One of the true pleasures of working in an art museum is being able to have relatively private, unmediated time with artwork or an entire exhibition.
Most mornings, before the doors open to the public, I like to take a solitary stroll through the collection galleries, maybe checking for typos in the labels or imagining a particular portrait in a new or different place and context.
Sometimes I make the most of the luxury of being able to spend time lingering over one specific piece. Unsurprisingly, ever since the National Portrait Gallery temporarily closed its doors - consigning me and most of my colleagues to #workfromhome status - I've thought about what a treat it would be to have the whole gallery entirely to myself, and about what portraits I would most like to spend one-on-one time with in the midst of this socially-distanced "new normal".
Brook Andrew's masterful portrait of Marcia Langton would most definitely be one of them. A bold, powerful and complex portrait of an inspiring sitter, created by one of Australia's foremost contemporary artists, the work exemplifies the National Portrait Gallery's distinct and surprisingly open-ended approach to interpretation and collection development.
It's true to say that the name National Portrait Gallery is regularly assumed to imply a collection of staid and listless paintings of household names: a hall of fame or visual record from which all but the rich, powerful and elite have been excluded.
On the contrary, the equal weight accorded by the gallery to artist and subject and the adaptability embodied in our methods of collection building have, in fact, supplied a formula for the creation of a diverse and contemporary group of portraits that simultaneously celebrates the various ways - formal and informal; public and private; traditional and contemporary - that portraiture has been explored in Australia.
The portrait of Marcia Langton, for example - a 2.5m square assemblage of 15 individual screen-printed components - is one of over 80 works acquired by the gallery through its program of commissions, wherein astute combinations of artist and subject infuse to create portraits which are infinitely more than just recognisable, conventional "likenesses".
Langton, a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations of Queensland, is associate provost and foundation chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her current work as an academic and advocate and her contributions to royal commissions and constitutional reforms such the Native Title Act have positioned her as a preeminent, influential voice in First Nations studies. Her many writings and publications illuminate the colonialism and racism underlying certain social, political and cultural structures in Australia.
In his practice, Brook Andrew similarly examines and questions issues of colonialism, race and power. A Wiradjuri man, Andrew recasts and dismantles Western historical narratives, working collaboratively and in various formats and mediums.
In 2010, for example, Andrew created Jumping Castle War Memorial, a strident cross between frivolous fairground attraction and memorial to victims of genocide worldwide. Exhibited as part of the 17th Biennale of Sydney, the giant PVC inflatable was emblazoned with the artist's signature black and white zigzagging lines, which reference his cultural heritage by evoking the dendroglyphs traditionally carved into trees in Wiradjuri country.
In 2016, commissioned by the City of Melbourne, Andrew and collaborator Trent Walter created the sculptural installation Standing by Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, commemorating two Palawa (Tasmanian) men executed in Melbourne in 1842.
Langton, a friend of the artist's, has described him as "one of the definitive Aboriginal provocateurs in the Australian art world". She has written extensively about his work, making Andrew the ideal choice for the creation of Langton's portrait.
Many artists will tell you that, in portraiture, you usually get the best results where there's an affinity or connection with the subject. The same principle is at play when the gallery commissions works for the collection, it being our belief too that the most effective and affecting portraits are those wherein the synergy between artist and sitter - and the sense of the portrait as a collaboration - is most palpable.
On this score, the portrait of Marcia Langton was sure to succeed from the outset. "Brook had the idea of using some ideas from Hindu mythology and expressing them in an artistic way," Langton explains, "to depict aspects of the life of an Aboriginal person as a dynamic, flowing series of events rather than the boring old static idea of the Aborigine in Australian mythology."
For the commissioned portrait, Andrew placed Langton in a pose referring to the interest in Buddhism that she developed while living in Asia in the early 1970s. Black and white skulls signal the sitter's background in anthropology as well as the politics of humankind. The radiant golden diamond-sun alludes to the sitter's work with Aboriginal communities and mining companies, and the zig-zagging dendroglyph designs radiate out in a strong, river-like flow of energy.
The symbolism, dynamism and vigour combine to create one of the gallery's most memorable portraits, and one that since its unveiling in 2009 has become something of an icon - a representation both of the sitter and of the gallery's interest in testing and extending the possibilities of portraiture.
"That's what I really love about the work," Langton says. "I know what went into it. So he's captured me juggling all sorts of things, but it's not just me, you see? It's a big idea in there. It's a very big idea."
- The National Portrait Gallery may have closed its doors temporarily, but you can still learn about the faces in its collection on its website. Visit portrait.gov.au.