By Mike Canavan
I don’t know about you, but I for one, am sick and tired of the tokenism and political correctness that has usurped merit and excellence in our community today. Let us be clear; there is no doubt that Art is a very subjective proposition. As Yotam Ottolenghi once said: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. However, I cannot help wonder if in this era of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ tsunami, together with the ‘revisionist cancel culturalism’ that is sweeping the globe; the Trustees responsible for judging the most prestigious portraiture award in this Nation have been swept away by tokenism and the so-called politically correct agenda.
The Archibald was the first major prize for portraiture in Australian art. It was first awarded in 1921 after the receipt of a bequest from J.F. Archibald (1856-1919), a journalist and founder of the Bulletin Magazine. He also served as a Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW.
Yet Archibald had no desire to become famous and during his lifetime shunned publicity and remained evasive and enigmatic.
When he died in 1919, leaving one tenth of his estate of £89,061 in trust for a non-acquisitive annual art prize to be awarded by the Trustees of the (then) National Art Gallery of New South Wales (now Art Gallery of New South Wales). In todays money that made the value of his bequest approximately $251,798.00 per year.
According to the terms of the will of the late JF Archibald; dated 15 March 1916, the bequest of the prize was to be awarded to: ‘the best portrait preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia during the 12 months preceding the date fixed by the Trustees for sending in the pictures’. Additionally, ‘portraits should be as far as practicable painted from life and may be of any size. No direct copies from photographs will be considered eligible’. The primary aim was to ‘foster portraiture, as well as support artists and perpetuate the memory of great Australians’.
Accepting that historically the Archibald Prize has not been without controversy — in 1943 when William Dobell won the award for his entry of Joshua Smith. Two other entrants were so incensed they took legal action in the supreme Court of NSW. The challenge was based on the grounds that the painting was not a portrait as defined by the Archibald Bequest. The case was dismissed, and the court ordered the claimants to pay costs for Dobell and the Trustees.
Portrait of Tim Burstall
In 1975 John Bloomfield’s portrait of Tim Burstall, painted from a blown-up photograph, was disqualified on the grounds that the portrait had to be painted from life. The prize was rejudged and awarded to Kevin Connor.
Then again in 1985 they were back in court. The Perpetual Trustee Company, which administered Archibald’s will, took the Australian Journalists Association Benevolent Fund to court. The AJA was named as first defendant in the case because it stood to inherit the money if the Archibald Prize failed to fulfil the criteria that the prize was still a ‘good charitable bequest’. The Court found that the Archibald Prize did fulfil this, and directed that the Perpetual Trustees Company should transfer administration of the Trust to the Art Gallery of NSW.
Moving forward to today — the rules of the bequest allow that should none of the 1068 entries this year reach a quality nor fit with the terms of the grant, the Trustees do have within their discretion the ability to not award the Archibald prize to any of the entries.
This would not be without precedent as they did the very same in 1964 and again in 1980. The trustees decided not to award the prize on the grounds that the entries were not of a sufficient standard.
This year the competition has been delayed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the end, in September 2020 for the first time an indigenous painter received $100,000 on the 99th anniversary of the award.
This year’s Archibald winner is Vincent Namatjira for his entry ‘Stand strong for who you are’. He is the great-grandson, of the magnificent Indigenous artist Albert Namatjira.
Albert Namatjira. Untitled work
In a recent interview, Vincent Namatjira said: “I first met Adam in 2018 when he visited the school in Indulkana where I live, as part of his work promoting indigenous literacy. When I saw the documentary ‘The Final Quarter’ about Adams final season of AFL, my guts were churning as I relived experiences of relentless racism on and off the field. Memories of my own experiences were stirred up and I wanted to reach out and reconnect with Adam”.
“We share some similar stories and experiences of disconnection from culture, language and country and the constant pressure of being an aboriginal man in this country. Also, we’ve both got younger daughters and I don’t want to have them go through those same experiences”.
“When I was younger and growing up in the foster system in Perth, indigenous footballers were like heroes to me. Goodes is much more than a great footballer as he has taken a strong stand against racism and said: ‘enough is enough’. I stand strong with you brother”.
Vincent has painted himself alongside Goodes in this portrait.
Given the terms of the original bequest, a strong case could be put that Namatjira’s entry should have been disqualified from eligibility for the Archibald Prize on the following grounds:
- The inclusion of two subjects is at odds with the terms of the bequest. Additionally, ‘the primary aim was to foster portraiture, as well as support artists and perpetuate the memory of great Australians’. As well ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics’. One could easily argue that neither have achieved such illustrious eminence.
- The fact that a commercial copyright instrument ‘the aboriginal flag’ in the painting is used and plays a prominent part in the painting is yet another violation of the bequest.
- The portrait must be painted from life, with the subject known to the artist. The subject must have at least one live sitting with the artist, this given the Covid -19 situation is in question. There are three background figures that clearly do not meet this requirement.
- Mr Adam Goodes is represented in an AFL football commercially sponsored jersey, which could be argued it’s in breach of the rules associated with the bequest.
- As far as I can ascertain the bequest is not a canvas for social commentary, nor a platform for political activism. Clearly in his statement about the painting, Mr Namatjira said that he had an intention to make a social and political statement: (“When I saw the documentary The Final Quarter about Adam’s final season of AFL, my guts were churning as I relived experiences of relentless racism on and off the field”. “We share some similar stories and experience of disconnection from culture language and country and the constant pressure of being an aboriginal man in this country”).
1938 Nora Heysen the first woman to win the Archibald Prize with her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman,
The make-up of the Board Of Trustees, its Chair being Mr David Gonski, together with Tony Albert and Anita Belgiorno-Nettis to name just three, are well known for certain strong personal agendas.
It is without doubt that various members of the Board of Trustees who have a political, social and racial agenda’s have hijacked this year’s award to further their own selfish ends rather than evaluating the quality of the artistic work concerned.
The acclaimed art commentator for the Australian Newspaper Christopher Allen, a noted art historian, critic and educator noted:
‘Within minutes of the announcement, the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW got the headlines they must have anticipated — the first Indigenous winner of the Archibald Prize. And in case this sounds like a rather jaded observation, they had already announced an Aboriginal winner for the Wynne Prize (for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery or figure sculpture all judged at the same time)
One could have been a coincidence, but choosing two looks like premeditation’.
‘It is also worth pondering the numbers that were cited by the trust president, David Gonski. There were 1068 entries for the Archibald this year, of which 55 were hung. As I have already observed, we know that the hanging selection is not made on the basis of quality because we have other opportunities to see the ones that got away’.
It is at the discretion of the Trustees what is hung for public display.
Overall, their actions could not be further away from the terms laid down in the original bequest from J.F. Archibald, whose ‘primary aim was to foster portraiture, as well as support artists and perpetuate the memory of great Australians’. This being said, a strong case can be put that these trustees are not fit to sit in judgement of the most important portraiture award in our nation. Their actions do not serve to unite but to alienate decent hard-working people who believe in meritocracy as the essential benchmark of our communities values — not tokenism. It would seem that they have betrayed the spirit and intention of the grant for their own selfish purposes. My view is the guilty ones should resign immediately in disgrace.