A Survey of Portraiture

Amongst the expansive new exhibition at Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria, Who Are You, is a striking portfolio of portraiture by Ethiopian-born, South Sudanese artist Atong Atem (b. 1994). Now based in Melbourne, Atem photographs people of African heritage living in Australia, using luminously bright and patterned backdrops to do so. A sense of collaboration underpins Atem’s Studio Series (2015), which shows young people amongst colourful fabrics, flowers and umbrellas.

“I sent a group chat to about 50 friends saying: ‘I’m ordering some KFC come to the studio!’” Atem recalls. “I asked them to bring costumes and fabrics, and there was a huge element of play and performance to whole thing. It’s almost like the images are evidence of what we did in the space – we spoke a lot about what we would do, and that is just as much the artwork to me. A lot of culture is in there – by way of oral tradition and storytelling – but I wanted to be true to the people I photographed. I was thinking about ethnography and ethics of practice: what happens when a person becomes symbol of Black culture. I wanted to allow people to truly be individuals.”

It’s a powerful contribution to a show which considers “portraiture in Australia across time and media.” As such, Atem’s images speak to a gap between the gaze which the camera has historically turned on Black and African bodies, and the reality of their lived experiences. Speaking to Artist Profile, Atem stated: “it’s really interesting to me that the first depictions of Black people seen by outsiders and even by other Black folks were ones that framed Black bodies in such a potent way that, socially, those frames still exist today. More than that though, I’m interested in the moment in history when Black people took the camera and chose to photograph ourselves for ourselves.” Her work often includes effects of optical trickery: weaving of strips of photographs together to create abstract self-portraits, for example.

Another distinctive portraitist is Selina Ou (b. 1977), born in Malaysia, who since the early 2000s has produced large, colour-saturated square format photographs showing individuals or groups employed in the worldwide service industry. In works such as Anita (Ticket Seller), from Ou’s 2002 series Enclosure, a glossy, pop-art dazzle is added to objects associated with commerce: from Anita’s glistening booth to rows of shiny motorbikes, or the glittering array of pill boxes arranged behind a chemist’s counter. These complex works are at once celebratory and critical of the hyper-capitalist paradigm they evoke, capturing subjects who seem equally constrained and empowered by their environments.

Elsewhere in the presentation is work by Melbourne-born performance and body artist Leigh Bowery (1961-1994), who rose to fame during London’s new romantic boom of the 1980s, and is now indelibly connected with the creative life of modern Britain. Bowery was known as “a walking work of art”, creating extraordinary outfits that were as dazzlingly comic as they were macabre. In a 1984 portrait by Australian fashion photographer Robyn Beeche (1945-2015) – who made her name in London engaging with the glam-pop zeitgeist – Bowery appears like a snow angel, lying on backdrop of photo-portraits.

Who Are You: Australian Portraiture runs at the National Gallery of Victoria until 21 August.

Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. Atong Atem Adut 2015 , printed 2019 from the Studio series 2015 digital type C print 59.4 × 84.1 cm (image) 63.6 × 92.7 cm (sheet) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2019 © Atong Atem, courtesy Mars Gallery, Melbourne
2. Selina Ou, Malaysia born 1977, arrived Australia 1979. Anita ticket seller 2002, printed 2005. From the Enclosure series 2002. type C photograph 100.6 x 99.3 cm irreg. (image) 126.6 x 119.3 cm (sheet) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with funds arranged by Loti Smorgon for Contemporary Australian Photography, 2005 © Courtesy of Selina Ou and Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne.
3. Robyn Beeche, Australia 1945–2015. Leigh Bowery, 1984. Type C photograph on paper 50.3 x 49.8 cm (image) 76.2 x 60.9 cm (sheet) National Portrait Gallery, Canberra Gift of Claudia Hyles, Dr Christiane Lawin Bruessel, Gwenda Matthews, GaelNewton, AnneO’Hehir, Susan Smith and Dominic Thomas in memory of our friend, Robyn Beeche 2016 © Robyn Beeche Foundation.