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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.

Mash-up

by Penelope Grist, 19 January 2022

Layla 2020 Veronica Watson, pencil on paper. Layla 2020 Sarah McEwan, fabric, acrylic on MDF. Self portrait 2020 Layla Bacayo, drypoint on paper. Image: Sarah McEwan
Layla 2020 Veronica Watson, pencil on paper. Layla 2020 Sarah McEwan, fabric, acrylic on MDF. Self portrait 2020 Layla Bacayo, drypoint on paper. Image: Sarah McEwan

Numerous portraits in the National Portrait Gallery collection depict artists who have formed a community and explored portraiture by painting each other. The Heide circle, the Boyds at Open Country and Bundanon, Clifton Pugh and his many visitors to Dunmoochin are just a few of the more famous gatherings. Pursuing their own practices, sometimes collaborating, drawing strength from each other, these communities of artists create new worlds.

Layla Bacayo, Sarah McEwan and Veronica Watson are three such artists who make portraits that defy distance and separation. Their collaborative 2021 exhibition Mash-up was a powerful reminder of how portraiture can be an active force in the world, reflecting strong communities of practice, and becoming eloquent statements of visibility and connection.

In 2019, in the Riverina, New South Wales, Layla and Sarah were on the road a lot. Driving the two-hour round-trip between Narrandera and Griffith, they were working towards an exhibition, Yield, at the Griffith Regional Art Gallery. Sarah is the Creative Producer at the Cad Factory, an artist-led contemporary arts organisation located at Birrego, 30 km outside Narrandera. Layla lives in Narrandera but makes work at the Art Factory, a supported studio in Wagga Wagga established in 2016. Veronica, who was exhibiting work in Yield, is an artist at Blue Room, the inclusive studio at contemporary arts centre Bluecoat in Liverpool, United Kingdom. Blue Room and the Art Factory are both contemporary art studios where artists with neurodiversity or learning disability have the support, space and autonomy to pursue their own creative practices. As Sarah noted after the exhibition, the success of Yield was sharing ‘not just physical space but ethical space; when you whole-heartedly open yourself up to another’.

Layla, Sarah and Veronica possess a shared impulse for portraiture. On one of their car trips, Layla said to Sarah: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to go to Bluecoat?’. This idea became the international collaboration Mash-up. With funding from the Australia Council for the Arts, it was intended for display at Bluecoat in March 2020. Layla was all ready to fly to Liverpool to make work, do an artist talk, DJ at the opening party, hang out with the Blue Room artists, and deliver a workshop. Then the pandemic hit.

In early August 2021, from the Portrait Gallery’s digital studio, I was excited to (virtually) join the Art Factory artists and friends to open Mash-up at The Curious Rabbit’s gallery space in Wagga Wagga. Launched alongside Random and Exact, works by artists Angela Coombs Matthews and Jordy Bos, this was one week before Canberra’s lockdown. Regional NSW went into lockdown two weeks later.

Sarah’s curation and installation of the portraits in Mash-up arranged constellations of three visions of each sitter, forming a whole sense of each person. The names of each sitter were spelt bottom-to-top alongside each grouping, playfully signalling the shifts in perception occurring across the portraits. The sitters, Steven, Wayne and Kelly, are original Art Factory artists. The other three portrait (and self-portrait) sitters were Sarah, Veronica and Layla themselves. Each artists’ distinct approach to portraiture was juxtaposed in Mash-up. Together, they show not only three different dimensions of human presence, but also how we see and know each other.

Sarah’s work extends her long-term exploration of non-representational portraiture. All the things I never said (2015) at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, for example, was installation as feminist action that challenged accepted forms of self-portraiture. Similarly, in Unbind Me (2018), at the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo, Sarah examined personal belief systems in an experiment with intertextual portraiture. In Mash-up her enigmatic, charm-like, totemic visions come from sitters answering an online survey and ‘turning their worlds into imagery’.

For Layla, ‘being an artist is part of who I am. I love being seen that way and being part of my art community’. Her personal narrative portraits cross time and space, layering places, events, moments, likes, dislikes and hopes. They mix and remix social commentary, autobiography, personalities, celebrities, friends, pop cultural references, text and humour into alternative realities. Through Layla’s portraits we see that Veronica loves David Bowie, Sarah has a taste for travel, Steven is relaxed at home among trees. We see Kelly’s love of travel that inspires her painting. Layla’s own self-portrait reflects the disappointment of not being able to get on that plane to the UK.

Veronica always likes to work from a reference photograph, which is how she made the portraits shown in Mash-up. ‘When I draw people, I get to know them.’ Acutely observed, she includes the face’s shape, natural wrinkles, and the shadows that give each sitter their distinctive character. Veronica carefully notices the features that structure each face – such as Wayne’s eyes and cheeks, Steven’s hair and eyebrows, and Sarah’s and Layla’s smiles. The making of Veronica’s portraits is an active process of seeing and connecting with her fellow artists on the other side of the world.

I met Veronica over Zoom one morning, along with Becky Waite, Blue Room Creative Manager. Veronica has been with Blue Room since its foundation in 2008. I asked Veronica about how she approaches making portraits: ‘I like to do them the way they look, sad or happy,’ she said. Veronica indicated that people in Liverpool have been surprised that she was working with faraway Australians, but supported and inclusive studios exist globally. In 2019 Veronica met fellow artists at a UK and European summit at Project Ability in Glasgow, and she is keen to continue to collaborate with artists from around the world. Becky told me that the Art Factory’s strong exhibition program has been particularly interesting to observe because Blue Room wants to ‘grow the artist development side, which Veronica was instrumental in helping us pilot’. She added: ‘We are supporting people to be creative, but we need to show the world what is created.’

Portraits that emerge from within active communities of artists make visible the intangible human qualities of trust, affection, hope and resilience. Mash-up was a demonstration of portraiture’s power to represent and connect people across space and time. And as the world gradually reopens, Sarah and Layla still hope to visit Veronica at Blue Room.

 

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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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