Who Are You: The Power of Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery

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The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is never afraid to push boundaries, ask big questions and redefine expectations. The “Who are you” exhibition is of course no exception.

The 130 works that bring this extensive body of work to life pair beautifully with portraits from the National Gallery of Victoria, presenting the gallery’s largest exhibition to date. Through film, painting, sculpture and ceramics, each artist redefines the very nature of portraiture, forging bold and deeply moving works that are unafraid to confront our worldviews.

Opening at the NPG tomorrow, “Who Are You” will gently hold your hand and lead you into this inspiring world.

For NPG curator Joanna Gilmour, presenting portraits in a space where there is room to cross boundaries, muddy lines and dance with unconventional brushstrokes has been a liberating experience. Working alongside Karen Quinlan AM, Director of the National Portrait Gallery and Tony Ellwood AM, Director of NGV, “Who Are You” pushes this genre beyond conventional notions.

“You’re so tired of this apparent perception that portraiture, because it’s a very old genre, is so strongly associated with tradition, people seem to think there are these rules in portraiture that can’t be violated, when in fact the reverse is the case.

“There are so many directions in which you can do portraits. And it’s not just about how someone looks or what they’ve achieved in life. This is their identity. It is essentially about what makes us human and what connects us all.

Maria, 1986 (printed 2013) by Michael Riley

As you walk through this exhibit, you’ll lose yourself in what Joanna describes as five mini-exhibits that live in this impressive catalog of works. Each artist’s beautiful reimaginings will have you stopping and pausing, allowing their significance to surge through the channels of our subconscious. ‘I’m black’ by Hermannsburg Potters does just that.

The artwork captures a defining moment in Australian history when St Kilda footballer Nicky Winwar disarms racial abuse, pointing to his skin: “I’m black and I’m proud”. Now, reshaped in the form of a jar, with Nicky standing to be shaken on top of the lid, we surrender to her powerful message.

I’m black (Nicky Winmar), covered vase, 2015 by Rona Panangka Rubuntja

And for all of the curators working on this exhibition, it was essential that the voices of First Nations peoples be heard across the different sets of works – communicating portraits that reflect the country, play with the landscape and tell the truth of the First Peoples. Nations.

“We agreed on a group of five themes which are in some way central to portraiture, but in some ways, also, very specific to Australian portraiture. There is a section of the exhibition that talks about the relationship between place and identity.

“And place itself is obviously a very important factor for First Nations concepts of identity and representation. Often, for Indigenous artists, it’s often not about portraying what you look like, but portraying your country and where you’re from,” says Joanna.

Seven Sisters Song, Kaylene Whiskey, NGV

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, a sentiment that has perhaps never been truer as you browse this breathtaking exhibit. The title itself will resonate with you long after you leave this space for reflection.

“It’s an exhibition that questions the whole idea of ​​what a portrait is, what constitutes the self, and what constitutes representation and identity. It’s not just who are you? But who are we ? And what does it mean to be Australian?

“And I think that encourages people to think about their own kind of self-representation. How come they project themselves into the world? It’s just an incredibly rewarding experience,” Joanna reflects.


What: WHO ARE YOU Australian portrait
When: Saturday October 1 to Sunday January 29, 2023
Where: National Portrait Gallery
Web: portrait.gov.au/exhibitions

Photograph provided by the National Portrait Gallery.

Julia P. Cluff