At last, you may say, he’s been to the Archibald Prize – which runs until 8th September. And is as popular as ever, judging by the milling throngs this morning listening to guided tours in English, Russian and Korean. And that despite John McDonald’s best efforts to mock it in last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald. “When one looks at the rejects from the Archibald Prize (hanging in the Salon des Refuses at the SH Ervin Gallery), few portraits suggest a serious miscarriage of justice. I’ve long got over the fantasy that a poor year at the Archibald means the Salon will be full of wonders. It’s usually just more of the same. The selections for AGNSW and the SH Ervin shows are only as good as the quality of the entries, and this is a lacklustre year”.

Of course, the Aboriginal Art Directory is much more interested in the Wynne Prize for landscape painting (and sculpture) where First Nations artists have increasingly shone thanks to their deep understanding of their Country and their mnemonic traditions of reflecting it in art. Indeed, this year the Art Gallery of NSW rather foolishly boasted that more than half of Wynne selections were Aboriginal – putting many a non-Indigenous nose out of joint given a tradition that has done an amazing job of capturing Australia’s unique landscapes in multifarious ways….Fred Williams, Sid Nolan, John Glover, etc.

It would surely have been much better simply to let the art do the talking.

And the 75 year old Djakaŋu Yunupiŋu, one of the ever-talented daughters of the Yolngu leader. Muŋgurrawuy Yunupiŋu, quite justifiably won the Wynne Prize 2024 for her outsize bark painting Nyalala gurmilili. It was about the only selection with which I could wholeheartedly agree.

A first-time Wynne Prize finalist, Yunupiŋu paints lore connected to the beach at Garriri/Rocky Bay, referring to the tale of the Djulpan, a group of Yirritja spirit women who are also a constellation – the Pleiades. These are the seven sisters, who come together to gather food as the sun rises over the Gulf of Carpentaria. They then retreat over the northern horizon to their homes – their Songline reportedly going all the way to Japan. If fires are lit before these celestial movements take place, the Djulpan become sad and cry, as is evident in this painting.

After receiving the news that she had won the Wynne Prize 2024, Yunupiŋu said: “I am one of seven sisters. There are only three of us left now (Djakaŋu spent much time caring for her late sister Nyapanyapa). This painting shows the songs of the seven sisters in the stars crying. Now I am crying. But this time with happiness”.

Of the other 17 Wynne selections from Indigenous hands, stand-outs included another fine bark from Barayuwa Munungurr revealing mythic whale-bones in the waters of Blue Mud Bay; Timo Hogan has added some green to the sparkling salt of his familiar Lake Baker; John West has given the old Tingari mosaic style of painting from Papunya Tula a novel twist – such a relief from all that op-art dotting; George Cooley from Coober Pedy offers his Country’s blood red, apparently flowing rocks; while Zaachariha Fielding (last year’s winner) also hits us with a scarlet explosion; his father Robert takes us meditatively from desert tali to mythic rocks; and Victoria’s Jenna Lee takes a “flawed” antique Aboriginal dictionary and repurposes its pages into a xanthorrhoea tree – a triplet for her recent pair of Waterhouse Prize-winning creations in the SA Museum.

Robert Fielding also appears in the lacklustre Archibald Prize show attempting the unlikely achievement of painting fellow Mimili artist Tuppy Goodwin in desert dotting in order to giver her “inner sacredness”. But this failed to delight the AGNSW Trustees, who somehow favoured a watery version of Tim Winton from Laura Jones. And it wasn’t even a miniature canvas – there were four delightful miniatures – or a work by Adrian Jangala Robertson, who turns up in all three prizes.

I personally thought that Natasha Walsh should have won for her witty pastiche of ‘Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters’, c1594 by an unknown French artist, showing the mistress of Henry IV in the bath having her nipple playfully twisted by her sister.

The third prize is the quite incomprehensible Sulman. awarded for the best subject painting, genre painting or mural project. Artist Tom Polo has added to my incomprehension by his selection of both the finalists and the winner.

Which was Tjala Arts Naomi Kantjuriny with a simple black and white work covered in tiny Mamu – who are mainly harmful spirits, monsters or bringers of an illness. But they can also be good spirits, helping and looking after people and children. They all have big hands.

Upon hearing the news of her win, Kantjuriny said: “I am so happy to win the Sulman Prize. I am an artist and a ngangkari. I started working at my art centre 30 years ago alongside senior women: Nyurpaya Kaika Burton, Langaliki Derose, Tjampawa Kawiny, Wawiriya Burton, Ruby Williamson, Katanari Tjilya and Paniny Mick. We grew it for the young ones – Yaritji Young, Tjungkara Ken, Sylvia Ken and the generations to come – and now they have found their way and love painting too. I love what my art centre is and the support it provides for my community, and I hope culture will be celebrated at Tjala Arts forever. But today is a happy day”.

Iluwanti Ken and Yaritji Young also appeared in the Sulman with Iluwanti’s signature pen and ink eagles now being painted and sharing their canvas with a Honey Ant Dreaming. But I think my money would have gone on Ivan Namirrkki’s fearsome curly Ngalyod, bursting out of the bounds of his bark.

Finally, back to the Salon des Refuses where little seemed to have been refused by the AGNSW that deserved reconsideration. However, I couldn’t agree more with John McDonald that Mary Tonkin’s ineffably sad fallen giant – we see only a tree’s mighty root system – surely deserved Wynne consideration.