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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.

You are who?

by Joanna Gilmour, 5 July 2022

Seven sisters song Kaylene Whiskey
Seven sisters song Kaylene Whiskey. National Gallery of Victoria. Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2021

Unburdened of expectations around chronology and likeness, the works in WHO ARE YOU: Australian Portraiture – the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Portrait Gallery’s joint exhibition – map the indivisibility of portraiture from ‘art’ and experimentation to highlight the genre’s potency as a method of conveying identity, self and human experience. WHO ARE YOU underlines the elements of subversion, idiosyncrasy, innovation and dissent that are threaded throughout Australian portraiture – and in the collections of institutions founded when notions about the purpose of art were narrower, and portraiture was inclined to be aligned with historical evidence.

The National Gallery of Victoria came into being in May 1861 in the form of a ‘Sculpture Room’ located in a wing of the Melbourne Public Library. The new Gallery’s inaugural exhibition featured imported plaster copies of internationally significant classical sculptures, along with ‘a collection of busts, numbering more than sixty, of the most eminent personages of ancient and modern times’. Charles Summers, who five years earlier had been the supervising sculptor for the interiors of Melbourne’s Parliament House, restored the casts and then directed their installation, which it
was hoped would ‘mould the public taste’ and ‘awaken sensations of admiration’ in the populace. Tellingly, among the institution’s earliest acquisitions was Summers’ 1860 marble bust of judge Sir Redmond Barry who, as a foremost proponent of the belief in art as a record of progress and history, was integral to the founding of both the Library and the Gallery as well as the University of Melbourne. Emphasising this alignment of art – and especially portraiture – with instruction, veneration and improvement, Summers rendered Barry as if he were an emperor, a philosopher or centurion, his gaze one of implacability and condescension.
In 1866, as part of his contribution to the development of the Gallery’s collection, Barry instigated the formation of the group now referred to as the ‘Oval Portraits’ – a series of hand-coloured photographs of existing portraits of colonial Australian governors. ‘They deserve no remark as works of art,’ stated the Argus when the series was exhibited in January 1869, but ‘these portraits … afford the multitude at a glance a good deal of colonial history in a clear and attractive form.’

In a way, the National Portrait Gallery, too, started life as part of a library and, like the present-day NGV, shares DNA with a Victorian-era institution – the National Portrait Gallery, London, established in 1856 in the belief that images of eminent personages provided an effective way of educating people about the nation’s history and achievements. One of NPG London’s founding principles was that its collection should prioritise history over art, and that the celebrity of the portrait’s subject outweighed the merits (or otherwise) of the portrait itself. Early moves towards a portrait gallery in Australia were likewise focused on sitters. In the 1890s, Tom Roberts started work on a series of portraits later exhibited under the title ‘Familiar faces and figures’ – a prototype portrait gallery comprised of paintings of 23 musicians, actors and others, each informally posed and minimally rendered on unprimed timber panels as if to suggest something of Australia’s fresh and vigorous national character. In 1910, several years after completing his epic ‘Big Picture’ of the opening of the first Australian parliament, Roberts wrote to encourage the government to keep pursuing the idea of a ‘painted record’ of the nation’s ‘prominent statesmen’. The suggestion led to the establishment of the Historic Memorials Committee, formed to provide ‘consultation and advice in reference to the expenditure of votes for the Historic Memorials of Representative Men’, in late 1911 – and which still oversees the commissioning of official portraits of prime ministers, governors-general and chief justices of the High Court. From the get-go, it would seem, a national portrait gallery was always going to be bedevilled by ideas that categorise portraits as ‘history’ or distinguish ‘portraiture’ from ‘art’. One of them is that portraiture is closely connected to power, pride and publicity, making a national portrait collection routinely subject to perceptions of homogeneity and conservatism, which in turn raises questions about relevance, about who is represented in Australian portraiture and who isn’t and why, and making it difficult to counter the idea that the main role of portraits is to document prominent members of society using a specific set of conventions or easily readable codes.

All of this is in stark contrast to the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery in 1998. The NPG owes its existence not to a government or head of state, but to the commitment of its founding patrons, L. Gordon Darling ac cmg and Marilyn Darling ac, who instigated the development of the 1992 touring exhibition Uncommon Australians to ‘bring Australian history to life [and] show some of the strongest and best-known art the country has created’. Featuring 116 portraits in various mediums, the exhibition ultimately resulted, following four years as part of the National Library of Australia, in the establishment of the NPG as an independent institution. Its foundational acquisitions asserted a vision very different to the ‘Memorials of Representative Men’ forecast in 1911, and made a clear statement that the National Portrait Gallery would be a place for testing the possibilities and fluidity of portraiture instead. Jenny Sages’ painting Emily Kame Kngwarreye with Lily (1993), the NPG’s inaugural purchase, shows the esteemed Anmatyerre artist sitting cross-legged on the bare earth and squinting in the sunlight. No formality, no posing, no pretensions. The first photographs acquired for the NPG’s collection were Tracey Moffatt’s The movie star (1985), a portrait of Yolngu man, actor and traditional dancer, David Gulpilil am; and Some lads I (Russell Page), taken in 1986 when Page, a man of the Nunukl (Noonuccal) and Yugambeh peoples, was emerging as a leading contemporary dancer and choreographer. Both works had featured in the exhibition NADOC ’86, which Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Michael Riley considered momentous for being the first occasion where Aboriginal artists ‘were dictating what they wanted to show, and how they wanted to show images of their own people’. And one of the first works commissioned by the NPG – Howard Arkley’s forebodingly fluoro Nick Cave (1999) – is not the result of a sitting wherein the artist scrutinised his subject, but a distillation of the Cave photos, posters and clippings that Arkley collected – just as he used real-estate ephemera as inspiration for his day-glo images of suburban houses and interiors. Each of these exemplifies the unexpected, eccentric or incisive capacity of portraits, and demonstrates how it is that the most effective portraits are often those that challenge traditional perceptions about the genre.

With this in mind, NPG curators embraced the prospect of working with NGV colleagues on WHO ARE YOU, an exhibition that combines works across media, styles and time, and in so doing amplifies the synergies between both collections. Just as the NGV’s official separation from what is now the State Library of Victoria in the 1940s was accompanied by the deaccessioning of its inaugural portrait acquisitions (the Oval Portraits and Summers’ bust of Barry included), the NPG from its outset was upfront about its intention to be a museum of art as much as of people and history. Critically, it made the commissioning of works by leading Australian artists – whether they were ‘portraitists’ or not – a key aspect of
its collection development policy.

As inaugural Director Andrew Sayers explained of the philosophy behind the NPG’s commissioning program: ‘The artist does not necessarily have to know the subject, or have met the subject. Yet there must be some basis – it may be shared background, shared world view or interests, or some stylistic trigger – on which to base the view that the result will be more interesting and more profound than the result of a casual encounter.’

Accordingly, one of the first things Sayers did on taking up the role in 1998 was to write to Bill Henson to see if he’d consider creating a portrait for the collection. ‘I want the Portrait Gallery to be a contemporary gallery – one with a contemporary relevance rather than a gallery of dull paintings, which I suspect many people think of when they hear the name,’ Sayers wrote. He greatly admired the artist’s Paris Opera Project – a series of photographs in which Henson explored the feeling of hearing and experiencing live opera – and suggested conductor Simone Young am as Henson’s subject. Having accepted the commission, Henson started work on it in 2002, when Young was working in Melbourne. After attending a couple of rehearsals, he realised he’d get an unsatisfactory result from photographing her at work. ‘I didn’t want to make pictures which were just a document of something else. I wanted to make pictures which were a thing in their own right,’ he says. As a result, Henson’s triptych of Young came about from an epic session in his studio, wherein he took numerous photographs of her conducting to a recording of Der Rosenkavalier. After weeks of examining the images he’d taken, Henson was unable to choose a single portrait and narrowed it down to three instead. ‘You experience a photograph with your whole body, not just with your eyes or intellect,’ Henson says. The NPG has commissioned more than 80 portraits since 1999, including David Rosetzky’s digital portrait of Cate Blanchett (2008), Ah Xian’s glazed ceramic bust Dr John Yu (2004) and Brook Andrew’s Marcia Langton (2009), a 2.5m square assemblage of fifteen individual screen-printed components. An anthropologist, geographer and academic, Professor Langton is a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations of Queensland, and her many publications examine the colonialism and racism underlying social, political and cultural structures in Australia. She has described her friend Brook Andrew as ‘one of the definitive Aboriginal provocateurs in the Australian art world’. A Wiradjuri man, Andrew’s practice similarly examines and questions issues of colonialism, race and power. His portrait of Langton, the sitter explains, seeks ‘to depict aspects of the life of an Aboriginal person as a dynamic, flowing series of events rather than the boring old static idea of the Aborigine in Australian mythology’.

1 Dr John Yu, 2004 Ah Xian. © Ah Xian. 2 I split your gaze, 1997 (printed 2005) Brook Andrew. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds from the Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2005. © Brook Andrew/Copyright Agency, 2022.

In I split your gaze (1997) Andrew has dismantled and reassembled an archival, anthropological-style photograph of a First Nations man, moving the left half of his face to the right-hand side of the composition and vice versa to create a space that negates the viewer’s gaze, transferring the power of looking and categorising to the subject.

Andrew is one of several artists in WHO ARE YOU whose work involves the appropriation, manipulation and recasting of conventional historical narratives and visual sources to neutralise ingrained and blinkered ways of seeing, to speak truths, or defy misconceptions about the lives of First Nations peoples. Ngaku/Dunghutti man Robert Campbell Jnr grew up in Kempsey, New South Wales, and as a boy helped in his father’s boomerang-making business, cutting and shaping the timber and drawing designs incorporating native birds and fauna. His early paintings were likewise made for the tourist market, but he subsequently developed a distinct style in which seemingly naïve, inoffensive motifs conveyed uncomfortable realities about injustices against his people and Country. A scene inside Kempsey’s segregated Mayfair cinema; Aboriginal people barred from the local pool; deaths in custody; and the removal of children from their families, for instance. Campbell’s output included some self portraits as well as images of activist Charles Perkins, and of Neville Bonner, a Jagera (Yuggera) man who became Australia’s first Indigenous parliamentarian when he was elected to the Senate in 1971. Elements of Bonner’s inaugural parliamentary speech – such as the statement that his people were ‘shot, poisoned, hanged and broken in spirit until they became refugees in their own land’ – mirror the sentiments Campbell Jnr later explored in his work. ‘I paint about the things that touch me personally,’ the artist said, ‘past and present, the people, the landscape, and my own relationship with both.’

The works of William Barak similarly hid their defiance in plain sight. An artist, activist, leader and educator, Barak was a Wurundjeri man of the Woiwurrung people, one of the five Kulin Nations whose Country encompasses Narrm (Melbourne). He was among the group of people from across Victoria who were the first to join the settlement at Coranderrk, near Healesville, established by the Aboriginal Protection Board in 1863 following several years of petitioning by community leaders. Barak emerged as a leader at Coranderrk, which developed into a self-sufficient agricultural settlement, and in 1874 he became Ngurungaeta (head man) of the Wurundjeri people. As the people at Coranderrk were officially forbidden from observing traditional practices and ceremonies, Barak began recording his cultural knowledge in drawings, using introduced methods and materials including paper, cardboard and watercolour to preserve and communicate important learnings and stories. On the one hand, his drawings and the artefacts he made functioned as a commodity and were sold as souvenirs to increasing numbers of tourists. On the other, and more significantly, his drawings represent a profound assertion of pride in his heritage and identity, and the survival of a rich and complex culture in the face of concerted, institutionalised attempts to diminish it.

Maria (1986), Michael Riley’s portrait of his cousin and one of several of his works shown in NADOC ’86, is infused with intimacy and at the same time stridently defies the othering inherent in existing, colonial modes of photographic portraiture. As Riley said of Maria and other sitters of his including Tracey Moffatt: ‘I wanted to show these amazing-looking women in a light that they would not have been shown in before.’ Moffatt’s image of Gulpilil lazing across the bonnet of a car parked at Bondi Beach might seem benign, but in fact makes a wise and deadly reference to the nation’s colonial past and to the dispossession on which our purportedly egalitarian, laid-back lifestyle is based. Like Riley’s, Moffatt’s early photographic portraits were created in refutation of the racist stereotypes established and circulated by nineteenth-century studio photography, in which Aboriginal people were shown as mute, stiffly-posed specimens and curiosities.

‘I encourage my subjects to enjoy the staring camera … to intentionally pose and show off,’ Moffatt said in 1987; ‘it captures a lyricism and a barely assigned bold sensuality.’ With his series Majority Rule, Bidjara artist Michael Cook correspondingly nullifies the historical photographic practice of typecasting First Nations sitters as exoticised, objectified others, asking the viewer instead to imagine an Australia wherein non-Indigenous people are a marginalised minority. Cook’s images of sites such as the High Court, a parliamentary chamber, a cenotaph and a pedestrian subway are populated by multiples of the same suit-wearing, briefcase-wielding First Nations man, modelled by Cook’s friend and long-time collaborator, Joe Gala.

As curator Hannah Presley has written, First Nations artists have increasingly embraced a genre that, historically speaking, was typically used to classify their forebears and communities – and to deify a succession of individuals who’d effected and perpetuated their colonisation. Now, however, ‘First Nations artists are revealing a true picture of who we are and what we look like,’ Presley says, ‘challenging historical representations and sharing the spectacular diversity within our communities and everyday lives’. Yankunytjatjara artist Kaylene Whiskey, for example, has created a singular, exuberant lexicon through which she gives Tjukurrpa (Ancestral stories) a contemporary – and globally-resonant – pop culture form. Based at Indulkana in the Anangu Pitjantjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands, Whiskey likes to paint to a soundtrack of songs by performers such as Dolly Parton, Cher and Tina Turner, who – along with kick-ass characters like Cat Woman, Wonder Woman and Whoopi Goldberg’s soul-singing nun from Sister Act – regularly feature in her works. In Seven Sisters Song (2021), Whiskey reimagines these superstars and herself as the women of the Seven Sisters Tjukurrpa story, which is shared by communities across the continent and relates to the Pleiades constellation – formed as the eponymous sisters outwitted and defied the malevolent men pursuing them, leaving an incandescent trace of their escape across the night sky. A jubilant celebration of Kungka Kunpu (strong women), Seven Sisters Song effortlessly combines the languages of animation, graphic novels and consumerism with references to identity, Country and traditional life, and is rendered in bright acrylics onto a decommissioned reflective road sign that formerly directed tourists off the Stuart Highway to Iwantja Arts, where Whiskey paints. This ain’t no authentic-souvenir-selling stop-off you read about on Tripadvisor, Whiskey seems to be saying. This is a disco: deal with it.

This coexistence of joyousness, pride and scorching, sharp wit characterises the work of many other artists represented in WHO ARE YOU. In his Australia in black and white (2019), a series of sixteen ink drawings of well-known historical and contemporary figures, Western Arrernte artist Vincent Namatjira inserts portraits of his heroes – among them Adam Goodes, Eddie Mabo, Cathy Freeman and his great-grandfather Albert – into a pantheon of famous faces that includes Rupert Murdoch, Julia Gillard, Captain Cook, Ned Kelly and Angus Young. In Vincent Namatjira’s hands, fundamental questions about the exclusion of Indigenous peoples, history and culture from the nation’s canons and popular narratives are deftly, surreptitiously woven into reinterpretations of supposedly harmless iconic images.

Anne Zahalka’s The surfers (1989) is from a series of works resulting from a six-month residency at the Bondi Pavilion, in which iconic Australian beach scenes are reimagined as narratives of cultural diversity. Max Dupain’s bronzed Sunbather (1937) was recast as a pallid redhead, for example, and the idealised, chiselled forms populating Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern (1940) were replaced by natural, ethnically diverse bodies posed in front of a shamelessly ersatz painted backdrop. And the surfers in question aren’t tanned, Anglo, joint-toking types. ‘I like to question the dominant images of Australian culture … in order to expose the stereotypes and offer other ways of seeing ourselves,’ Zahalka said in 2015.

1 Monga Khan 1916, 2016; printed 2019 Peter Drew. National Gallery of Victoria. Purchased, NGV Supporters of Prints and Drawings, 2020. 2 Creature from the Black Platoon starring Gary Foley 2011, 2011 TextaQueen. © TextaQueen.

Adelaide-born street artist Peter Drew achieved the same effect with his Aussie series of street posters (2016), in which he employed mugshot-like photographs taken under the auspices of the White Australia Policy to counter the hate and xenophobia enshrined in the politics of One Nation and the then Federal government’s ‘Stop the Boats’ rhetoric. In a similar vein, TextaQueen’s portrait of activist, academic, actor and writer Gary Foley references his central role in the foundation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra on 26 January 1972. The portrait is from a series titled We don’t need another hero, in which the artist has cast their peers in lurid, 1950s-style posters for fictitious B-grade sci-fi and action films. The subjects were asked to propose their own characters, costumes, props, slogans and settings, ‘to represent themselves as survivors of their armageddon’, with Foley opting for the guise of a ripped, machine-gun-wielding warrior against centuries of racism and oppression. ‘The post-apocalyptic genre seems a relevant forum to discuss Indigenous and people of colour immigrant experiences living in settler colonial realities,’ TextaQueen says. As well as racial discrimination, the portraits in the series address issues such as asylum seekers and climate change, and reflect the artist’s own experience as a non-binary person of colour and an Australian of Indian heritage.

Look closely at the National Portrait Gallery’s collection and you’ll see a vastly more complex and nuanced picture than the ‘hall of fame’ and associated timeline that is often expected of it. Situate the collection alongside one that foregrounds visual expression across time and media – such as the National Gallery of Victoria’s – and you indelibly underline that portraiture, though often thought to be limited by convention and tradition, has always been innovative and experimental. WHO ARE YOU, consequently, shows that portraiture is just as capable of conceptual sophistication as any other area of art practice, and frequently results in works that are icons in spite of themselves.

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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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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