Golly! Are they taking the annual Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes seriously at the Art Gallery of NSW? When long-time Director, the late and much-lamented Edmund Capon introduced the annual beanfest in years past, you knew there was a delicious irony in his enthusiasm; it was insignificant art, nothing worth mentioning in his excellent collection of essays, ‘I Blame Duchamp‘, but the shameless publicity undoubtedly brought the punters in!

Now it would seem the whole building is Archie consumed. For, as well as the three annual prizes (plus the Young Archie, plus the Roberts Family ATSI Prize, plus the Packers’ Prize, plus the ANZ People’s Choice), now housed where the Kaldor Collection of contemporary art used to be, they’re going bananas over the 100th anniversary of the Archie in a separate exhibition where the Archie used to be.

But of course AAD headed straight for the Wynne Prize where First Nations comprehensive embrace of Country is increasingly driving out non-Indigenous attempts to achieve “landscape painting of Australian scenery” as the rules require. This year 51% of finalists are Aboriginal, and by size, they’re probably worth about 75%! None, surely, can compete with the 3 metre square Nyunmiti Burton, dwarfing works by Leah Brady and Warlimpirrgna Tjapaltjarri that hang in its glowing red shadows. Mind you, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu does her biggest and best in much more muted shades – her grey night sky flashing with seven sizeable stars representing ‘Djulpan‘ the seven sisters songline, also Nyapanyapa’s seven human sisters. She modestly called her exhibition ‘The Little Things’ when showing at Ros Oxley’s Gallery last February. Could it be a winner???

Indeed it is!

But for sheer colour, it’s hard to beat Barbara Moore who’s thrown in a most un-Desert turquoise corner to her boldly gestural interpretation of ‘Ngayuku Ngurra’ – her Country. For sheer control of her medium, Tjungkara Ken just pushes out sister Sylvia in their rival versions of the ‘Seven Sisters Songline’ – and Tjungkara justifiably took out the Roberts Family Prize for an Indigenous artist. But both are clearly related, unlike the very different collaborative version of the same story by Naomi Kantjuriny, Mona Mitakiki and Tjimpayi Presley – first-timers, as far as I know.

A sad last-timer is Kunmanara (Wawiriya) Burton – no longer painting. And, I have to say sad for me were the efforts of both Nonggirrnga Marawili and Yaritji Young – both of whom seem to have lost the edge of their one-time mastery. A delicate Peter Mungkari, an uncompromising Katjarra Butler and the almost shocking blues of Dhambit Mununggurr’s ‘Tree Spirit‘ bark show that they are still on song.

Who could compete for the Wynne Prize against this Indigenous flood – dismissively disregarded by ‘The Australian’s so-called art critic as “filling up the Wynne with bland dot paintings”? Could it be the striking ‘Dove Lake Dawn‘ by Graham Wilson – not just painted but carved into an expansive wooden board to add dimensions to his landscape.

Wandering through the mysterious Sulman Prize (for a ‘genre’ or ‘subject’ paintings), it was hard not to recall the wacky Kaylene Whiskey’s win in 2018 when encountering Sally Mulda’s 2021 finalist telling ‘Town Camp Stories’ in naïve imagery and text. And there she is herself, sitting in the Town Camp Toyota, off to paint. “Why not enter the Archibald”, I thought? Which, of course, she’s done – only this time, she’s ‘Playing Cards for Games‘!

I’d say the AGNSW Trustees were hunting round for Aboriginal Archies after last year’s Vincent Namatjira win – perhaps wanting to show that portraiture is as much a First Nations talent as landscape. But it hasn’t come off this year. Djerrkgnu Yunupingu’s portrayal of ‘Me and My Sisters‘ is jolly but not much else. And Thea Anamara Perkins’s image of her aunt Rachel – the noted film director – sees this very urbane woman oddly in full tribal gear!

The Gallery claims a fourth Indigenous Archie, but I couldn’t spot it – though I’d certainly give an honorary entry to Euan Macleod’s fiery portrait of Dhungatti man Blak Douglas, nobility itself, his face glowing in a campfire’s light of against a starry night sky.

Actually, Douglas’s is one of seven faces (and characters) that I know well enough to compare their portraits with my version of their reality. And the Macleod is right up there with Dapeng Liu’s orientalist double-portrait of Joanna Capon, and well ahead of Joan Ross’ wishful self-portrait, Richard Lewer’s blur of Liz Laverty or Hong Fu’s over-large image of the tiny (but beautifully-formed) Mabel Lee. Strangely, two cartoons – now there’s a word that’ll come up next week when the centenary of Archie opens – of Shane Simpson (by Thom Roberts) and Stuart Purves (by Michael Snape) – achieve more than a photo could hope to as an interpretation of their subject.

As ever, I have no idea who’ll win – but, by tradition, it won’t be the Packers’ Prize winner – Kathrin Longhurst’s realistic Kate Cerberano. In fact, it was the painting predicted by the Sydney Morning Herald’s John McDonald – Peter Wegner’s portrait of centenarian artist Guy Warren, a perfect match for Archie’s centenary.