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Reviews/Visual Art

Pure human magic

19 November 2020

The Lester Prize’s 2020 exhibition enchants with its mix of accessibility, inclusivity and celebration of community identity, says Jaimi Wright.

The Lester Prize for Portraiture ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·

Portraiture has been a crowd favourite for centuries.

The genre has an enduring and miraculous capacity to communicate the complexity of human essence onto canvas, a skill which when done well can seem nothing short of magic. The Lester Prize for Portraiture, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, magnifies this magic in its exhibition of forty excellent finalist portraits, which each contribute to a broader sense of celebrating community identity, diversity and accessibility.

With a prize pool of $85,000 available to emerging and young artists as well as professionals, one of the most striking features of this prestigious Australian fine arts competition is its range, both of entrants and subjects. The Lester also has a Youth Finalist category, acknowledging the works of high school students. This accessibility greatly benefits the broad range and scope of the exhibition as its variety of subjects speaks greatly to different identities within local communities.

A man wearing a pale pink turban and a red shirt, checked with mustard yellow reclines on a comfortable chair, his arms behind his head.
Daniel Connell, ‘Gurinderjit Singh after work’ 2019, subject: Gurinderjit Singh, oil on canvas

The exhibition as a whole is a cacophony of different shapes, colours, concepts and mediums; its sheer variety pushes the notion of portraiture to all of its limits. Melbourne-based artist Lynn Savery explores identity between truth and fiction in her whimsical oil on canvas piece Bear hug (2020) found in the very front room of the gallery space. Fellow Victorian Kierah Falkner Babbel’s 2020 acrylic on canvas work Race car ya ya (winner of the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize) is a frankly adorable look at her grandparent’s relationship as told through the neon novelty of their house and possessions. And South Australian Daniel Connell’s Gurinderjit Singh after work (2019) is a fascinating and tender character study of a Sikh in Connell’s neighborhood who provides aid to the downtrodden.

One of the more poignant pieces in the finalist collection is Datsun Tran’s Self portrait pursuing the three perfections (2020). Tran is a first generation Australian from a refugee family, and in his artist statement he describes how his father taught him calligraphy as a child, and the comfort he finds in rediscovering this inherited technique twenty-five years later.

The calligraphy’s significance makes Tran’s work all the more touching as his self-portrait is designed solely with calligraphic brush strokes. Through soft washes and mottled inky tones, Tran has envisioned himself as an embodiment of family and memory. The piece’s warmth and sense of familiarity makes it a welcome experience within this year’s uncertainty.

The work of Martu artist Doreen Chapman is also a testament to the power of identity, family and storytelling within adversity. Chapman, who was born profoundly deaf, began to paint with her mother Mayiwalku Chapman in 2007. As a deaf artist, painting has become an essential medium for her communication and methods of storytelling. Chapman’s oil on canvas contribution Untitled (Maywokka Chapman) (2020) is a portrait of Mayiwalku at Wilarra, a group of saltwater pools at the edge of a large salt lake, Nyayaartakujarra (Lake Dora), near Punmu community.

In Chapman’s painting Mayiwalku is standing on a large painting completed with her Pujiman sister Mulyatingki Marney and together is telling the jukurrpa (dreamtime story) of Wilarra to her families. This kind of identity expression makes for essential viewing, as Chapman’s unique connection to visual storytelling and to country is an important addition in envisioning Aboriginal and Australian identity. Chapman’s use of bright and earthy tones takes the viewer out of the gallery and into Wilarra to experience the story of the country’s dreamtime and her family.

For those at home who cannot make it to see this stellar collection of works, The Lester Prize webpage features a smooth virtual tour of the exhibition complete with guided tours. Visitors can also use the virtual tour feature to vote for the People’s Choice Award until November 29, and access online demonstrations from the Lester Prize finalists for free.

In its accessibility, inclusivity and celebration of community identity, The Lester Prize 2020 is pure human magic.

The Lester Prize exhibition continues until 29 November 2020. Find out who the prize winners are here.

Pictured top left: Doreen Chapman, ‘Untitled (Maywokka Chapman)’ 2020, Subject: Maywokka Chapman, acrylic on canvas. Top right: Datsun Tran, ‘Self-portrait pursuing the three perfections’ 2020, self-portrait, ink on paper.

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Author —
Jaimi Wright

Jaimi Wright is your friendly neighbourhood art historian. She has just completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) at UWA and dabbles in curating, local arts writing, and 19th century French history. Her favourite piece of play equipment is the roundabout even though her stomach should know better.

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