Picturing Diversity – The Power of Portraiture

I am seldom more satisfied with a gallery visit than on the occasions when you walk into an exhibition space intending to view one thing, and then stumble on something quite unexpected that turns out to be far more interesting than the artwork or display you originally planned to see. The 3rd August 2017 turned out to be one of those days, when my attention and intentions were solely focused on a long-awaited and much-anticipated trip to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see the stunning tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2017).

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Tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014-2017) by Chris Ofili CBE, hand-woven to the artist’s specifications by textile artists from Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The three-panelled artwork was on display at the National Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” curated by Minna Moore Ede (displayed until 28/08/2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The tapestry was based on an original watercolour painted by Chris Ofili CBE, and hand-woven in partnership with a team of textile artists from Dovecot Studios. The resulting panels were then displayed as part of the celebrated exhibition, “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” (Sunley Room, National Gallery, London, 26 April – 28 August 2017).

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Three-panelled watercolour “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014) by Turner Prize-winning British artist Chris Ofili CBE. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The three-panelled tapestry was, of course, as awe-inspiring as the attached pictures suggest. However, the large number of visitors milling in and out of the Sunley Room precluded any opportunity to spend a long period of time quietly contemplating the  scale, splendour and intricacy of this vibrantly colourful piece at my own leisure.

 

Consequently, I changed tack and headed away to make an impromptu visit to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to spend time browsing new works in the contemporary galleries and the exhibition for the 2017 BP Portrait Award.

2017 BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG, London

Among the many beautifully rendered portraits featured in this year’s selection of 53 entries displayed to represent the best of the c. 2,580 entries submitted by artists from 87 countries, the five works that (for different reasons) captured and held my attention were (in no particular order): (1) Corinne, by Anastasia Pollard; (2) Society, by Khushna Sulaman-Butt; (3) Portrait of the artist Jerome Witkin, by David Stanger; (4) Lemn Sissay, by Fiona Graham-Mackay; and (5) Another Fine Day on Elysian Fields Avenue, NOLA, by Eva Csanyi-Hurskin.

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“Corinne”, by Anastasia Pollard. Oil on Board. 255 x 205mm. This painting was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as part of the 2017 BP Portrait Award. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The striking portrait of “Corinne” by Anastasia Pollard is actually quite tiny, measuring just 255 x 205mm. However, the captivating beauty of the sitter and the overall balance of the composition made it one of the most arresting images in the entire exhibition. It was also not surprising that “Corinne” was chosen by the NPG as one of the featured images used for a substantial element of the marketing and publicity for this year’s award – featuring on the cover of the catalogue, as well as on one of five large-scale promotional posters for the exhibition.

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Detail from “Society” (2017), by Khushna Sulaman-Butt. Acrylic oil on canvas. 1670 x 2230 mm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Khushna Sulaman-Butt’s group portrait “Society” had a very prominent position placed centrally against the back wall of the last room showcasing entries from the portraiture exhibition, and rightly drew audiences to it as soon as people entered the exhibition space.

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Detail from a portrait of the artist Jerome Witkin, by David Stanger (b. 1976, USA). Oil on linen. 510 x 410 mm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The attention to detail in the sublime portrait of Jerome Witkin is an example of how an artist can make something seemingly very ordinary and mundane appear extra-ordinary and charged with affective/emotional significance. In this instance, Stanger’s representation of his former teacher serves to express and signify the intertwined and intricate bonds that can connect the lives of the artist and sitter, professionally and aesthetically.

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Portrait of the writer and performance poet Lemn Sissay, by Fiona Graham-Mackay. Oil on canvas. 1111 x 861 mm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Although not a fan of Lemn Sissay’s poetry or his politics, I was struck by the way artist Fiona Graham-Mackay had captured his thoughtfulness and his (self-confessed) vulnerabilities in this very piercing and sympathetic likeness of him looking directly into the eyes of his portraitist  and, thus, through her looking directly at the viewing public to catch the attention of everyone passing by in the gallery.

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Another Fine Day On Elysian Fields Avenue, NOLA, by Eva Csanyi-Hurskin. Oil on linen. 610 x 450 mm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Self-Portraiture by Samuel Fosso

 

The unexpected aspect of my NPG visit was to find two rooms in the contemporary galleries devoted to a small self-portraiture exhibition of selected work from the extensive oeuvre of Cameroonian photographer and conceptual artist Samuel Fosso (b. 1962-, Kumba, Cameroon). I have admired Fosso’s work since the early 2000s after first seeing his self-portraits in the celebrated group ‘mega-show’ of African and Diasporan contemporary visual art at the Pompidou in Paris – “Africa Remix, l’art contemporain d’un continent” [Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent] (2004-2007), curated by Simon Njami.

Back then, Fosso’s self-portrait “Le Chef (qui a vendu l’Afrique aux colons)” [The Chief (who sold Africa to the colonisers )] (1997), from the series known as Tati (primarily because the works were originally commissioned and displayed by the famous French department store, Tati), was used as the promotional image for the group exhibition at its various locations, from the Hayward Gallery in London (2004), through to the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa (2007).

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Artwork by Samuel Fosso, used as the title image for the Africa Remix (2004) exhibition catalogue (Hayward Gallery, London).

For the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the curators chose to present just a small, two-room selection of self-portraits. The first room was filled with a series of recently produced, nearly identical, intimate, close-up colour photographs of Fosso’s face and upper torso, positioned close together at eye-level around  the gallery walls, with each portrait showing an almost imperceptible difference in his facial expression.

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The second, slightly smaller room, featured a selection of black and white studio-based photographs of Fosso taken in the 1970s, when the artist was a teenager working in Bangui (Central African Republic). This more elaborate and flamboyant series of self-portraits reflects a time in the artist’s early career when he was experimenting with different adopted personas that referenced aspects of West African popular culture, and also presented an aesthetic and art-political statement about celebrating the diversity of black masculinities, black self-representations and the powerful international mantra of “black is beautiful” from that period.

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One of a selection of 12 studio-based self-portraits featuring the contemporary conceptual artist Samuel Fosso (b. 1962-, Kumba, Cameroon) pictured in a studio in Bangui (Central African Republic) in the 1970s. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Concluding remarks

“In the case of portraiture, the story most often told in Britain has been that of the great white male: the man of privilege, the man of destiny, the man born to make it… What matters is that we notice the women who are not part of the story, the people of colour who are not on the walls. They were there in our past, we are here now, and if we have anything to learn from the narrative of art’s history, it is that in the present passing, we can make a difference.”

Quote from “Portraiture: The Problem and the Solution,” by Stella Duffy (Writer), 2017

Like Stella Duffy (quoted above), I am acutely aware that the National Portrait Gallery – similarly to the majority of the UK’s high-profile museums and galleries of fine art – is striving to be a more representative and inclusive space, not only in terms of the black, brown, disabled, working-class women and men and LGBTQI+ artists and sitters featured in its collections, but also via the diversity reflected in its choice of temporary exhibitions, publications and marketing materials. However, the NPG still has a considerable way to go towards making significant strides that redress (numerically, geographically and visually) the historical imbalances and biases within its collections and exhibiting practices.

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Detail from the portrait of opera singer and actor Sir Willard Wentworth White (2009) by Ishbel Myerscough. Oil on canvas. On display in the contemporary galleries at the National Portrait Gallery. NPG Collection Ref. 6886. Photo: Carol Dixon.

I welcome the inclusion of more diverse faces and identities viewed during my impromptu visit this month, and look forward to re-visiting to see how reflective of our diverse, multi-cultural nation, and London’s diverse international museum-going publics, the collections become in the near future. Perhaps when the professional staff teams responsible for exhibition curation, programming and marketing are themselves more diverse (and include salaried arts scholars of African, Caribbean and Asian descent on permanent contracts, and not perpetually only brought in to contribute as temporary, fixed-term researchers/contractors, etc.), then more rapid and progressive change will ultimately follow. Let’s hope so!

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Dr Carol Ann Dixon pictured at the entrance to the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, 3 August 2017. Photo: John Harbottle.
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Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation/doctoral thesis is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK, 2016).

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