11 September 2019

The Bega Valley's 'Shirl' - changing the face of portraiture

| Ian Campbell
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2017 winner of The Shirl, Misklectic with Judge Tony Albert. Photo: Iain Dawson

2017 winner of The Shirl, Misklectic with Judge Tony Albert. Photo: Iain Dawson

Melbourne based artist Samantha Sommariva AKA Misklectic and her portrait of performance artist Mossy is the winner of Australia’s only youth portrait prize, the $10,000 ‘The Shirl’.

The Shirl is the little sister event to The Shirley Hannan National Portrait Award that also attracts a significant cash prize. Both prizes are supported by the Bega Valley Regional Gallery’s patron Peter Hannan in memory of his mother’s commitment to portraiture.

Renowned contemporary multimedia artist Tony Albert was judge for the second ‘Shirl’, selecting Misklectic from a field of 29 finalists from across Australia.

“The winning work is a video, a collaboration between two artistic friends and offers an amazing insight into each other’s practice and the way in which these two people respond to each other,” Mr Albert says.

“It’s a very challenging idea of what a portrait is and can do, and explores some of the most challenging social issues of the moment.”

In the artist’s statement accompanying the work, Misklectic explains.

“In this work I have been given the privilege of translating Mossy’s spoken work poem into a digital portrait,” she wrote.

“It has been an opportunity to demystify and humanise the concept of a trans-woman and to show the complexity of her identity, be it objectified, demonised, hyper-sexualised in all of her vulnerability, beauty and strength.

“Through our intimate exchange via the lens, this work contains visual symbols that reference our historical collaborations and celebrates our friendship, how we have influenced each other’s work and our artistic growth,” Misklectic wrote.

Click play to watch the winning work…

Tony Albert was the 2017 Sulman Prize judge at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and has been an Archibald Prize finalist for the past two years.

“I didn’t select the work specifically because it is a video, but because it really does stand out in a field of incredibly high calibre and diverse works,” Mr Albert says.

Bega Valley Regional Gallery Director Iain Dawson said The Shirl offers important recognition for up and coming artists aged 16 to 25.

“The first Shirl was won by Liam Ambrose in 2015, he really set a high bar but this year’s finalists have stepped up to the challenge,” he says.

“As Australia’s only youth portrait prize, we are creating something unique – bringing new focus and opportunity for artists, we can be very proud of what’s been achieved here.”

The Shirl wraps a big year in portraiture at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery, which hosted the prestigious Archibald Prize earlier in the year.

“There is great diversity on show in The Shirl,” Mr Dawson says.

“Not just in the faces and artwork hanging on the wall, but also the artists themselves, we have entries from high school students to those practicing at the country’s top art schools.

“People will be blown away by what they see here,” Mr Dawson says.

Liam Ambrose and his 2015 winner. Photo: BVRG

Liam Ambrose and his 2015 Shirl winner. Photo: BVRG

Tony Albert describes being a judge as daunting.

“It is such a privilege and an honour, my own history as an artist is part of the experience,” he says.

“Art is very subjective and if there was a different judge then there would be a different outcome.”

In reflecting further on his decision, Mr Albert described the winning work as very timely and relevant considering the age of the artists taking part.

“The portrait is of the performance artist Mossy doing a performance piece, for me it looks at issues of gender, identity, sexuality and challenging those ideas,” he says.

“The vibrant use of colours really standouts, which I think is a metaphor to reflect some of those strong ideas.”

Mr Albert says winning a youth art prize on the Gold Coast was a big turning point for his own career.

“And I’d encourage artists, don’t be disheartened. I have the biggest collection of rejection letters and I still get rejected yearly,” he laughs.

“These prizes are an opportunity to live and be an artist.”

Tony Albert's self portrait 'As on Me" a finalist in the 2017 Archibald. Photo: Art Gallery of NSW

Tony Albert’s self-portrait ‘As on Me” a finalist in the 2017 Archibald. Photo: Art Gallery of NSW

An aboriginal man for Townsville, Friday’s judging was the first time Mr Albert had been this far south in New Sout Wales.

His self-portrait ‘Ash on Me’ is part of this year’s Archibald Prize which closes October 22 at the Art Gallery of NSW.

His work is a comment on the influence of ‘Aboriginalia’ in the construction of Aboriginal identity, including his own.

In his self-portrait, Mr Albert uses his collection of “Aboriginalia’ ashtrays to personify what is often a generalised depiction of Indigenous culture.

“It was a challenge for me because I thought portraits were for old grey men in suits,” Mr Albert says.

“So I put in work that I would like to see when I see a show.

“I painted myself because to paint someone else is such a daunting task, with such responsibility, I really admire artists with the ability to paint someone else,” Mr Albert says.

With The Shirl being an acquisitive prize, Misklectic’s winning video portrait becomes part of the collection at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery.

The Shirl is on show until November 25 at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery in Bega, open Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm and Saturday’s 9am -12pm.

Disclaimer: Author is part-time media officer for Bega Valley Shire Council.

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