WHO ARE YOU: Australian Portraiture

BMA Mag’s TAMSIN TEMP took a tour of the National Portrait Gallery’s latest epic exhibition with curator JOANNA GILMOUR to learn anew the old adages that a picture is worth a thousand words, and the eyes are the windows to the soul (plus so much more).

Australians tend to associate portraiture with prime ministers and the Queen, and once a year the theatre of the Archibald. The very mention of portraiture is enough to bring on stifled yawns from many. Yawners beware, doubters be warned, this one will have you wide awake, with thinking caps firmly on.

Who Are You describes itself as ‘a comprehensive study of portraiture in Australia’ and so it is: inclusive, complex and diverse. Like a concertina it expands to embrace thousands of years of First Nations connection to Country as well as our recent colonial sprint. 

“This one’s been a few years in the making,” Joanna Gilmour, National Portrait Gallery curator tells me. 

A black and white image of a woman wearing a beaded necklace.
Maria, 1986 (printed 2013) by Michael Riley 

She is referring to the interruptions of Covid-19, but I can’t help thinking of the enormity of time captured in these images. The untouchable nature of it expressed immediately as you enter the space and find yourself suspended in the gazes of Vernon Ah Kee and Nora Heysen, hung opposite and perusing each other across decades and cultures. 

This juxtaposition sets the tone for much of the exhibition.

Co-curation from the National Gallery of Victoria and NPG is seamless, cannily choosing five themes to structure the collection. In the push and pull of the chronology, the subject areas of Person and Place, Meet the Artist, Inner Worlds Outer Selves, Intimacy and Alienation, and Icons and Identities help us to access the history and intentions of the works.

Seven sisters song, by Kaylene Whiskey 

Person and Place recognises individuals in their relationships with the living earth. The kinship of land and people is present all around; Kunmanara Burton’s mapping of self in Country, and Lloyd Rees’s some rocks are worlds removed culturally, and yet not, because the land is at the centre of it all. The delicate fingers and toes on Yvonne Koolmatries’ Magic Weaver are like roots or tubers reaching for their place in the earth. Aren’t we all.

Meet the Artist is a cavalcade of peek-a-boo. Self-portraiture gifts us only what we are allowed by the artist to see. 

John Brack’s 1955 self-portrait suggests a sense of loss, with a stark composition and colour palette that could be from a war painting. You can have this much of me, he seems to tell us, but no more. 

This full wall also gives us Trevor Turbo Brown’s celebratory Dingo Spirit, and the curious small portrait of Napier Waller from 1925. Gilmour tells me he had only one arm when this was completed, yet he depicts himself with both. 

We see the imagined self with the real. 

Three young men holding surfboards on some sand. Behind them is a backdrop of a beach.
The surfers, 1989 by Anne Zahalka

Another one-armed man waits around the corner; you hear him before you see him. On my second visit to the show, a young girl with her mum stands before the Mike Parr video, watching hard as he sucks drawings of him, by him, to his face one by one. The sound of his breath against the paper makes a queer whistling sound, almost like a wild cat. 

The girl asks, “Why is he doing that?”. Good question kid. Give yourself the time to wonder. I tell her the artist has the one arm and this seems to make her stick around. I stick around for the delightful cabinet nearby where the Schaffer and Co belt buckle from 1900, with the dual miniature dog portrait, has made me wish I were a wealthy collector.

Coincidentally (maybe), Parr faces his sister, Julie Rrap, on the other side of a panel. There are multiple instances where I feel connections between works, like there is whispered conversation back and forth. 

Take David Moore’s iconic 1966 photo of immigrants arriving by ship. They look to the Australian shore, and here, they look toward Peter Drew’s blunt photo of Monga Khan, with his stately moustache and turban. We know Drew’s AUSSIE (oi oi oi) label carries a heavy sarcasm, because we know the discomforting history of race relations in this country. We want Moore’s immigrants to have been treated with kindness, but we know, as Mr Khan knew, the common experience of exclusion.

Photograph of young boy standing next to a small tricycle.
Self Portrait #2, 1947/2007 (01)
 by William Yang, Unknown artist 

The works that comprise Inner Worlds and Outer Selves are full of disquiet. Psyches, bodies, and relationships in turmoil. A standout piece for me is Brook Andrew’s large scale black and white photo, I split your gaze. His face, divided and disconnected, is defiantly whole. A strong First Nations man. 

Andrews references, as other First Nations artists have, the historic power relationship of being photographed ethnographically and having personal agency stolen. In this powerful image he is, as Gilmour describes it, reclaiming agency and reclaiming the photographic process.

Relationships underpin everything in this collection, especially the works chosen for Intimacy and Alienation, which articulate complex relationships with self, family, friends, and culture. Some of the gentlest pieces in the exhibition join us here. Hugh Ramsay’s portrait of his sister Jessie, and John Longstaff’s mother and child, both from the 1890s, side by side on the wall, in time (and in style, to an extent) but mostly in love. There is a tangible intimacy in these family pieces.

Woman with dark skin sits holding flowers. The wall behind her is vibrant and floral.
Adut, The Studio Series, 2015 by Atong Atem

Icons and Identities, perhaps more than any of the other themes, brings us moments of difficult pleasure. The curation slides us into a seductive wall of women, all, as Gilmour points out to me, with necklaces. The beauty of the compositions and of the women themselves makes you smile, until you realise the multifaceted nature of the narratives here. 

Adut, one of a series from Atong Atem, references again the ethnographic practices of colonial photography, and with a brief reference, maybe, to Manet’s Olympia – the flowers – surfaces the long history of slavery and oppression that informs the African diaspora.

This final theme of identities brings us familiar faces and the plain facts of life. Joy and grief co-exist in life; so too, here. 

A vase painted to look like an AFL field and stadium. On the top of the vase is a lid with an Aboriginal man pulling up his top and pointing to his skin.
I’m black (Nicky Winmar), covered vase, 2015 by Rona Panangka Rubuntja

Rona Panangka Rubuntja’s vessel from (Ntaria) Hermannsburg, depicts the famous moment when Nicky Winmar lifted his jersey in an AFL match to point with unwavering pride at his skin. He is perfect. Our country is imperfect. Adam Goodes looks out from atop Vincent Namatjira’s series of portraits on the adjacent wall. I suspect he agrees.

I stood for a long time before Brenda Croft’s 2020 portrait of Matilda. Thinking about what 2020 brought us, about Waltzing Matilda and wondering what this Matilda would think of that song, and the echoes of 60,000 years of culture and spiritual connection I feel in this face. Trying to pin down my thoughts on the exhibition overall, I realise Matilda says it all: 

“I know who I am, do you?”

Who Are You: Australian Portraiture runs daily from Saturday, 1 October 2022 until Sunday, 29 January 2023 at the National Portrait Gallery.

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