It is possible to interpret the return of the Archibald Prize as a sign that life in Sydney has returned to normal, even if it was delayed. Or not.

The media scrum was reduced for the announcement of the finalist, and the winners of the competition will also share their moment via live streaming. The Archibald Night reception will be streamed live to guests who are required to bring their champagne.

This year, the lockdown may have caused artists to concentrate their minds. Not only are there a record 1,068 entries, but 40% of the finalists are first-time entrants. Meyne, who won the prize for the packing room, is one of them.

This is the most refreshing Archibald exhibit I can recall.

James Powditch. Once upon a Time in Marrickville, Anthony Albanese. Acrylic on paper and wood, 190×190 cm. (c) The artist. Photo: AGNSW. Jenni Carter. Sitter: Anthony Albanese – politician, federal representative for Grayndler, and leader of the Australian Labor Party.

Some of the work has already been seen. Angus McDonald’s haunting and tortured eyes of Behrouz Boochani challenge Australia’s conscience.

The presence of his portrait here serves as a reminder to New Zealanders and Papua New Guineans that the prize is for “Australasia” rather than Australia. Jonathan Dalton also has a portrait of Angela Tiatia, a fellow artist from New Zealand.

Angus McDonald Behrouz boochani, oil and canvas, 160 x 230cm (c) by the artist. Photo: AGNSW. Mim Stirling. Sitter: Behrouz Bouchani, author, journalist and academic

Wendy Sharpe won the Archibald Award in 1996. She has captured the comedy as well as the anguish of Magda, set against the bushfires that claimed her last summer.

Wendy Sharpe and Magda Szubanski – comedy and tragedy. Oil on linen. 183 x 147 cm. (c) The artist. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling

Other media figures are also available, including Yoshio Honorjo’s Adam Liaw and Bream portrait or James Powditch’s Once Upon a Time in Marrickville – Anthony Albanese painted to look like the experienced fighter that he is.

Yoshio Honorjo, Adam with Bream, Japanese Kozo Paper, Sumi Ink, and Suihi Enogu (Japanese Pigment), 124.5 x 92.5 cm. Photo: AGNSW Mim Stirling, Adam Liaw, chef and TV personality

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is hosting the exhibition, and the award announcement will be made on a podium in the central court. This is where the winning artwork is likely to hang.

The curator, who is also the judge, does not hang the show, but she has been present during the initial selection and knows what works have excited the trustees. It is almost certain that one of the pieces hanging in this space will win. It’s a challenge to figure out which work will succeed.

Four outstanding paintings

Four outstanding paintings are displayed in the central courtyard, painted in different styles. Three of the paintings are by Aboriginal artists. Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, a non-Aboriginal artist, has a self-portrait that is richly colored and heavily textured. It is just as cheeky as its artist.

Kaylene Whiskey’s Dolly Visits Indulkana is a magical fantasy. She’s always loved Dolly Parton, and she loves pop culture.

Indulkana welcomes Archibald Prize finalist Kaylene Whiskey’s Dolly. Acrylic on linen with plastic gems, 167.5 cm x 168.5 centimeters (c) The artist. Photo: AGNSW. Mim Stirling. Sitter: Kaylene Whiley – artist

Other works in the same style are hung near hers. Emily Crockford’s Self-portrait in which Daddy is seated among the daisies, watching a field of planes. Sleeping Beauty. Marc Etherington’s biting portrayal of Michael Reid dressed as the undead. Neil Tomkins, Digby Webster’s joint portraits of the Ernest brothers. Tiger Yaltangki’s exuberant Self-portrait.

Vincent Namatjira was a finalist in several art competitions and won many other prizes. His rich, painterly style differs greatly from his great-grandfather Albert Namatjira’s and is more political. His subject this year is a dual portrait of him with Adam Goodes entitled Stand Strong for Who You Are.

Goodes appears in a variety of ways — he plays football, lifts his shirt to demonstrate that he’s black and proud, and holds the Aboriginal flag. This would have been the most outstanding entry in any other year, and the winner was a foregone conclusion.

Vincent Namatjira. Stand strong for what you are. Acrylic on linen. 152 x198 cm. (c) The artist Photo: AGNSW. Mim Stirling. Sitter: Adam Goodes, former professional Australian Rules footballer. Vincent Namatjira, artist

This isn’t like any other year. Writing in the Sand, by Blak Doug (aka Adam Hill), dominates the room and the exhibit. Dujuan Hoosen is the subject of the 2019 documentary My Blood Runs, shot in Mparntwe, Sandy Bore Homeland, and Borroloola Community.

Hoosen is a large figure, with his head dominating the picture. His eyes, however, are oddly dead. Blak Douglas painted them with tiny, concentric dots. The background appears to be a traditional Aboriginal pattern, but if you look closely, it is actually written text that contains Hoosen’s criticism of the white-dominated school system. This is an important work.

This year, Aboriginal subjects are a major group. Thea Anamara’s Perkins’ portrait depicts the Gadigal elder Charles Madden. Julie Fragar’s Portrait of veteran activist Richard Bell and Craig Ruddy’s portrait of Bruce Pascoe are also included. Ruddy, as well as Louise Hearman, who entered a picture titled Barry Jones, were both previous winners.

The Archibald is a fun way to learn about social history. This year, it’s worth seeing for the art.