Female gaze: Four Australian artists on reclaiming their own image

Mariela Summerhays, Harper’s Bazaar, 27 Sep 2021

In the art tradition, and elsewhere, men have historically determined how women are perceived. BAZAAR’s Head of Digital Content speaks to the Australian artists using self-portraiture to take back the narrative.


OPENING WEEKEND of the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers, is one of the highlights of my year. As much as the subject and technique itself, the story of the relationship between painter and subject is what captivates me: protégés and mentors; artists and politicians. How often strangers will come together for hours, days; then perhaps never again. Still, they’ll always have this intimate knowledge of each other.


THOUGH A DEEPLY PERSONAL endeavour, self-portraiture – especially when undertaken by a woman – has always had the ability to affect society’s perspective of traditionally underrepresented groups, and reclaim stolen power (just think Frida Kahlo and her defiant post-Diego Rivera self-portraits, hair cut off and dressed in his oversized suits).


For Thea Anamara Perkins, Arrernte and Kalkadoon artist with family ties to the Redern community, painting a self-portrait always yields new insight; both as an individual, and extension of an extraordinary dynasty of First Nations activists and creatives. “There’s always a bias when painting someone; you can project your ideas of them over time onto their image, distracting from capturing their essence,” she shares over email. “I find this is heightened in a self-portrait.”


Still, Perkins persists, and the result is nothing short of revelatory for those of us with preconceived notions of what First Nations’ art must be. Much of Perkins’ inspiration is drawn from familial scenes captured on camera; background noise is muted, so the pure, undistilled essence of what it means to be Indigenous in contemporary Australia can be captured. “[Painting is] an opportunity to reflect on my own life, and my unique experiences as a First Nations woman…it can also be very vulnerable trying to articulate yourself to others.” 


Visit her digital portfolio, and a quote compels you, “It’s about taking charge of representation – I find that painting is a very simple and direct way of communicating things that I want to say.” Though her works are characteristically cinematic, almost dreamlike, her message is clear – she is taking back how Aboriginal people can and should be portrayed.