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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Symbol crash

Identity and representation

The Amazing Face, lesson 10

Today we will LOOK at the portrait of Marcia Langton by Brook Andrew and Trent Walter; THINK about identity and representation in portraiture; WATCH a video interview with Marcia Langton; READ an article by Meredith Hughes; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

Portraiture may unify diverse visual languages to say something new or to contribute to an artistic, political, historical or theoretical conversation. By bringing contrasting elements together, artists invigorate visual, cultural, material and technical ideas and strategies, while inviting us to consider the sitter from a multiplicity of perspectives. Marcia Langton by Brook Andrew draws richly upon the conceptual and visual power of manifold sources: Wiradjuri dendroglyphs, Hindu and Buddhist deities, assorted print making practices, Dadaist assemblage and Surrealist collage … the list goes on. Today we will consider the ways that Brook Andrew has crafted alternate elements to dynamic effect.

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Watch

Marcia Langton describes how the use of cultural references allows Brook Andrew to explore representation more broadly. She says, ‘I love it that he’s taken really fundamental, elemental symbols, the diamond and fire and skull and so on, and the meditation or even yoga position and looking towards the other world, yeah, the state of grace. He’s taken all of that to make a much bigger statement than a simple portrait.’

Interview with Marcia Langton, Brook Andrew and Trent Walter
Video: 12 minutes

Read

Marcia Langton by Brook Andrew is a signature work in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. The multi-armed form is central to the force of this portrait, a device that has been used to different effect by artists in assorted times and places. While reasons for its use vary, the desire to convey a consciousness in flux is a common one. In the case of Marcia Langton, the mutable experience of being human is given intricate form in what Langton herself describes as a ‘meta-statement’. Each of its elements and symbols richly and singularly meaningful, the work is configured to elicit momentum, a life in flow. At once it transmits its distinctive dynamism, while powerfully deconstructing expectations of stasis that have characterised portraits of Aboriginal peoples.

Read the Portrait article The Art of Multiplicity by Meredith Hughes.

Solo Activity

The complex layering of different elements in this portrait of Marcia Langton allows for multiple readings and deeper understanding of her as a whole person. This activity builds on the idea of using symbolism in portraiture.

You will need: a range of materials with which to draw, collage or paint

  1. Taking inspiration from the richly layered portrait of Marcia Langton, create a portrait of yourself without representing your physical features.  
  2. Draw/collage/paint five or six elements that represent you. You may wish to emulate the techniques Brook Andrew used in cutting elements out of painted paper and arranging them in relation to one another. Think about what different materials and forms might suggest. 
  3. Think about other ways that you can represent aspects of your personality, history, culture and interests. Each element of your portrait can be used to represent your interests, values, experiences or opinions in a variety of ways.

Connected activity

Now let’s see how you can use symbolism to create a convincing portrait of someone else.

You will need: a range of materials with which to draw, collage or paint

  1. Similar to the activity above, create a portrait of another person using a range of symbols, materials and forms.
  2. Take a photo of your portrait and send it to a friend or family member. See if they can identify who you have represented in your portrait.

Quiz

What does Marcia Langton say she appreciates about this portrait by Brook Andrew and Trent Walter (printer)?

In the Portrait Story, which cultures do Marcia Langton and Brook Andrew talk about drawing inspiration from for this portrait?

In what medium are the other two portraits of Marcia Langton in the National Portrait Gallery Collection?

Next lesson

11. From the (he)art: Personal history, culture and community

Related information

The art of multiplicity

Magazine article by Meredith Hughes, 2019

Meredith Hughes explores a key Portrait Gallery work, emerging into the infinite iterations of identity.

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The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency