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The glaring portrait of a fashionably dressed “femme queer brown” artist awaits aesthetes at this year’s Archibald Prize exhibition. Sydney-based Kirthana Selvaraj’s self-portrait is a finalist for the 2021 portraiture prize.
“It feels quite surreal, the Archibald has always been this institution that I felt would be impenetrable for someone like me,” Kirthana mused.
‘The Green Suit, A Self Portrait’
Right away, the iconic expression on the artist’s visage dominates every first impression.
It is a look harboured by many who are part of Australia’s minority and multicultural communities.
“I’m definitely referencing many multiple truths,” Kirthana told Indian Link. “The exhaustion of emotional labour and the disillusionment of when you aren’t really being seen or heard. It is also about refusing to retreat into a more palatable image.”
Having said that, a true thinker like Selvaraj seeks more than relatable representation.
“I was frustrated with the way bodies like mine were portrayed. Almost always, our image was produced by a white person, with this anthropological taxonomy in mind, meaning either something to be studied or something to be fetishised. I think it became really important for me to rupture this,” Kirthana revealed.
“For me, it is about questioning who is authoring the queer brown body in art,” she added. “My identity or lived experience is not monolithic, it intersects with other truths of feeling either invisible or too overly seen, of trying to survive and still be tender.”
Queerness and the South Asian identity
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Kirthana is the youngest of triplets. Her mother grew up in India and her father in Singapore. In the late 90s, her family moved to Western Sydney from a “really white” neighbourhood in Invercargill.
An alumna of UNSW’s Fine Arts program, Kirthana Selvaraj is also an established art therapist with a master’s degree from Western Sydney University. She recognises the impact of art in producing, reauthoring and augmenting self-narratives while working with issues of racial trauma, gender and sexuality, and internalised oppressive systems.
In her art practice, Kirthana predominantly uses oil paint and oscillates between themes of realism, expressionism and abstraction. She was drawn to portraiture because the body itself “is a locus for politics, violence, tenderness and joy” and given portrait painting’s Eurocentric, colonial history.
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Works of artists and intellectuals like Pushpamala N, Alok Vaid-Menon, Achille Mbembe, Audre Lorde, and Jenny Saville have greatly influenced her practice.
Hinting with tints
The colour palette employed in Krithana’s ‘The Green Suit, A Self Portrait’ is breathtaking and deeply meaningful.
The green of her suit alludes to nature, new beginnings, harvest, swelling of life, and healing. Moreover, her body being enrobed in it is also a manifestation of divinity which “not only demands attention but also alchemises public discourse”.
“I think a really masculine, oversized suit is still viewed by society as cis-male clothing. It is also reminiscent of the suits that earlier white sitters in the Archibald would wear to command respect and social positioning,” Kirthana stated. “In this way, I am wearing it subversively. Clothing doesn’t have a gender. Here it is now, on my queer, brown, femme body.”
In the background, the pinks and oranges are a nod to her Indian roots. The arch above her head is rich with the symbolism of South Asian architecture, represents a “threshold into a liminal place”, in this case, “the possibilities of a queer brown imaginary”.
The orange tinge between her collar and in tiny bursts on her suit is the underpaint “rupturing” through aimed at giving the portrait a more dynamic feel.
And the vibrant bindi is a nice touch.
“Right after I catch you with my gaze, I really want to hold this intensity in the centre of my forehead,” she said. “The red of the bindi symbolises the fury of the red flame of Goddess Durga in Hindu mythology as she is transformed into her most ferocious form, Kali.”
Kirthana completed the self-portrait over a period of one month, early in the mornings before work/school or late at night. She described her painting sessions as “delirious long sessions or tiny anxious outbursts.”
“Sometimes I would improvise and paint elements that would emerge, making this painting a combination of observation, interpretation and imagination,” Kirthana remarked.
This is Kirthana’s third time entering the Archibald Prize and her first time being selected as a finalist. She had previously entered her portraits ‘Kirthana’ and ‘Mama Alto’ in 2020 and 2019.
To queer brown artists trying to make it in the art world she says:
Seek out like-minded community; take your time to figure out which spaces make you feel safe and affirmed and keep showing up. I think it’s ok to say no to projects that make you feel tokenised.
Although it’s important to know your own history and what matters to you, it’s just as important to give yourself permission to participate in creative ventures for the pleasure or joy of it. Often as LGBTQIA+, brown people we are denied access to joy and instead are made to see our bodies as inextricably linked with labour and productivity. It isn’t easy to navigate the art industry, but I really believe we deserve a chance to dream of and imagine different futures.
Check out Kirthana Selvaraj’s ‘The Green Suit, A Self-Portrait’ when the Archibald Prize exhibition opens on June 5 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.