It may be 101 years old, but the Archibald Prize is still managing to break new ground as it enters a new century. This year’s $100,000 prize has been awarded to Blak Douglas for Moby Dickens, his portrait of his friend artist Karla Dickens. It is the first time the lucrative prize has been awarded to a First Nations artist for a portrait of a fellow First Nations artist, and only the second time an Aboriginal artist has won, following Western Aranda artist Vincent Namatjira’s 2020 win for his self-portrait with Adam Goodes.

Speaking at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), a clearly elated Douglas said, “What is momentous and monumental is that this is incredibly historic given that I’m the first Koori to paint a Koori to win the Archibald Prize. This painting represents 20 years of taking the risk of pursuing a dream [and] surrendering normalised employment.”

Douglas, a Sydney artist with Dhungatti heritage, was in Dickens’s hometown of Lismore in northern NSW when the first deluge hit in February this year, flooding the town and destroying countless homes and livelihoods. Moby Dickens – the largest painting in the exhibition, at 3 metres by 2 metres – depicts the artist with a steely gaze, standing calf-deep in muddy floodwaters holding two leaking buckets, ominous black thunderclouds in the background.

Born Adam Douglas Hill, Douglas has been an Archibald Prize finalist seven times, all with portraits of Aboriginal subjects. “A very welcome trend that’s changing in this institution is that we have a history of adhering to a monoculture of male-dominated artists right up until the early noughties, and we’re rapidly seeing the changing face – artists of colour, female artists – so to win with an Aboriginal woman of colour is a double whammy,” Douglas says. “I’ve been dreaming of that since I first started painting.”

Moby Dickens also represents the first time an Archibald Prize-winning portrait has depicted a female Aboriginal sitter.

Dickens is one of nine artists who have been commissioned to create a site-specific work for the AGNSW’s significant building project, Sydney Modern, which opens in December. Speaking from Lismore, an emotional Dickens described the portrait as “a killer painting”, adding, “For you to include me in the mud, acknowledging everybody up here on Bundjalung country that has gone through so much ... thank you.”

AGNSW director Dr Michael Brand referred to Moby Dickens as a “powerful portrait”. “It is a spirited likeness, captured at a hugely challenging time for Karla and her local community,” he said.

While the judges of the Archibald – the AGNSW’s board of trustees, including artists Tony Albert and Caroline Rothwell – were unanimous in their choice of winner, they gave a highly commended honour to Jude Rae’s portrait of scientist, engineer and inventor Saul Griffith.

Rae was also a finalist in the 2022 Wynne Prize, a $50,000 award for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery or figurative sculpture. This year’s Wynne Prize was awarded to acclaimed artist and former Archibald winner Nicholas Harding for his painting Eora, with a special commendation to finalists Lucy Culliton and Juz Kitson.

Eora is a stunning oil on linen work that depicts the pandanus trees, cabbage palms and ferns around Narrabeen Lakes and Sailors Bay walk on Sydney Harbour. It was commissioned by private benefactors known simply as “Adam” and “George”, who requested a painting that was “immersive and inspired by the Australian landscape”.

Eora stands as a memorial to how extraordinary the landscape must have been before white people got there and invaded the place and encroached on the landscape itself,” Harding says.

The $40,000 Sulman Prize for best subject painting, genre painting or mural project was awarded for the first time to a pair of artists, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, for their work Raiko and Shuten-doji. The work, painted on the fuselage of a Vietnam War-era Australian Army surplus helicopter, depicts the mythical fight between Japanese warrior Raiko and the demon Shuten-doji. The riotously coloured and arresting mixed-media work was created with gouache, jute and tape on “helicopter shell”.

This year there was a total of 1908 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman entries and a record 2400 Young Archie entries, with 70 finalists selected. The 52 Archibald Prize sitters range from artists to media celebrities, politicians and sportspeople, including Brook Boney, Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness, Robert Hannaford, Sally McManus, Benjamin Law, Tim Tszyu and 2022 Australian of the Year, Dylan Alcott.

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2022 exhibition is on display at the AGNSW from May 14 to August 18 before touring Melbourne, then regional NSW.

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