The Archibald Prize is arguably Australia's most famous art competition. Certainly it is the most important portraiture prize in the country and probably the most controversial. Robert Henderson, Wiradjuri (who is currently exhibiting at Boggo Road Goal) is a New South Wales born, Queensland based Australian Aboriginal Painter. Last weekend he unveiled his latest entry for the Archibald Prize.
The Archibald, or the Archie, attracts huge numbers of entrants from all around Australia. Anyone can enter, as long as they have a painting of a notable Australian, their permission to paint their portrait, have done at least one sitting with their subject and of course the $50 entry fee. The $100,000 prize is rarely awarded without any controversy. If you look at past finalists you will that a very diverse selection of artists are under serious consideration for the prize.
Robert Henderson only started painting a few years ago but is already an established artist. For him it is an expression of the spiritual connection with his and other First Nations Peoples. While he concentrates mostly on landscapes, they are not without political commentary and controversy. For him painting landscapes are a very emotional process and he believes that he has a responsibility to represent culture and social issues in his work.
This year will see his third entry into the Archibald Prize. For Robert, painting portraits has a deep fascination, but he has long had a fear of painting them. At the unveiling I asked him why he continues to paint portraits given that it is such a painful process for him. It comes down to representing important First Nations People to the world in a responsible manner and with the Archibald prize, not being afraid to participate in such an important event.
During the unveiling of his latest work, a portrait of Celeste Liddle (self described as an Aboriginal Feminist), he described the detailed process that he goes through creating a portrait. For Robert, the most important thing is the eyes. Once he has that, everything else falls into place. Well sort of. Every portrait goes through a complex process where faces and landscapes will appear in the work and then hidden under more layers that ultimately make up the final work.
The result is always something rich and textured. Every portrait contains a lot of depth and there are stories hidden within every painting. Of course in the Archibald his competition includes many of the best painters in the country, so we wish him all the best. If you want to see other paintings by Robert Henderson check out the exhibition at Boggo Road Gaol. If you are lucky you may have a chance to see his latest portrait before it is sent off to the Archibald.