Selfie killed the portrait star

Are selfies a new expression of classic portraiture in art? Thabiso Hika muses with a curator and an artist involved in UJ Art Gallery’s Continuing Conversations exhibition.

As a genre in painting, portraiture has been around for centuries. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, portraits served dual functions – standing as remembrances to authority and affluence that once presided, and capturing the likeness and mood of their human subjects.

I was interested in the idea of discovering contemporary artists’ explorations of the genre, but still remained somewhat ambivalent. I expected close-lipped representations of authoritarian figures and worse, odes to lovers, family members or public figures for which the artists had deep admiration.

Hosted by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Art Gallery, Continuing Conversations is an exhibition on portraiture in the age of the selfie. On show is a selection of portraits from the permanent collections of MTN and UJ, some dating back to the early 20th century, as well as selected portraits from MTN and UJ’s joint emerging artists portrait development programme.

The exhibition includes works by Irma Stern, Gerard Bhengu and Edoardo Villa, and explores themes like power juxtaposed with powerlessness in both male and female subjects. The themes extend to identity – brought to the fore through body politics, occupation, biology and even hair.

Annali Cabano-Dempsey is one of the curators of the exhibition and I asked her whether there’s an emerging portraiture movement among contemporary visual artists.

“I wouldn’t say there is an emergence, one of the reasons that we started the emerging artists portrait development programme is that not many artists will focus on portraiture… It is a valid genre and lots of people from all over the world still do portraiture, but these people get old and there is no one to replace them.

“We want to find those artists. What we do find is that they work with different kinds of media, not your normal painting or sculpture.”

Artist Hemali Khoosal submitted a video installation and film stills for the programme and was voted as the most promising artist. I asked her what draws her to portraiture.

“There’s something about observing someone that’s meditative… I’ve always been interested in the changing nature of people and that’s how I got interested in video portraits. “Instead of feeling someone in a specific moment, you are able to show that they are a living, breathing, moving human being.”

We start talking about whether the selfie has influenced portraiture and Dempsey mentions the hedonism and vanity of celebrity culture and how it only adds to the selfie’s popularity.

Khoosal quietly interjects by drawing on the parallels that can be observed. We all agree that digitisation has democratised the idea of the portrait, while Khoosal points out that selfies, like traditional portraiture, are also about status to a certain degree.

I wonder if this once-exclusive genre of painting reserved for monarchs and the nobility through time has transformed into a readily available art form that can be replicated.

I believe this exhibition allows one to reflect and adds insight on what these “portraits” that we capture of ourselves on a daily basis might mean.

  • Continuing Conversations is showing at the UJ Art Gallery in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, until November 21. Gallery opens Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm

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