Sydney Morning Herald Column

Archibald Prize 2020: A Trilogy

Published October 6, 2020
The winner: Vincent Namatjira's 'Stand strong for who you are'

The Archibald Prize 2020: A First Look


Scomo is out, but Albo is in. And so is Jacinda Adern. If the Art Gallery of NSW were not a steadfastly apolitical institution, one might imagine there is some comment intended in the selection of finalists for the 2020 Archibald Prize. In olden days a portrait of the Prime Minister would almost certainly be an automatic inclusion, but not any more.

Meyne Wyatt, ‘Meyne’. Winner of the Packing Room Prize

Ross Townsend’s photorealistic likeness of the PM in a suit and tie was turfed, while James Powditch’s unconventional image of the Leader of the Opposition, as a shadowy figure in a T-shirt, made the cut. John Ward Knox’s small portrait of the New Zealand Prime Minister is painted on silk, and appears as a double image when one walks past. The most generous interpretation is that the Trustees of the AGNSW, who select the exhibition and the winner, were looking for more innovative works.

An alternative reading might be that a PM who has shown a brazen disregard for the arts doesn’t deserve to be celebrated in such a forum. Had Townsend captured his man in a baseball cap eating a pie, he might have stood a better chance.

The only Liberal politician who made it to the gallery wall is the NSW Minister for Environment and Energy, Matt Kean, who has a reputation as a maverick within the party – not just for his turbulent private life, but for breaking with the Federal Government’s line that climate change had little to do with the bushfires. This must be the reason why Charles Mouyat has depicted the Minister holding a flaming waratah. The silvery jump suit is presumably fire-proof.

John Ward Knox, ‘Jacinda’

None of these pictures could be classed as a serious contender for an Archibald that is being held in the shadow of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests. Almost every year the Prize is the gallery’s most popular event and biggest money-spinner, but the pandemic presents a new set of challenges. Will this year’s show achieve the attendances of previous years? If the masses do roll up, how many viewers can be allowed in at any one time? We may be looking at a financial lifeline and a potential health hazard.

The global debates about race and ethnicity are reflected in the prominence given to indigenous artists in this year’s hang. The Archibald has been restored to the central gallery, and some of the best spots allotted to artists such as Blak Douglas (AKA. Adam Hill), Vincent Namatjira, Tiger Yaltangki and Kaylene Whiskey. Elsewhere in the show, Craig Ruddy has painted indigenous historian, Bruce Pascoe; Julie Fragar has captured artist, Richard Bell, and Charlene Carrington has portrayed her dad, Churchill Cann, in classic Kimberley ochres.

Charles Mouyat, ‘Matt Kean, NSW Minister for Environment and Energy’

I’m hesitant to take a punt, partly because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s chances by making a public prediction, but Vincent Namatjira must be favoured, partly because he should have won two years ago. His Stand strong for who you are, is a double portrait, featuring the artist himself alongside footballer, Adam Goodes. It may sound like a manifesto but the work has an off-beat charm that is very seductive in this company.

If the Trustees are not hell-bent on an indigenous winner they might still score some political kudos by awarding the Prize to Angus McDonald, for an excellent, albeit very straight, portrait of refugee writer, Behrouz Boochani. If they were feeling light-hearted, it’s hard to go past Richard Lewers’s portrait of arts patron, Liz Laverty or Wendy Sharpe’s Magda Szubanski, with the netball unform but without her friend Kim.

One thing that hasn’t changed this year is the familiar routine of the Packing Room Prize, which is traditionally awarded to a good sort or good bloke. This year it was the blokes’ turn. The winner, announced yesterday, was Meyne Wyatt, for a self-portrait with one eyebrow raised in the manner of a Bond villain. As an indigenous artist (and actor), Wyatt has the jump on history, as he is now the first indigenous Australian to win any of the prizes associated with the Archibald. He would, however, be very long odds to take out the big one – not because he’s indigenous, but because he’s won the Packing Room Prize.



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, 18 September, 2020


The Archibald Prize 2020: And the winner is….


Wendy Sharpe, ‘Magda Szubanski – comedy and tragedy’


Well, that wasn’t hard to pick. In a year when Black Lives Matter protests are raging around the world, it was a safe bet the Archibald Prize would go to an indigenous artist. Two years ago, Vincent Namatjira was considered unlucky when his entry was passed over in favour of a stiff, mannered self-portrait by Yvette Coppersmith. This time around, the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW took their chance to make amends.

As Australia’s highest profile visual arts event there’s always a good deal of politics in the choice of an Archibald winner. If this meant a magnificent work of had been overlooked in favour of a politically correct one, it would be only the latest controversy in a competition that thrives on scandal. Instead, Vincent Namatjira’s Stand strong for who you are, is a highly appropriate winner. This double portrait of the artist clasping hands with footballer, Adam Goodes, may be too loosely painted for those who insist on near-photographic precision, but it’s a sincere and likeable image.

Stand strong’ is not an angry picture but a call for everyone to feel proud and confident in their own skin. At a time when the world is becoming increasingly divided, Namatjira posts a simple, positive message about race and identity. If you’re thinking this shouldn’t be a consideration when it comes to picking the best painting, that would be an unrealistic expectation.

The majority of AGNSW Trustees are not art experts and are certainly not looking for the neatest correctest portrait. With 1,068 entries this year, the task of choosing a winner may have seemed daunting, but current events provide an unspoken set of guidelines. Even before the finalists were chosen it was clear that it would take an exceptional painting to overturn the probability of an indigenous winner.

Tsering Hannaford,
‘Self-portrait after ‘Allegory of Painting”

That painting didn’t turn up, although in another year, Wendy Sharpe might have ticked all the right boxes with her portrait of Magda Szubanski, which is bound to be a popular favourite, along with all those photorealist works, that  hold an undying appeal for a general public still devoted to the spectacle of skill.

The fact that Tsering Hannaford’s Self-portrait after ‘Allegory of Painting’ picked up a ‘highly commended’ from the judges indicates some solidarity with popular taste, perhaps by way of compensation for the rough & ready nature of the winner. Based on a famous self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, the iconic female artist of the Baroque period, it’s a gentle nudge on behalf of women artists and dedicated realists – two groups marginalised by the modernist era.

As for the rest, it’s a fairly even selection, with few real stinkers and no genuine stand-outs. The weirdest picture by far is Marc Etherington’s bizarre portrait of art dealer, Michael Reid, who looks like Nosferatu asleep in his coffin, surounded by tiny clones. It’s a work that doesn’t get any less strange (or any better) the longer one looks. On the whole it’s a pretty dull show, but I could say that about  every Archibald! The enduring popularity of this phenomenon has nothing to do with quality – or indeed, with art – it’s one of those comfortable local rituals that has embedded itself within our popular culture.

Marc Etherington, ‘Sleeping beauty (portrait of Michael Reid OAM)’

It remains to be seen if COVID-19 can put a dent in the exhibition’s usual booming attendance figures. The need for social distancing means there will be timed ticketing and other measures which are distinct turn-offs for viewers. Until 10 January the AGNSW will be the site of a momentous struggle between the pandemic and that peculiar, annually-recurring virus known as Archibald Prize fever.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, 26 September, 2020








The Archibald Prize 2020: The Review 


Angus McDonald, ‘Behrouz Boochani’

Benjamin Robert Haydon, a woeful painter but one of the most engaging diarists in English letters, had thoughts about portraiture. It is, he said: “one of the staple manufactures of the empire. Wherever the British settle, wherever they colonise, they carry and will ever carry trial by jury, horse-racing, and portrait-painting.”

In Australia today all three of those British staples are ingrained within our culture. I can’t comment on trial by jury, but the quasi-sacred status of the Melbourne Cup and the Archibald Prize shows how tenaciously we cling to a colonial inheritance not even recognised as such. Horse-racing and portrait-painting have been granted unofficial Australian nationality, just like that great working-class hero, Captain Cook.

And so when Vincent Namatjira, the first indigenous winner of the Archibald Prize, quips: “It only took 99 years,” he is being slightly disingenous. If Namatjira had pointed out that Aboriginal people weren’t even included in the census until 1967, he might have shed more light on the persistence of a colonial mentality.

When the inaugural Archibald Prize was awarded in 1921 it was unthinkable that any of the entrants could be Aboriginal. The first indigenous painter to achieve fame in the western art world was Vincent’s grandfather, Albert Namatjira, in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that traditional forms of desert art made their way onto board and canvas, giving birth to a new movement. As for portraiture, it was virtually unheard-of in indigenous art. Perhaps Julie Dowling was the real trailblazer in the 1990s. She appeared in the Archibald for the first time in 2001, and has returned in 2002 and 2013.

James Powditch, ‘Once upon a time in Marrickville – Anthony Albanese’

Portraiture was simply not part of the indigenous mind-set. Unlike Victorian Britain there was no “great man” theory of history, no sense of empire or racial destiny. The Archibald is a relic of that way of thinking: a celebration of an individual “distinguished in art, letters, science or politics”. To the founders of the Prize the subject was implicitly more important than the artist. Today we value the subject so little that the show is usually filled with self-portraits and images of utterly obscure people.

We’ve grown especially cynical about “great men”. It would be laughable to apply this adjective to most contemporary Australian politicians – which may be the reason that only portraits of Labor leader, Anthony Albanese and NSW Energy Minister, Matt Kean made the cut this year. It would be a big call to ascribe greatness to this duo, but both have acted honourably on particular issues.

By contrast Ross Townsend’s portrait of Scott Morrison, which received its share of publicity but didn’t make the show (or the Salon des Refusés) is a measure of the Prime Minister’s divisiveness. Even the nature of the depictions are indicative. James Powditch painted Albo in a T-shirt, in a picture that looks like an album cover. Charles Mouyat depicts Matt Kean as a Cathy Freeman impersonator in a silvery jump suit, holding a burning waratah as a torch.

Townsend’s rejected portrait took a more conservative approach, showing Morrison in a suit and tie. The artist’s comment was a classic: “I think he was surprised how real it looked.” It seems that even Scott Morrison was surprised to find hmself looking real for once.

Black Douglas (AKA. Adam Hill) ‘Writing in the sand’

In the authenticity stakes, Adam Goodes has it all over the Prime Minister. The subject of two feature-length documentaries last year, the former football star has become a icon for racial justice. Namatjira couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate subject in a year when the western world is beseiged by protests calling for an end to institutionalised racism.

This is one or the reasons Namatjira’s Stand strong for who you are looked like an obvious winner. There’s not much technical finesse, but an abundance of heart and soul. The work has an insouciance and good humour that makes most of its rivals seem brutally uptight, and this is one of secrets of Namatjira’s success over the past couple of years. In this show maybe only Wendy Sharpe has that same likeability factor, in her portrait of Magda Szubanski.

Typically, the trustees of the AGNSW went overboard in their desire to show how much they loved indigenous artists. Kaylene Whiskey’s Dolly visits Indulkana, a cartoonish image of the artist meeting Dolly Parton, is a bit too cute for its own good. Tiger Yaltangki’s Self-portrait is an amazing, surreal image, but it stretches the definition of portraiture. Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill) has produced a huge, very slick head of Dujuan Hoosen, but it might be more at home on a billboard rather than a gallery wall.

Monica Rohan, ‘Lucy’

If the judges had been looking for technical expertise they had plenty of options, including works by Louise Hearman, Peter Wegner, Jun Chen and Jonathan Dalton. The best conceived of the lot was probably Angus McDonald’s head-and-shoulders of refugee writer, Behrouz Boochani, but this year, ‘indigenous’ trumped ‘asylum seekers’. They were fond enough of Tsering Hannaford’s Self-portrait after ‘Allegory of Painting’ to award it a ‘Highly Commended’, but it’s easy to strike sympathetic postures once the winner is decided.

There are a few curious talking points. Monica Rohan’s portrait of Lucy Culliton is rather more successful than Lucy Culliton’s portrait of farmer, Charlie Maslin. I hope, for his sake, that Mario Ramesh Nithiyendran never abandons ceramic sculpture for painting. Overall it’s not the worst of years, although the selection is far from dazzling.

In a year with a record 1,068 entries it’s ironic that the winner was so easy to pick. It suggests that the pandemic has allowed a lot of artists to dream of Archibald glory while they sit around at home, but the odds of succeeding are probably less than winning at the poker machines. It’s always the house that pockets the profits, in this instance, in the form of entry fees. It’s a lucrative start for the gallery, but the next big challenge will be attracting and managing an audience in the socially-distanced days ahead. The AGNSW can only hope that our old colonial fixation with portrait-painting remains as strong as ever.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October, 2020 



The Archibald Prize 2020

Art Gallery of NSW, 26 September, 2020 – 10 January, 2021