, you can’t miss Hubert Pareroultja’s ‘Tjoritja‘, a mighty sweep of the West MacDonnell Ranges. This canvas is an image worthy of Albert Namatjira but vastly expanded confidently into the stratosphere, given bold acrylic tints but retaining the familiarity of the old Albert’s wise old white gum on the left-hand side.

Standing in the middle of the show, rival collaborative ‘Seven Sisters Songline‘ canvases loom ruddily in your vision. Alec Baker and Peter Mungkari don’t quite harmonise their different styles in one, but Keith Stevens, Taylor Cooper and Witjiti George really meld together in the other. Oddly, Leah Brady’s much quieter version grows on you as you wander. But it’s Nyunmiti Burton’s explosion of red stars/sisters from Amata which probably wins my favour.

I fear the Papunya Tula selections by Yakultji Napangati and George Tjungurrayi won’t get noticed beside all this APY fervour. But a surprising selection of three barks do stand out through their difference. My favourite would be Mulkun Wirrpanda’s delightfully entitled ‘Pardalotes nesting inside a termite mound‘! Landscape??? Well, it sure is if Timothy Cook’s over-familiar ‘Kulama‘ “ representing the Tiwi yam/moon ceremony “ is also one. And the unfamiliar Gumbaynggirr/Bundjalung man, Otis Hope Carey’s ‘Ngalunggir minggi/Healing Spirit‘ might seem to lack any grounding in terra firma!

Oddly, the Wynne Prize also incorporates sculpture “ and may well have its first Indigenous example this year in Paul Namarinjmak Nabulumo’s larrikitj pole featuring the Rainbow Serpent ‘Ngalyod at Kubumi’.

Finally, the incomprehensible Sulman Prize for a genre painting, subject painting or a mural project has managed to include two Indigenous works, both naïve scenes, by Doris Thomas and Grace Kemarre Robinya. Thomas’s ‘Day and Night, Titjikala pension day’ is a funny image of an all-too-familiar scene “ the loooong line-up to collect pensions by, seemingly, all 200 residents of this southern Aranda community.

Back to the famous Archibald. What chance of a First Nations winner emerging from the amazing 1068 entries? John McDonald’s astute eye goes for Vincent Namatjira’s messy double portrait of himself and Adam Goodes “ one of three finalists from the prolific Iwantja Art Centre at Indulkana, just down the dusty road from Titjikala. I reckon Namatjira has done much better versions of himself “ in Hazelhurst’s ‘Soldiers‘ show and in winning the Ramsey Prize in Adelaide. And if self-portraits are the go, there’s Meyne Wyatt’s effort and former Sulman-winner, Kaylene Whiskey offering a wacky pituri-assisted meeting with a slimmed-down Dolly Parton, all her usual super-heroines and, of course, the necessary plants. Her fellow-Indulkanan, Tiger Yaltangki also has a self-portrait, though I don’t think he was looking in a mirror at the time!

Meanwhile, Charlene Carrington is on-trend following her sister Bessy Daylight’s portrait of their mother in the Telstras this year, now painting their Dad, Churchill Cann in the Warrmun community’s familiar ochres. And Blak Douglas seems to have aged Dujuan Hoosen, the child star of the doco, ‘In My Blood it Runs’ in his looming portrait of a giant, disembodied head.

Non-Indigenous competition includes Richard Lewers’s laid-back vision of Liz Laverty, the great Aboriginal art collector, James Powditch’s worried view of Anthony Albanese, Marcus Wills’s Titanic portrait of Jack Riley (NOT the Man from Snowy River), laden with classical references, Nicholas Harding’s reflective David Marr, and the large, heroically realistic portrait by Angus McDonald of freed refugee, Behrouz Boochani, whose piercing gaze may well penetrate right into the trustees’ hearts when they make their final selection next Friday.