Celebrating Australia’s identity at the National Portrait Gallery

Andrea Simpson

Come face to face with Australia at the National Portrait Gallery, as the institution celebrates a 20-year milestone with a program representing the diversity of what it means to be Australian.
Celebrating Australia’s identity at the National Portrait Gallery

Look at Me (I), 2017, by Saleheh Gholami finalist in the 2018 National Photographic Portrait Prize.

‘It’s not our role to tell the official story of Parliament; we don’t commission the portraits of politicians or the Justices of the High Court – what the Gallery is really about is Australia’s achievements. Our diversity told through outstanding individuals,’ Dr Christopher Chapman, Senior Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, told ArtsHub.


Twenty years ago, inspired by a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, Gordon Darling and Marilyn Darling helped to establish Canberra’s own National Portrait Gallery upon their return to Australia. Subsequently, the Darlings lobbied successive governments to ensure there was a permanent home for a similar collection of portraits of prominent Australians.

‘Portraiture of course gives us such psychological insights,’ Chapman said, adding, ‘The Gallery is such a unique place to visit.’

By reflecting Australia’s distinctive history, the National Portrait Gallery welcomes visitors to meet the past, and celebrate our nation’s diverse present.

‘Of course portraiture in Australia’s early history was strongly related to influence and power. As we move towards the portraits from our present time the stories become much more diverse. The symbolism and the subtext of portraiture tells us about our history, which also underlines our own individual stories,’ Chapman said.

‘People often think when they walk in that Captain Cook is going to be the first portrait you see, and that is not the case – in fact the first thing you will see is a whole array of contemporary portraits, photographic media, 3D and a range of different paintings.’

The National Portrait Gallery’s approach is one of openness and accessibility. To commemorate 20 years of operations, the Gallery invites the public to enjoy a year of festivities and engaging programming.

Rosie Batty, 2017, by Nikki Toole, type C photograph, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. Commissioned 2017. 


This year’s exhibitions have a distinct focus on the current collection.

‘The collection comprises 70% photographic portraits – we take photography very seriously. We have a terrific collection going back to 1840 through to the present,’ said Chapman.

Program highlights:

  • The National Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 annually celebrates contemporary portraiture by emerging and prominent photographers. The exhibition of 43 portraits is open to the public until 17 June before hitting the road for a national tour.

  • The free exhibition Express Yourself is now showing until 9 September. ‘We commissioned a powerful photograph of 2015 Australian of the year Rosie Batty. This exhibition was a way to place her portrait with other people’s portraits who we believe are true individualists, and whose own life experience stands for bigger symbolic issues.’

  • Chapman explained that Collections: Icons Volume One focuses on ‘icons from Australia’s cultural life – the images we have of them are striking.’ This exhibition is open to the public and will run until 3 June 2018.

  • Don’t miss the Collections Highlights Tour which runs daily from 11:30am – 12:00pm, and where you can learn the histories behind the faces.

To learn more about the National Portrait Gallery’s diverse program, visit www.portrait.gov.au.

About the author

Andrea Simpson is ArtsHub's Feature Writer and Reviews Editor. Andrea is a Filipino-Australian writer with a love for diverse Australian stories. She is curious about all forms of art, though she has an especially keen interest in the publishing sector.

Andrea has had short stories published in various anthologies, and is currently working on her first novel.  

You can follow Andrea on Instagram @andi_jayyy