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Congratulations to Mitch Cairns who has taken out the 2017 Archibald Prize for portraiture with his painting of partner, and fellow artist, Agatha Gothe-Snape. Cairns was selected by the AGNSW trustees from a field of 43 finalists.

Since 1921, according to the guidelines, the prize has been awarded annually to a painted portrait “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia.”

This year 10 artists judged themselves sufficiently important to qualify. Tony Albert, Jessica Ashton, Kate Beynon, David Griggs, Tsering Hannaford, Tjungkara Ken, Robert Malherbe, Vincent Namatjira, Natasha Walsh, and Madeline Winch all entered the prize with self-portraits.

While it takes a robust sort of confidence to enter a self-portrait in the prize, it is pretty standard behaviour these days. The wild card in this bunch is Tjungkara Ken’s canvas, Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters dreaming), a self-portrait. This seemingly abstract composition in warm reds, orchres and purples doesn’t conform to any conventional Western notions of portraiture. “My painting is a self-portrait through Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa, the Seven Sisters dreaming,” explains the artist in her statement, “a self-portrait of my country. For Anangu, they are one and the same.”

The Archibald Prize exhibition is always a mixed bag of treats and its ongoing popularity confounds some. But, although he wasn’t referring specifically to the Archibald, the American art historian James Elkins explained the perennial appeal of the Prize in his 1999 book, Pictures of the Body. According to Elkins, we, as a species, like nothing better than to look at images of ourselves. “Every picture,” he says, “is a picture of the body.”

While the Archibald tends to monopolise the limelight, winners of the Wynne and Sulman Prizes were also announced today.

The Wynne is judged by the AGNSW trustees. Betty Kuntiwa Pumani was awarded the prize for landscape painting of Australian scenery or figurative sculpture for her painting of her country, Antara.

Joan Ross won the Sulman Prize for the best subject painting, genre painting or mural project by an Australian artist with her work on paper, Oh history, you lied to me. The judge of the 2017 Sulman Prize was Archibald Prize finalist Tony Albert.

Voting for the Archibald Prize People’s Choice award closes 2 October.

Works by all the finalists are on show until 22 October.

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2017
Art Gallery of New South Wales
29 July – 22 October

Tracey Clement