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From the (he)art

Personal history, culture and community

The Amazing Face, lesson 11

Today we will LOOK at the portraits of Dadang Christanto by Hari Ho and Christos Tsiolkas by John Tsiavis; THINK about personal history, culture and community in portraiture; WATCH video interviews with Dadang Christanto and Christos Tsiolkas; READ an article by Christopher Chapman; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

By its very nature, portraiture is about people and their stories. Personal histories, culture and identity are central to the portraits of Dadang Christanto and Christos Tsiolkas. Both migrants, Christanto and Tsiolkas draw on personal histories in their respective creative practices as writer and artist. Hari Ho depicted Christanto buried on the beach, powerfully connecting with the Indonesian genocide during the mid 1960s, which is also a recurring theme in Christanto’s work.

Dadang Christanto
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Particularly interested in the volatility and vulnerability of adolescent identity, Tsiolkas discovered writing as a way of exploring and understanding identity. John Tsiavis’ photographic portrait captures the emotion and edginess for which the writer is known.

Christos Tsiolkas
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Dadang Christanto describes the link between his work, Indonesian history and the portrait by Hari Ho, explaining ‘For me, the beach is significant: in the '65, '66 is a graveyard, when the military killed the people they buried in the beach’.

Dadang Christanto 'Buried in the beach'
Video: 5 minutes 6 seconds

Tsiolkas’ writing is fed by introspection. In this Portrait Story, he describes how writing helped him to reconcile his cultural and sexual identity, with his adolecent self grappling with difficult questions: ‘Where do I belong, and how do I make sense of these conflicting identities, to do with being a migrant child, being a gay man, or a gay youth – they [these questions] fed into my writing’.

Christos Tsiolkas
Video: 4 minutes 35 seconds


‘I wanted to give voice to how frustrating, how tortuous the straightjacket of conforming sexuality and gender could be, regardless of whether the norms applied were patriarchal or feminist, heterosexual or gay.’ This is Christos Tsiolkas reflecting on his first novel Loaded (1995) in a recent interview with Michael Williams in Meanjin journal.

Read the full Portrait article Intense Identity by Christopher Chapman.

Solo Activity

The portraits of Christanto and Tsiolkas draw on the use of colour, pose, environment and placement to reference their personal histories. Using photography, let’s think about putting the personal into portraits.

You will need: a camera or tablet or smartphone (some means of taking a photo), a mirror, and an object that relates to a story from your life or your heritage.

  1. Position yourself in front of the mirror so that your face and the object are both reflected.
  2. Take three photographs of the reflection in the mirror telling three different stories of you and that object – one expressing regret, one expressing nostalgia and one expressing affection
  3. Notice what movement and visual relationship you have chosen in order to demonstrate these different relationships with the object, and reflect on which is closest to your true relationship with that object. 
  4. Now take one final photograph of you and the object that captures the real significance of that object to your life story or heritage.

Connected activity

This is a game of deception and storytelling, as well as an opportunity to learn something about a friend that you didn’t already know. Any number of people can play and it will work over the phone, video chat, or with someone in your household. 

  1. Take turns. Tell three tales (one about yourself, one about someone else and one that is entirely made up).
  2. Let others guess which is which. Whoever guesses correctly, or successfully deceives the other players, is the winner. 


What was the title of Christos Tsiolkas’ first novel?

Why did Dadang Christanto bury himself at the beach?

Where is the garden that featured in the Portrait Story with Dadang Christanto?

Next lesson

12. Leading ladies: Presence and inspiration

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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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