Who Are You: Australian Portraiture


From Polly Borland’s famous, golden, glittering photograph of Queen Elizabeth to Maree Clarke’s tremendously stitched possum skin cloak, titled Walert – gum barerarerungar, the exhibition Who Are You is centered on challenging the traditional conventions of portraiture. Bringing together artwork drawn from the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, the show focuses on Australian artists, rethinking the concept of portraiture in imaginative guises. It moves beyond the solely figurative portrait to illustrate how connections to place and inner worlds are equally important manifestations of self.

“Our hope is to show the surprising ways artists represent likeness,” says NGV curator Beckett Rozentals. Divided into several sections surveying the nuances of documenting self, the exhibition includes over 200 works produced across time, and with multiple mediums. “I’m interested in seeing how artists choose to represent themselves and how we as viewers can take an active role in meeting the artist in that way,” Rozentals adds. This includes Brenda L. Croft’s 2014 photographic series Man about town, as well as Hoda Afshar’s Remain, 2018, a video documenting Australia’s border protection policy and the effect it has on asylum seekers. Not to mention Kaylene Whiskey’s vibrantly painted mash-up of pop culture and life in the remote Iwantja community, with her painting Seven Sisters Song, 2021.

A favourite for Rozentals is a punk outfit worn by Melbourne-based musician James Lynch in his youth. Assembled from the materials of leather, rubber, paint and blood, the outfit was acquired by the NGV after a former curator approached Lynch on a tram and asked about the meaning behind his fashion style. “James was a singer-songwriter for bands like Children of Sorrow and Vicious Circle in the 1980s,” says Rozentals. “Following this meeting, James was invited to recreate an outfit for the NGV. I really love the story behind Punk Outfit, 1984, as it encapsulates how this exhibition challenges our ideas and notions of portraiture.”

Who Are You: Australian Portraiture
National Portrait Gallery
1 October – 29 January 2023

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Briony Downes