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Portrait of Susan Wakil AO, 2019

Jiawei Shen

oil on canvas (frame: 216.5 cm x 125.0 cm, support: 198.5 cm x 107.0 cm)
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Susan Wakil AO (1934-2018), philanthropist, came to Sydney as a seven year old from Bessarabia (Moldova/Romania). Her father had been interned in a Siberian gulag, and her mother had died. Living with her aunt, and later joined by her father, she proved a dedicated student, quickly learning English. In Sydney she met her future husband, Isaac, who had experienced the anti-Jewish Farhad in Iran. Together, they built up a clothing business. The couple appeared regularly in the social pages in the 1970s, Susan Wakil immaculately groomed and dressed in French couture labels. Over time, they purchased many unprepossessing properties across the Sydney CBD. These, they sold in 2014. Subsequently, they donated a record $35 million to the University of Sydney and a record $20 million toward the Sydney Modern wing of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They funded an initiative to help newcomers to opera to buy inexpensive tickets and vocational education for disadvantaged students at public schools. They are also major benefactors of the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Shen Jiawei was a member of the Shanghai Red Guard, made history paintings for the Chinese government and studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing before he was constrained to leave China because of a painting he made depicting heroes of the Chinese nationalist movement. He arrived in Australia in 1989, and spent three years drawing portraits at Darling Harbour. He has since become a regular Archibald finalist, and has painted commissions of Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Tom Hughes QC and L Gordon Darling AC CMG for the National Portrait Gallery. Shen is also the subject of two portraits in the collection. This portrait is unusual in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, in that it was not painted from life. It was commissioned by Isaac Wakil to commemorate his late wife, his partner for 62 years. Shen painted the late Mrs Wakil from a photograph, wearing an ensemble by her favoured designer Yves Saint Laurent.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of Isaac Wakil AO 2019

Accession number: 2019.35

Currently on display: Gallery Six (Tim Fairfax Gallery)

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Artist and subject

Jiawei Shen (age 71 in 2019)

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