Art of the Selfie

National Self-Portrait Prize
University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane

Autobiography is often the emotional starting point for an artwork; through a working through and engagement, it eventually becomes autonomous. 

Hilarie Mais, National Self-Portrait Prize


Given the differing interpretations of artists’ self-portraits, it is worth considering the ways in which these self-portraits may lead into artists’ biographies. Parallel to this is the question whether a self portrait is about identity, or is more about art, its processes and the pursuit of these concepts for individual artists. What might a self-portrait reveal of the artist—is it different to other work by the same artist, and how much does the artist’s life influence their work, ideas and conceptual interests? As a sub-genre within portraiture, it might draw the artist, their ideas and approach to art, history and psychology, into the confines of one artwork. But what this genre can disclose about an artist is the subject of academic debate. In an article on the National Museum of Australia’s Encounters exhibition (of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum), co-curator Ian Coates is quoted as saying that the exhibition’s power lies in its ability to ‘re-engage contested histories’. While Indigenous cultural artefacts offer other potential and historical readings, his argument may also be applied to contemporary self-portraiture where he said, ‘I think the best objects are those that remain unresolved… They sit outside of historical narratives in a way that there’s a kind of contradiction to them; on the one hand they remain the same, yet on the other the interpretations around them can change over time’. (Sprague 2015)

The power of this dichotomy is at the heart of the University of Queensland’s National Self-Portrait Prize (NSPP), a biennial invitation-only self-portraiture commission. The project is innovative in its invitation to artists who are not necessarily known for their practice of portraiture. Nor is it restricted to artists who work with representation or figuration. So this commission often extends an artist’s practice, it may stretch them into working with new media, while drawing the audience through what may be interpreted as a personal narrative. The way in which artists respond varies widely—with personal detail, for some, matched by identification with art and its developing ideas, for others. In 2004, Andrew Sayers suggested, ‘During the latter part of the twentieth century, and in our own time, there is a multitude of ideas embodied in the self-portrait. Sometimes the self-portrait is undertaken as an artistic exercise, sometimes as self-affirmation. It can be a statement of professional allegiance, the expression of a relationship or a construction of identity’.

This year’s theme, curated by Michael Desmond, was directed to ‘the declining body’, and its associated entropy and becoming. The contradiction within these two states—and its capture of the transformative power of ageing—is rarely canvassed. The resulting exhibition is a nuanced conversation that embraces many of the uncomfortable realities of the human condition, making for one of the most powerful NSPP exhibitions seen to date. 

Viewers may bring to these works their own construction of the artist’s narrative (which may or may not coalesce with the intention of the artist), as well as events from recent history. Mortality hovers above the theme, and particularly poignant is a self-portrait contributed by Andrew Sayers only months before his death. It is impossible to view Self-Portrait: Man Re-enters the Sea (2015) without an appreciation, not only of Sayers’s early loss, but his role as Director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and the art-historical knowledge that he brought to this painting of a man scuba diving. The positioning of the subject at the bottom of the canvas suggests the dominance of the larger forces—the sea and bubbles of air above. But the lack of horizon, the painting’s watery ambience and the subject’s facial expression, looking up and out with concentration, may suggest a confrontation with his own sobre existential reality. 

Yet the exhibition is not dominated by reflections on age. The winner Fiona McMonagle’s series of watercolour images of her face over one hundred days, filmed as a series of flickering animations, represents her capture of the daily moment. We might conclude that One Hundred Days at 7pm is about a changing demeanour, but it speaks equally powerfully of her practice in its process discipline (the portrait was executed daily as the title suggests), its exploration of new media and the delicacy of the watercolour medium. Judge Jason Smith suggested, ‘Fiona … has produced a quiet but complex picture of herself, and of her art practice’. McMonagle’s work walks the tightrope of identity, and art processes, but also reflects the momentary, a self-portrait indeed more about art than the person.

The installation by Tyza Stewart, Exit Tunnel (2015) puts in context an emotional dynamic in the current generation, in response to technological innovations that may remove the human biological imperative. Stewart’s personal interest in gender expectations are shared with the exhibition’s audience. After walking up a darkened tunnel, and turning a corner, visitors look out from a narrow slot at Stewart’s painted self-portrait. Self-observation from an isolated place may inform the viewer about how Stewart experiences the world. Installation is a new media for the artist, whose paintings to date have depicted transgender identification and the impact of the potential fluidities, often directed personally. The isolation inherent in this installation is telling, but the art process is inherent in the medium and the message.

Michael Cook has also produced a portrait, titled Andu (Son) (2015), that explores the complexity of his identity as an Indigenous man raised in a non-Indigenous family. In this portrait an image of his own face has been overlaid with that of a close relative, adding age and stronger racial characteristics to his photographic portrait, in a method similar to that used in his early series, Through My Eyes (2010). This visual reconstruction taps into Cook’s identities, particularly when he is described (as an artist) in terms of an Indigenous heritage to which he has a complex emotional connection. The constructed image is a fiction with personal remit, and potentially broad identification, and may be seen as part of a particularly powerful addition to his ongoing exploration of the Australian reality. It also speaks to the late Gordon Bennett’s earlier explorations of Indigenous themes, with their historical layers of individual and artistic realities. 

Sally Butler noted at talks over the opening weekend that self-portraiture may be about identification, rather than identity, with resulting works a portrait of art rather than the artist. While self-portraiture is often seen as visual biography, with the artist’s experience or persona interpreted in such a way as to create a personal narrative (by the viewer), this may be less accurate than a reading that allows for the self-portrait to transcend biography. Cynthia Freeland suggested, ‘I believe that portraits in general, and more especially self-portraits, do inform us about selves. But they do so in ways that either undermine or supplement one of the most popular current philosophical accounts of the self, the so-called narrative view. According to this view, the self is or involves an ongoing and coherent story linking past with future into a meaningful whole’. (Freeland 2010)

For conceptual painter John Nixon, whose long career has explored geometry and symbols, Self-portrait – N (2015) is described as the ‘purest expression of what art is’, and highlights his identification with ‘an emblem of my practice as an artist, and of my being’. (UQAM 2015) Patricia Piccinini’s Self Portrait (2015) also avoids her face and figure, instead using two detailed pencil drawings of unorthodox births. Hands and hair are morphed into human limbs, gently grotesque and evocative. These elements are familiar, yet as combinations are hard to look at, a discomforting exposure, as much of the viewer’s fears as of the artist’s. 

Fiona Foley’s photograph of a young woman tied to a tree adjacent to a 1960s style timber chair, is titled School’s In (2015) and evokes the artist’s own youthful confusion, an emotional response to the discrimination and disempowerment she has suffered, particularly at the hands of institutions. Claustrophobia and the confrontation of her difference is ably conveyed, yet this image builds on the artist’s visual language in an oeuvre of performative photographs. 

There are thirty artists included in this prize. Few have offered up traditional self-portraits, and while some images carry either the personal or a sense of themselves, multiple readings of these works will change from this year to the next, especially in a situation where artists are not chosen for their practice of portraiture or self-portraiture. Outside the narrative, these works, either capture the complexity of their endeavours or convey [their] uniqueness in helping us understand both ourselves and our fellow human beings’. (Freeland 2010) It is this focus that gives the exhibition and the prize ongoing relevance. As Mais succinctly suggested, self-portraiture, like other art, necessarily transcends the personal in its journey to success. Context continues to interpret and reinterpret, but the language of the visual has its own unique recipe and power.

Fiona McMonagle, One hundred days at 7pm, 2015. Still from single-channel video animation, 00:00:16, looped. Courtesy of the artist, Heiser Gallery, Brisbane and Olsen Irwin, Sydney. Winner of the National Self-Portrait Prize 2015. 

 Andrew Sayers, Self-portrait: Man re-enters the sea, 2015. Oil on canvas, 180 x 120cm. Courtesy of the estate of the artist, Melbourne. 

Tyza Stewart, Exit tunnel, 2015. Detail. Installation, oil on board, timber, MDF, synthetic polymer paint, Perspex and window tint film painting 185 x 60cm; structure 181 x 173 x 151cm. Courtesy the artist and Heiser Gallery, Brisbane. 

Michael Cook, Andu (Son), 2015. Inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper, image 61 x 55cm, sheet 84 x 70cm. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane. 


C. Freeland, Portraits and Persons. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.

UQAM, National Self Portraiture Prize, The University of Queensland Art Museum, The University of Queensland, 2015.

Q. Sprague, ‘Bringing them home’, The Monthly, Melbourne, 2015, text pp.72-74.

A. Sayers, ‘To Look Within, Self Portraits in Australia’, National Portrait Gallery, 2004. See