Diversifying the Portrait: image and identity

The portrait holds a particular place in our culture. The founding of the National Portrait Gallery in the middle of the 19th century aimed to establish ‘a gallery of original portraits … consist[ing] as far as possible of those persons who are honourably commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in arts, in literature or in science’ (Lord Stanhope’s statement to the House of Lords, 1856). In this context a portrait is a plaudit, awarded to the already distinguished; the artist who creates the likeness is of secondary importance to the subject. But just as our contemporary approach to the writing of history no longer confines itself to ‘warriors and statesmen’, so too our understanding of what a portrait can be, and the values it can serve, has altered.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) established the notion of looking’s relation to power, exploring how Western painting traditionally has in mind a male spectator whose ‘colonizing gaze’ joins the artist’s as the axis of power within the work. Can this notion of ‘ocular power’ be subverted in portraiture by contemporary artists, in order to disrupt the status quo, depicting people and lives who may be absent from traditional histories? Indeed, does this established power dynamic even survive in our current digitised networks and drive to image the self?

In the wake of the important work of the 2016 -2017 Diversification of Portraiture at Oxford project to commission new portraits for the University, this event will ask three established contemporary artists with a commitment to diversity, Dr Felicity Allen, Othello De’Souza-Hartley and Åsa Johannesson, how they approach portraiture. The event has been devised by Professor Rebecca Fortnum (former Visiting Research Fellow in Creative Arts at Merton & Professor of Fine Art, Royal College of Art), Ellen Sharman (JCR Arts rep) and Diego Berdeja Suárez (MCR Arts Rep) for Merton Arts Week.

The speakers’ presentations will be followed by a discussion chaired by Rebecca Fortnum.