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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.

Selfhood transcended

by Dr Anne Sanders and Dr Christopher Chapman, 3 May 2018

Jim Conway
Jim Conway, 2006 Greg Warburton. © Greg Warburton

Uncompromising individuality defines the people whose contemporary portraits make up the exhibition Express Yourself. Some address us directly – with calm and sure looks; all have an unencumbered authenticity that is the result of inner struggle. This kind of struggle is its own reward; it is robust selfhood. Role models, mentors; for them, generosity of intellect is a form of freedom. When cultural or social expectations enforce sameness, or tradition, or control, the need to be an authentic person is paramount. It is the only way to live.

In her 1991 essay ‘The Evidence of Experience’ social science professor and historian Joan Wallach Scott calls into question the categories that have defined subjective experience. ‘[We] need to attend to the historical processes that, through discourse, position subjects and produce their experiences’, she writes. The authority of our own inner lived experience, or our responses to the experience of living within a particular society, still, Scott notes, ‘naturalises categories such as man, woman, black, white, heterosexual, and homosexual by treating them as given characteristics of individuals’. Instead of taking these categories for granted, we might look behind them at the processes that create them in the first place, the inherent power relations of the categories’ names, and how we identify with that naming. In this way, we can understand that the active capacity of individuals (their agency), as expressed and self-understood through their subjective outlook, is in fact ‘created through situations and statuses conferred on them’. These identity categories can then be dismantled, allowing new, organic ones to emerge and evolve. They were not, ‘always there simply waiting to be expressed’. As an example, Scott invokes Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall’s reflection of the construction of ‘black’ identity in his 1984 essay ‘Minimal selves’. Hall writes ‘[Black] has always been an unstable identity, psychically, culturally and politically’, and that it is ‘a narrative, a story, a history’; it is ‘not simply found’. Like all identity categories imposed by society, Hall says ‘Black is an identity which had to be learned’.

1 Christos Tsiolkas, 1998 (printed 2009) John Tsiavis. © John Tsiavis. 2 Jenny Watson 4, February 1979, 1979 (printed 2012) Robert Rooney. © Estate of Robert Rooney, Currently on display.

For the subjects in the portraits in Express Yourself, localised experience is transcended through a greater, symbolic resonance. They continually reinvent what it is to be a woman; a man; an Indigenous Australian; an immigrant, through the articulation of uncompromising self-identity. They are well aware of the social construction of identity and the expectations it enforces. This includes being seen to be a ‘rebel’ or an ‘activist’, labels which themselves carry socially acceptable accoutrements – expectations of behaviour and prescribed means of enactment.

 In his 2017 book, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, Korean-German cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han shows that the individualised power of ‘otherness or foreignness’ is ‘transformed into the positivity of communicable and consumable difference: “diversity”’. The feel-good message of diversity can thus be a restrictive factor, commodifying the expression of difference. It is a theme Australian author Christos Tsiolkas explores in his 1995 novel, Loaded, with his protagonist Ari exclaiming: ‘I’m not Australian, I’m not Greek, I’m not anything. I’m not a worker, I’m not a student, I’m not an artist, I’m not a junkie, I’m not a conversationalist, I’m not an Australian, not a wog, not anything. I’m not left wing, right wing, centre, left of centre, right of Genghis Khan. I don’t vote, I don’t demonstrate, I don’t do charity … What I am is a runner. Running away from a thousand and one things that people say you have to be or should want to be.’

Authentic lived experience is the stuff poets Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Peter Skrzynecki bring to life, giving body to marginalised voices. Skrzynecki understands the role of the mask and guise in illuminating inspiration’s vision: ‘you must become someone else but also remain yourself’– it is a form of authentic expression and an edict applicable, too, for actors, such as Cate Blanchett, Jack Charles, Ben Mendelsohn and Robyn Archer.

In Express Yourself, the works of photographers Robert Rooney and Juno Gemes evoke early 1980s moments. Rooney’s photographs portray a post-punk coterie of emerging Melbourne artists and curators; Gemes’ black and white documentary photographs focus on the forthright determination of Indigenous Australians leading land rights and recognition struggles.

1 Marcia Langton, 1982 Juno Gemes. © Juno Gemes/Copyright Agency, 2024. 2 Ursula Hoff, 1994 Francis Reiss. © Estate of Francis Reiss.

The diverse portraits exemplify attitude and strong intention: there is the powerful, recently commissioned photograph of Rosie Batty; boxer Jeff Fenech, the ‘Marrickville mauler’, in pugnacious stance; assured Australian expatriate restaurateur Michelle Garnaut; drug law reform advocate Dr Alex Wodak, stark and grave; and art historian Ursula Hoff, radiating composure. Their ‘present-ness’ holds our attention, and their purpose invites our engagement and respect.

Express Yourself is an illumination, an exhortation to the synaptic spark between subject and artist. As a portrait ensemble, the exhibition holds the symbolic resonance of these strong and courageous individuals in the space of khôra. This ancient Greek concept, activated by contemporary philosophy, reveals the subtle force of difference when manifest as presence. This khôra speaks volumes – activating the portraits’ silence.

© National Portrait Gallery 2024
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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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