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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.

See through me

by Penelope Grist and Rebecca Ray, 7 December 2022

Portrait23: Identity is an invitation to stretch, push, resist and break through the constraints of portraiture. We asked artists from diverse practices across Australia to propose concepts for portraits without assumptions, expectations or boundaries – only the abstract notion of identity as a broad underpinning. The ‘23’ in the title denotes the year of the exhibition, but, by accident rather than by design, it is also 23 artists and collectives who make up Portrait23: Identity. For us as curators, one of the strangest and most satisfying things about bringing this exhibition together has been the remarkable and specific parallels that have formed across the works by Abdul Abdullah, Alison Alder, Arts Project Australia, Atong Atem, Baby Guerrilla, Christopher Bassi, Kate Beynon, Mia Boe, Tarryn Gill, Julie Gough, Amrita Hepi, Naomi Hobson, Deborah Kelly, Fiona McMonagle, Angelica Mesiti, Dylan Mooney, Nell, Sally Smart, Vipoo Srivilasa, ‘stArts with D’ Performance Ensemble, Latai Taumoepeau, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Kaylene Whiskey. With such a broad brief, one might imagine a disparate array of works would emerge. While the portraits are indeed wonderfully various, some remarkable patterns of thought, metaphor and materials emerged to intrigue us.

Given autonomy and creative freedom, the artists have come to us with reflections on who they are and what it means to represent themselves, their community, history and contemporary society. Free from tight thematic directions, they have all engaged in a reflexive, introspective and subconsciously grounded exercise in finding meaning in an approach to portraiture that connects deeply to their practice. These works demonstrate the multiplicities of identities that coexist simultaneously and chaotically within each of us. For the visitor, the portraits invite a human response – not a pedagogic, hierarchical positioning, but comprehension grounded in instinct, feeling and connection. The most striking consistency between many of the works is the way that identity is embedded within performances of imagined selves rather than static portrait objects. Storytelling within this context becomes the active force of belonging and situating the self within overlapping identities. In these works, individual identity is a dynamic and active process embedded within longer cycles of collective storytelling, and takes concepts of portraiture along for the ride. Portraiture here offers the capacity to embrace notions of self and explore representations that exist outside of rationality grounded within private realms. This is evident across all of the works and we have selected a few examples to share here.

1 The Wedding, 2022. 2 I Have Two of Everything 1, 2022. Both Atong Atem. Courtesy of Atong Atem and Mars Gallery © Atong Atem

From the 19th century onwards, photographic portraiture became a popular medium in the service of identification, documentation and a perceived representation of objective reality. In particular, photography encompassed a tangible capacity to record cultures and reflect history and its legacies. For South Sudanese artist Atong Atem, photographic portraiture sits within the history of ethnographic photography – a western colonial tool used for social-scientific research of different cultures, rooted in imperialism and conquest. The photograph was an object of othering, of exoticism; sitters were gazed upon through a western lens. Atem subverts this history of photographic portraiture by presenting large-scale hanging textiles that form a three-dimensional self portrait. Viewed from all angles, Atem is constantly surveilling her viewers while simultaneously documenting herself. This reclamation of the gaze is a powerful interrogation into the reckoning between the history of photography and its potent potential as means for self-documentation, autonomy and storytelling.

1 2 Limber 4 2021 Both Tarryn Gill. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert © Tarryn Gill. Photos Pixel Poetry

Similarly, Tarryn Gill’s sculptural works reclaim the gaze directed at a young female performer’s body from one of male-dominant objectification and hypersexualisation. Once engaged in competitive calisthenics and dance, Gill directly draws on the trauma to her body caused by the stressful, hypermobile poses she performed, using the material language of dance costumes and the restorative practice of sewing. From afar, these monstrous, multi-limbed sculptures appear to be monumental bronze figures. On closer inspection, however, the intricate limbs are covered in stretched metallic lycra painstakingly handstitched together. Lured in to gaze upon the bodily contortions, dazzled by both its complexity and vulnerability, we soon realise that we are the ones being looked at. The bodies have no heads, just many limbs that evoke the growth and movement of trees, constituting a shapeshifting and anthropomorphic form. Through stitched eyes peering out from the crooks and crotches of the limbs, these empowered self portraits have an embodied presence. Transcending traditional modes of portraiture, Limber 4 pushes past representations of likeness and delves into the body as a marker of identity, oscillating between the human and the otherworldly.

1 2 Work in progress for Nell’s Self-nature is subtle and mysterious – Tree Woman / Woman Tree at Eveleigh Works, with Nell’s assistant Warwick Edgington 2022

Fusing metaphor and symbolism with a sense of drama, Nell’s work Self-nature is subtle and mysterious – Tree Woman / Woman Tree is a cross-legged bronze figure sitting in the centre of a darkened room. Forged metal tree branches grow from her body; small hand-blown glass ghosts hang from the branches. The physical intensity of the process needed to create this serene figure is intrinsic to the work: ‘the bronze, the forged steel and the blown ghosts … all have to be heated well above a thousand degrees in order to take shape.’ Nell emphasises the role of the extraordinary craftspeople at Canberra Glassworks, Eveleigh Works and Crawford’s Casting in the realisation of the work. This portrait takes its place in Nell’s extended exploration of the complexities of the human condition, personal growth, transformation, femininity, cycles of life and death, and perceived dichotomies of existence. Like Tarryn Gill’s work, the form of the tree is integral to the visualisation of bodily transformation and perception. As with so many of the works in this exhibition, the embedding of concepts of identity occurs through metaphors of both form and the collective performance of making.

While many of the featured artists look to the landscape and nature as catalysts for understanding the self, notions of belonging and identity, this is particularly evident in Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough’s site-specific installation. As a First Nations woman, Gough relates her identity and personhood as an extension and manifestation of the landscape. In Country Waits, Gough presents Country as a self portrait and explores the relationships between people and place through far more than the human dimension. It speaks of the longing for Country, return and reconnection to the self through place. Similarly, Meriam and Yupungathi man Christopher Bassi draws upon memory of place and the intangible experiences of Country and belonging through representational self portraiture. Born in Jagera and Turrbal Country/Brisbane and growing up away from the Torres Strait Islands, Bassi seeks ways to represent himself as a saltwater man. In his self portrait he holds a large baler shell to his ear, alluding to the act of listening to the ocean. His work, much like Gough’s, is linked to being away from Country but connecting to place from a distance.

1 Work in progress for Christopher Bassi’s Man with Bailer Shell, 2022. 2 Man with Bailer Shell , 2022 Christopher Bassi.

Based in the Larapinta Valley Town Camp in Mparntwe/Alice Springs, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists are exploring the representation of self through experimenting with materials and, much like Atong Atem, are creating a new personal archive. Inspired by memories, the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists’ stunning suite of soft sculptures are joyful self-representations and substitute traditional modes of family archives, such as photo albums. The artists intend for the works to challenge perceptions of Aboriginal people: ‘we want to make portraits of how we want you to see us: as leaders and role models, as artists and people who work so hard all the time.’ Made from bush-dyed recycled wool blankets, the sculptures are intricately embroidered with brightly coloured thread and embellished with feathers. Driven by traditional law, the works are stylised self portraits that speak to contemporary life infused with cultural richness.

1 2 Yarrenyty Arltere Artist Marlene Rubuntja demonstrates the coolamon full of bush food that will be placed on her soft self portrait 2022

Static notions of identity and portraiture are actively dissipated in Deborah Kelly’s retrieval of two portraits from the world of the ‘finished’ back into the realm of ‘being made’. Her portraits of artists Latai Taumoepeau and Justin Shoulder form part of the series No Human Being is Illegal (in all our glory) originally commissioned for the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014. Printed on large textiles, these works will be periodically deinstalled from the Portrait23: Identity exhibition and participants in public sewing circles will update the portraits to account for bodily transformation (especially Shoulder’s new tattoos) and personal history (Taumoepeau’s activism around the impacts of climate change on Pacific communities). The regenerative or restorative metaphor of the act of stitching has a satisfying parallel with the place of needlework in Tarryn Gill’s sculptures. Kelly’s work demonstrates portraiture’s potential as an active site for forming ‘cumulative and collective’ work over time.

1 2 No Human Being is Illegal (in all our glory) 2014 Both Deborah Kelly. Wellcome Collection, London © Deborah Kelly

Dismantling and reconstructing ideas of identity are central to Sally Smart’s practice. For Portrait23: Identity, Smart presents ten dressed puppets with heads of wax and bronze in conversation with each other. Puppets are an enduring core of her work, allowing performance to enliven every aspect of her creative process. ‘They embody experimentation through materials, and are imbued with complex ideas, they are tacit like drawings, but they’re also sculpture,’ Smart says. ‘The “puppet” elements … reside in the studio as objects for improvisation, to embody different things, at different times.’ These embodied performances of identity move closer to self portraiture in their ‘psychological and transformative’ roles.

1 Die Dada Puppen, 1996 Sally Smart. © Sally Smart. 2 Sally Smart, 2018 Rhett Hammerton.

Across all of Vipoo Srivilasa’s works, identities are embedded within dynamic social processes that form and then reform a sense of belonging. Srivilasa called to his online community for submissions of drawings of their most ‘Australian Eleganza Extravaganza outfit’ for the happiest day of their life. ‘I think it’s a way to give people a voice,’ Srivilasa told us. ‘If you talk to them, they may not be able to express what they think, but by asking them to design fashion, that makes it easy for them to tell the story.’ Some of these interpretations include a rainbow moomoo for a loud and proud beach wedding and a bug-covered dress that celebrates the end of climate change. This invitation to create a costume for their Australian identities elicited complex, deep and beautiful storytelling around the imagining of the self in time, place and community.

In a ‘Night at the Museum’ scenario, Smart’s puppets would be having a vociferous debate and Sriviliasa’s ceramic portraits would be on the catwalk with a heaving soundtrack. Incidentally, both artists told us something very similar about their very different figurative sculptural works: for her wax moulded heads, Smart says that ‘because they’re very small, the slightest movement could change everything – it was dynamic, very much like my practice of cut-out installations where the slightest movement of cut or pinned elements can change the gesture or relationship of elements’. Likewise, when we were discussing the pose of his ceramic portraits, Srivilasa observed: ‘Most of the pieces are standing and look very peaceful, and most of them are quite symmetrical. If they make a little bit too much of a pose it could change the whole meaning, and then the detail could get lost.’ This is just one example of many delightful, serendipitous parallels that we have seen as the works have evolved.

As a whole, Portrait23: Identity transcends portraiture’s traditional demands of individualism and likeness and responds to an intangible sense of the collective through personal storytelling and representation. As curators, we left the brief open and embraced the possibilities of allowing artists to work through their own responses to creating works. Visitors will have space to find their own interpretations, locating their sense of self within the breadth of the exhibition. The clarity of the parallels found across the works speaks to the future of the genre and illuminates the dynamic relationships between identity and portraiture. Sometimes profound, sometimes fun, these crossovers have felt like glimpses of the patterns of creativity and humanity that sit above it all.

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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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