By telling the story of Australian Art, we can observe the changing nature of portraiture – the shift from democratic modes such as the nineteenth-century photograph, to oil paintings produced after a number of sittings and preparatory sketches. These portraits tell stories of contact between cultures, including colonial and immigrant experiences. Many of these stories connect to the history of Queensland, through the artists and their chosen subjects.
Swedish-born artist Oscar Friström, a professional artist working in Queensland in the late nineteenth century, was known for his portraiture, including those of Aboriginal subjects. Friström’s Duramboi 1893 depicts James Davis, a young convict sent from Scotland to Australia. Davis escaped from a Moreton Bay penal colony in 1829 and lived with several Indigenous groups in the area, particularly on Fraser Island (where he was known as Duramboi), until he was found in 1842. During this time, Davis learned many languages and customs, and was treated as an honoured guest.
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Besides nineteenth-century portraits of European settlers, those from the twenty-first century include William Yang’s ‘About my mother’ portfolio, from 2003, which accounts for the life of this second-generation, Chinese–Australian woman, who raised the artist in Dimbulah, in far north Queensland.
William Dobell’s The Cypriot 1940 and Brisbane artist Michael Zavros’s Bad dad 2013 both tell tales of migration. Dobell’s painting of Aegus Gabrielides, a Greek Cypriot waiter the artist knew in London in the 1930s, and Zavros’s contemporary self-portrait, in which the artist – the son of a Greek Cypriot father and Australian mother – floats idly in a backyard pool. Gabrielides is an imperious figure in his buttoned-down shirt and tie, regarding us with a direct stare; Zavros, on the other hand, makes playful reference to the mythical Greek Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection.
Dr Kyla McFarlane is former Head of Australian Art, QAGOMA
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Feature image detail: Auschar Chauncy Portrait of Richard Edwards 1874