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Emerging realities

by Helena Bezzina, 1 March 2008

At the end of 2007 the National Portrait Gallery launched the inaugural National Youth Self Portrait Prize and artists aged between eighteen and twenty-five were invited to submit self portraits using a variety of media including drawing, painting, printmaking and traditional or digital photography.

Awkward self
Awkward self

With the support of the Tallis Foundation and the Association of Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, the Gallery offered a $10 000 prize for the most outstanding entry.

Self portraiture is a particularity appropriate genre for young people. They actively negotiate issues of their emergent identity in a preoccupied and sometimes obsessive way. A visit to MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Second Life on the web makes it clear that a preoccupation with identity is normal for this age group and that they are actively engaged in a digitaldialectic, prolifically constructing images of how they perceive themselves to be, or how they would like to be perceived.

The response to the National Youth Self Portrait Prize, however, indicates that the power of more traditional forms of self portraiture remains strong with this age group and they readily engage in the artist’s examination of questions of identity through self-image. The collection of entries received provides fascinating insights into the world of this age group. While the self portraiture submitted may appear at first to be highly individual, a closer examination of the works as a group offers a commentary on current societal pressures and influences. Common themes include body image, the impact of media on forming identity, cultural representation and metaphorical depictions.

Some entrants were more concerned with masteringtheir chosen medium to achieve a likeness, while others delved deep into their state of mind to render a specific emotion or mood. Several entrants commented on the ordinary, mundane aspects of life, representing themselves enacting their everyday reality. All of these approaches make for a wonderful selection of works from this young adult demographic.