Tamara Armstrong: The future is female

Artist Tamara Armstrong’s bold and ambitious series ‘Women of Colour’ is set to be exhibited in early March of 2018 at Left Bank Gallery, coinciding with International Women’s Day. The exhibition consists of 12 portraits that spotlight incredible, diverse women of colour and colourful women of substance, style and character. We just had to find out more about it.

Who are the twelve women you have chosen to portray in this exhibition, and can you please tell us a little about the process of choosing them as subjects?

The catalyst for this entire series is Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who graciously agreed in 2015 to let me paint her portrait which was to be my very first attempt at getting into Australia’s most coveted art award; the Archibald Prize. I had first met Yassmin at TEDxSouthbank in Brisbane in 2014, almost a year to the day of our first sitting – when she gave her first ever TED talk ‘What does my headscarf mean to you?’. I was completely captivated by her presence, her energy and her words. She is truly phenomenal! Yassmin’s love of bold fashion and vibrant colour also helped me generate the idea of painting her – as I had previously depicted strong, empowered women but they were all imaginary, fictional faces. Painting someone in real life, who is as fierce as the women I had conjured up in my head, was a challenge I was ready to rise to.

On completion of the Yasmin’s portrait, I was completely hooked! It was challenging, exciting, terrifying and rewarding all at once. The portrait did not get into the Archibald Prize, but I was named a finalist in Australia’s most prestigious portrait award for female Australian portrait artists, the Portria Geach Memorial Award. Attending the opening night for this exhibition, down in Sydney at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, located at the top of Observatory Hill in the Rocks was an absolute career highlight and even better I met so many fellow portrait artists who shared this love of connection with a subject and the desire to keep painting portraits grew further.

I realised that I could paint an entire series of fierce women of colour and colourful woman that I admired and I didn’t have to just wait for the Archibald Prize to do so. Hence the idea for the ‘Women of Colour’ series was born and I have painted fellow artists, musicians, writers, dancers, fashion designers and social advocates from all over the country that I felt a connection to either their work, their designs, their outlook and their greater contribution to fellow women and their communities.

Some of the women I had previously known and met, others I had admired and followed from a distance with the help of social media. The women that get my attention are those that don’t shy away from being seen or heard, they have vulnerably shared huge pieces of themselves either through their art, their stories or through sharing their experiences in a way that is honest and seemingly intends to reach out to others, to offer comfort, to uplift and to celebrate diversity, unity, themselves and each other.

For this series I have painted fellow colour-loving painters Kim Leutwyler and Ellen Stapleton, weaving artist and founder of ‘One Million Stars to end Violence’ Maryann Talia Pau, author and playwright Michelle Law, dance activist and choreographer Amrita Hepi, singer and songwriter Waveney Yasso, model, activist and Prme Minister of the National Indigenous Youth Parliament Aretha Stewart-Brown, fashion designers and sisters Mariama and Isata Thomas as well as the bold and vibrant designs of local fashion houses Mister Zimi, Letitia Green Designs and Diva Headwraps. The 12th work to be completed in the series is actually a self-portrait, which has come about after much personal growth that occurred as a result of focussing on so many beautiful, big hearted women I respect and admire. The thing about painting portraits of other women, is that no matter who they are I find myself inevitably holding a mirror to myself. The connection to each woman and what lead me to asking them in the first place is too strong to completely be able to remove myself from…and trust me I’ve tried to!

Tapping into the essence of each subject is something I take really seriously and I just immerse myself in their faces (and creations, and voices if I can) while I’m working on each painting. I work from photographs that I’ve either taken at our sittings or that I’ve sought permission from fellow photographers to use and work from. Faces are absolutely the hardest thing to get right and some have been kind of straight forward, while others have presented quite a few obstacles and I’ve certainly experienced a lot of doubt. I imagine it’s not unlike finishing a marathon on completion of each piece, when I finally step back and feel as though the work is actually complete I’m amazed and proud of my determination to have kept going – because there have been many times I’ve wanted to give up, stop or throw a can of paint over it. The struggle is real!

What did it mean to you to paint people who you have long admired? Did you notice it changing your process at all?

I’ve realised throughout this entire process – which has been two years in duration – that I wouldn’t be able to paint someone that I didn’t admire. I need to feel a connection to them, I need to see myself reflected in them somehow. It’s a strange thing to explain but it does mean the absolute world to me when these women have agreed to the collaboration because there is so much trust involved. I never take this for granted and I truly feel honoured and privileged each time someone says yes to my proposal.

The process of painting real people has completely changed my way approaching a blank canvas, compared to when I just painted imaginary women. It ups the ante for sure and there’s a real pressure to do them justice without attempting to flatter them too much. If my admiration comes from a genuine place within, then I always trust that the end result will be right, but at the same time I want not only for my subject, but also the wider audience to view the work in a way that they too can really see themselves reflected back. Diversifying the representation of what a beautiful woman looks like is something that is very important to me personally and hence my choice of subjects intentionally aims to play its part in subtly disrupting and challenge the status quo.

I love the bold and defined lines of shading that you use. Has this technique always made appearances in your work or did you find it particularly suited to this exhibition?

My work has evolved so much over the past five years, particularly in my choice of subject matter, but two things that have remained and that I know to be unique to my style is my vibrant use of colour and my bold lines and shapes. For a long time I fought with my style and tried to shake it off and try new things, but ultimately I just can’t block those bold effects they always inevitably make their way out onto the canvas. It made me unhappy when I tried to fight it, much like the way I’ve treated my own physical appearance as a 6’2 biracial woman, with my curly, boofy hair and my inability to not physically stand out. Resistance is futile and I’ve found so much more peace in embracing what makes me stand out rather than fighting it.

As for my bold style of painting, I have tried to create consistency with this series and did decide to include botanicals in each portrait, which is something that many locals may know my artwork for. I’ve also included each subject’s hands in almost all of the portraits, which took a fellow artist to point out to me. These beautiful, strong hands were emerging in each image and I hadn’t consciously been aware of it. Once it was pointed out I made sure to carry this extra form of expression through the remaining works, because much like faces hands can communicate a lot of emotion and intention and I hope the viewers of my work take something extra from this.

Is there anyone you would love to paint, that you haven’t yet?

YES absolutely, but there’s not enough room for me to list them all and rest assured the list has formed. I won’t be stopping anytime soon! Women who are brave enough to share their truth, their passions and vulnerabilities through words, art, music, performance, colour, design, their love of nature, their compassion for positive change or their undeniable self-assurance; are the women I’m forever seeking out and feeling compelled to paint. Another lovely thing that I’ve noticed is that these are the kind of woman I find myself crossing paths with more and more.

Diane Von Furstenberg, an iconic fashion designer once said “I’ve never met a woman who is not strong, but sometimes they don’t let it out. Then there’s a tragedy, and then all of a sudden that strength comes. My message is let the strength come out before the tragedy”, and I 100% relate to these words, it just took following my art and believing in myself and my unique creativity to help me find mine.

Working on this series of portraits has only further ignited my desire to learn more stories, make deeper and more meaningful connections and celebrate the wonderful work of creative women all over this country. The future is female!

Catch ‘Women of Colour’ at Left Bank Gallery, Southport from International Women’s Day on 8 March. You can book for certain events throughout the show at tamaraarmstrong.com.

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