Reading Time: 4 minutes
During COVID-19 lockdown, when Sydney-based artist Karen Black was following the news intently, eminent epidemiologist Professor Chandini Raina Macintyre was a recurring figure in most programs. Her public appearances caught Black’s fancy and she set her heart on painting the professor for the 2021 Archibald Prize.
“How she explained the scientific facts around aspects of the virus was easy to comprehend,” Karen Black told Indian Link. “She also had amazing hair and heavy kohl liner on her eyes which I thought looked great.”
This is the second time Karen Black’s work has been selected as a finalist for the Archibald Prize. Last year, her portrait of artist and poet Madonna Staunton was selected.
Black’s decision to approach Professor Raina MacIntyre for a portrait is directly in line with the principles she follows in her art practice. As an artist who concerns themselves with global issues of society, economics, and politics, she pays close attention to the stories unfolding in these situations.
When two powerful women meet
Professor Raina MacIntyre kindly shared Karen Black’s initial email to her:
“I always enjoyed the information you shared and it was also so great to see so many women come to the fore when this kind of expertise was required. Women in jobs that we never hear about. Jobs that look at humanity and our frailty. It was then that I first thought about asking to paint you.”
The two only met once at UNSW’s Kirby Institute. They took off their masks and chatted. The professor told the artist stories of her childhood, her family, her Sri Lankan background and the struggles she faced in her profession.
“I thought she was incredible,” Karen gushed. “I saw Raina as an incredible role model to many young girls who would like to pursue a life in science.”
Like many of us would be, the professor too was shocked when Karen told her that in 100 years of the Archibald, only ten women artists have ever won, and only 17 sitters have been women.
Little did they know that 2021 would be the year that history would be made. For the first time, the Archibald Prize has achieved gender parity, with exactly half of its 52 finalists being female.
‘Professor Chandini Raina MacIntyre’ by Karen Black is a powerful feminist epitome of women amplifying women’s voices.
Capturing a distinct likeness
“It was really important for me to feature Raina’s eyes in the paintings,” Karen said delving into the finer aspects of the portrait. “I wanted them to be larger than life so she would be staring straight back at the viewer.”
While creating the portrait, Karen Black scaled up the size of the face to be larger than life, hoping that the scale of the work could symbolise an “Icon”.
“I had the background much lighter but decided to make it dark so that the viewer would focus on her face,” she said. “While finishing the work I decided to abstract the clothing further and to bring focus to the face again, but also I thought it looked like a regal outfit fitting for a very important person.
The professor’s essentially blank expression doesn’t reveal much, but at the same time speaks volumes.
“I was ultimately trying to portray her compassion and strength,” Karen remarked.
Black worked on the portrait for a few days using the photographs she took the day she met the professor, but then forgot about it after being disappointed with the result.
On the final day prior to the Archibald submission, that night she found herself rubbing out and repainting the face several times.
“In the end, the face only took me a minute or so,” Karen said.
When the finished portrait was unveiled before her, Professor Raina MacIntyre was ecstatic and generous in her appreciation of Karen’s work.
“I was amazed and moved. She did such a fantastic job, capturing a sadness that I explained to her, about the suffering that I have endured in my career as a successful woman of colour. She also captured my hair and face so well. Her work is usually more abstract than this portrait, so that also surprised me,” she said. “I was also deeply touched that she chose to paint me. I feel honoured. Her motivation to paint is very pure.”
“It’s great to be in the finals of the Archibald Prize, not only for me but also for my sitter. It was so good meeting a woman of my own age who has broken through the glass ceiling to reach where she is now.” Karen mused. “Being a finalist brings a lot of attention to your sitter which is very much deserved in this case.”
The works of the 2021 Archibald Prize finalists will be exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney from June 5 to September 26.
READ ALSO: L-FRESH The LION at the Archibald