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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 both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Observation point

by Michael Zavros, 6 March 2017

Homework, 2014
 Michael Zavros
Homework, 2014. Michael Zavros

When is a portrait not really a portrait? I seem to explore this idea constantly. I make paintings, drawings, photographs and films, mostly of my children or myself, yet I rarely think of these works as ‘portraits’, nor even as figure studies.

Homework 2014 is a large-scale photograph featuring my daughters Phoebe (then nine) and Olympia (then seven) completing theirs in the capacious back seat of a Rolls Royce. It emerged from a collaborative project I did with them that year, and a ‘loan car’ I was given to inspire me. And it did.

I love fine, pointless detail and so does Rolls. I employed a commercial photographer to capture every minute detail in luminous, high-definition, glossy-catalogue clarity: the plush cream leather seats; the twinkling chrome and fine grain timber; the navy embroidered RR on the headrests. But rather than function as a commercial ad, this carefully composed photograph appears more like a spontaneous snapshot of a family’s daily routine.

This is a luxury to which the girls appear accustomed – they nonchalantly complete their homework tasks, a rainbow of felt tip pens dangerously strewn across the armrest. There is a tension between the banality of the everyday and an almost otherworldly elite existence, untainted by the trappings of social mediocrity. But as inviting as this interior is, we aren’t really welcomed in. The busy girls offer no eye contact; this is their world, not ours. We aren’t active participants but voyeurs. Homework does what so much of my work sets out to – holds a mirror up to its audience, and we see in it what we bring with us: desire, admiration, audacity, revulsion, humour.

And like so much of my work, Homework isn’t really a portrait of Phoebe or Olympia or their homework routine. It tells us nothing about the older sister, empathetic and confident, aspiring actress and collaborator in other portrait projects with me. And on her left the unwilling model, Olympia, quiet and moody, with wild ringlets tamed and plaited for the occasion and school uniform unusually pristine. They’re acting. This is role play in Dad’s curious fiction. And one is good at it and one isn’t. 

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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 both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.