L-FRESH The LION at the Archibald

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The arresting quality of artist Claus Stangl’s portrait of L-FRESH The LION at this year’s Archibald Prize cannot be doubted. It exudes a sense of tranquillity. Of stillness. Peacefulness. Equanimity. Perhaps even wisdom.

And yet, quite paradoxically, look closer and you’ll detect a hint of dampness on the headgear, as if the subject has been working out. Wait… is that sweat trickling down his face and neck?

“Yes, it is,” L-FRESH reveals to Indian Link. “The painting highlights the mentality of immigrant culture – the constant work non-stop mindset.”

Sweat and determination pave the path from dreams to reality, and the migrant experience teaches us that the best way to face new situations – and obstacles – is with equanimity.

Artist Claus Stangl claims however that it was not L-FRESH’s heritage that initially attracted him. Indeed, it might have been his name FRESH standing for Forever Rising Exceeding Sudden Hardships.

“Although I find his dual identity interesting, my first thought about him was not that he is of Indian or Sikh heritage, but that he is an interesting Australian,” Claus muses. “I think that is what the Archibald Prize is about – interesting Australians brought to life by interesting artists.”

Claus did an “amazing job”, says L-FRESH. “When I saw the finished product, I was blown away! He’s a great artist.”

“It is pretty special to be a finalist at the Archibald,” Claus says of his maiden attempt at Australia’s most prestigious art prize.

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The pair met in 2019 when L-FRESH was working on his anthem for the Sydney Kings basketball team We Are Kings.  They were introduced by Claus’ fiance, music supervisor on the project. Claus was then looking for an Archibald subject.

“We bonded over a long coffee, chatting for two hours,” L-FRESH reminisces.

Claus chimes in, “It was a starting point for me to understand what he’s about, his music, his life. I found him to be a motivated, focussed person, and wanted to bring that out.”

He learned also about L-FRESH’s faith and the five Ks, but decided to keep the symbolism out as it would be “too expected”.

When L-FRESH revealed he keeps fit by boxing, Claus decided to use that to depict the essence of hard work.

“I wanted my portrait of him to be striking, strong and simple.”

For their date at the studio, L-FRESH rocked up with his skipping ropes and strap and worked up a sweat. Claus did some “super-quick sketches” while photographer Nick Lawrence clicked away.

“Showing L-FRESH without his turban made the image more intimate,” Claus notes.

L-FRESH, otherwise known as Sukhdeep Singh Bhogal, spells it out: “At boxing, I can’t wear protective headgear over my full dastar so I take it off, and train in my patka.”

(As it turned out, the navy blue of the background and the orange of his patka did become symbolic – they are traditional Sikh colours, blue being the colour of the warrior and of protection and orange representing wisdom.)

Typically for Claus, it was the only sitting they had.

He explains, “I like to work large-scale; I feel it generates more of a reaction. Because I take time with my portraits, it would not be fair to my sitters, so I end up taking the help of photography. L-FRESH’s portrait is 2m tall and 1.5 m wide; it took 127 hours to create!”

The unusual side-on pose, Claus admits, “revealed itself” and became quite powerful.

“Side profiles can be iconic – figures from monarchy face east on stamps and coins, but L-FRESH looks in the opposite direction, in what is a different perspective.”

It also allowed him to capture the light from behind, giving the portrait a regal, powerful finish.

“I see it as a comment against colonisation,” L-FRESH offers, his humble patka a proud rebuff to the crown featuring ‘our’ Koh-i-noor.

Claus, who moved to Australia from London in 2008, has been painting most of his life. Last year, he decided to give up a 16-year career in advertising as art director (his last job was with Facebook as creative strategist), and commit to art full-time.

“The Archibald has been the best news I’ve had in two years,” he laughs. “It validates my mission and goal.”

READ ALSO: Budding Indianorigin artists in the Young Archie 2019 competition

Portraits have been a favourite part of his work. “I’m fascinated by people primarily. With each portrait I have opportunity to enter another human being’s world. For instance I found L-FRESH to be positive, warm, filled with humility and incredibly intelligent. He’s many things, not just a musician; he’s a thought leader. He has a law degree, he has performed at the UN, he’s inspirational, a role model for different types of people. He’s quite a special guy. I’m lucky.”

Painting people in the music industry – including executives and managers – has been a particular passion, even before COVID made it a challenging time for them.

Claus also agrees that we may finally be seeing the Archibald embrace diversity. “I think it is becoming honest in its representation of Australian society. And it is important for bodies like it to do so. I’m so grateful to live in this growing, emerging, evolving culture.”

Did L-FRESH ever think he would be in the Archibald?

“It is not a goal for me as a musician, but this was the third time I was asked to sit – including this year by another artist.”

Claus gushes, “And there will no doubt be many more opportunities. He’s an interesting guy. He deserves it.”