“Not bad for a couple of Blacktown boys”
In Nick Stathopoulos’s commanding portrait which won the 2016 Archibald Prize People’s Choice award on Wednesday, its sitter, Deng Adut, sees himself exposed and vulnerable.
A monster, thought the former Sudanese refugee and lawyer when he first saw the finished portrait. It showed “a little bit of a bomb cooking in me”, Adut says.
“In that photo you can see me, I’m thinking, see me I’m worried, see me I’m busy, see me I’m just wondering. I have everything about the world in my head, that’s all you can see there, you can see in my eyes, they are red from drinking coffee non-stop all day, trying to get by. That’s the photo of me, trying to get by.”
Of the eight artists who approached him, Adut selected Stathopoulos, who grew up not far from where Adut practices as a lawyer, to paint his portrait for this year’s Archibald Prize.
It took three sittings, one of nearly six hours, and four-and-a-half months – the longest time Stathopoulos has taken for an Archibald entry – for the artist to be satisfied he had captured the essence and likeness of his subject.
Stathopoulos approached Adut after being moved by an advertisement he saw for Western Sydney University which told Adut’s life story: conscripted at age six into the South Sudanese army, shot in the back as a boy, a chance meeting with an Australian couple who sponsored him and a brother to Sydney where he put himself through law school.
“I was so excited when he consented,” said Stathopoulos, a five-times Archibald finalist. “He’s an incredible, powerful and worthy subject for an artist.”
Bearing the scars of time: Artist and subject with the Archibald Prize’s 2016 people’s favourite. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Stathopoulos strove for an emotional quality in Adut’s face and eyes: “I spent a lot of time making sure that all the scars that he had were rendered accurately because they all tell a story, and I think a portrait has to tell a story as well. Then it was a hard slog dabbing each pore in.”
Some of Adut’s scars come from deep scratches from thorn trees. “If it caught you, you wouldn’t get out, so sometimes when you get caught during the war you have to take your shirt off,” Adut says.
The scars faintly criss-crossing his forehead were made when he was aged two. In his village, the tsetse fly was a menace.
“If it bites you, you go blind, so the idea is to cut the nerves that carry the poison to your eye and cause you blindness.”
Other scars are not so evident. On stage at the Art Gallery of NSW in a glittering black suit – one of 17 Stathopoulos says his friend has had locally tailored because he refuses to support sweatshop labour – Adut referred to his family in South Sudan.
There’s his mother, a sister, younger brother and his older brother’s children. The brother who accompanied him to Australia returned to Sudan and was shot dead in 2014. Flashbacks still haunt Adut: “I get it every day. Every night.”
The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Michael Brand, said the Archibald Prize People’s Choice award was a stamp of approval for the artist’s creative vision, and a vote of confidence in the national contribution of the sitter, he said.
“Not bad for a couple of Blacktown boys, I think!” Stathopoulos said.