A STRIKING PORTRAIT of a black woman was awarded first prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. “Imara in Her Winter Coat” by Charlie Schaffer won the BP Portrait Award 2019.
Imara’s eyes are cast downward, away from the viewer. The varied hues of her skin tone add depth to her facial features and authenticity to her expression. Her hair is styled in short dreads and she is wrapped in an amazing faux fur coat with large black polka dots. The coat is resting around her shoulders. She hasn’t bothered with the sleeves.
CHARLIE SCHAFFER, “Imara in her Winter Coat,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 1200mm x 900mm). | © Charlie Schaffer, Courtesy National Portrait Gallery
Describing the portrait as “mannerist” in style, the judges said the painting stood out because “the skillful depiction of a combination of several different textures including faux-fur, hair and skin are revealed by prolonged looking and together these produce an image that is traditional, but clearly contemporary.”
The judges said the painting stood out because “the skillful depiction of a combination of several different textures including faux-fur, hair and skin are revealed by prolonged looking and together these produce an image that is traditional, but clearly contemporary.”
Schaffer’s portrait was selected from 2,538 entries hailing from 84 countries. A shortlist of four artists emerged in April and the winner was announced June 10.
The first prize includes £35,000 and a commission from the museum worth £7,000. The winning portrait and 43 other top entries will be on view in an exhibition that opens June 13 at the National Portrait Gallery. The show will later travel to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
Black subjects are well-represented among the portraits featured in the exhibition. A dozen portraits depict a fascinating array of black people in a variety of styles and formats, among them, a headshot of artist Frank Bowling painted by London-based Tedi Lena. All of these portraits were made by non-black artists, including the winning portrait by Schaffer.
LONDON BORN SCHAFFER studied at Central Saint Martins and earned a fine art degree from the University of Brighton in 2014. He has been recognized in multiple UK portrait competitions and is a repeat winner of the Brian Botting Prize.
The subject of “Imara in Her Winter Coat” is a literature student and a close friend of the artist. In a statement about Imara, Schaffer said: “She immediately struck me as someone who is uncompromisingly open and who wants to learn about anything and everything.”
The museum added further details about how the portrait was made: “Sittings for the portrait took place over four months, with Imara posing in her warmest winter coat to withstand the studio’s cold conditions. Schaffer set out to paint only Imara’s face, but subsequently added the coat after being inspired by Titian’s Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro in the National Gallery, London, with its pyramidal composition and the subject’s similar attire.”
“Schaffer set out to paint only Imara’s face, but subsequently added the coat after being inspired by Titian’s Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro in the National Gallery, London, with its pyramidal composition and the subject’s similar attire.”
The panel that decided the competition was chaired by Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery. The jury also included Gaylene Gould, head of cinemas and events at the BFI Southbank; artist Gary Hume; chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery Alison Smith; Des Violaris, director of UK arts & culture at BP; and Zoé Whitley, senior curator at Hayward Gallery.
2019 MARKS THE 40TH YEAR of the Portrait Award and the 30th year the competition has been sponsored by BP. Internationally, museums have been facing public demands to reject financial support from companies working in controversial industries, such as weapons manufacturing and opioid production. Calls have also been made for museums to separate from board members associated with such entities. At the National Portrait Gallery, objections have been raised about sponsorship from BP.
Protestors have occupied the museum in opposition to BP, a UK-based oil and gas company. Several artists, including Hume who was on the judging panel, have called for the London museum to cut ties with BP.
According to the Guardian, Hume wrote a letter to Cullinan, the museum’s director, that said in part: “Either we distance ourselves from one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers and embrace the challenge of decarbonising, or we continue to give legitimacy to BP and its business activities that are seriously exacerbating the problem.”
Eight artists previously associated with the BP portrait award sent a separate letter to Cullinan also condemning the connection with BP.
In response, BP said millions of people had visited exhibitions made possible by its sponsorship and that the company supports the Paris agreement on climate change and was modifying its operations to reduce its carbon footprint.
The museum said it respected the views of those who oppose BP, but emphasized that the company’s generosity underwrites free admission for visitors and directly supports artists through the portrait competition
THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY also conducts a photo competition. Submissions for the 2019 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize closed today (June 11). Recent winners of the photography prize in 2018, 2017, and 2016, have been recognized for compelling portraits of black people, too. Each of those photographs were also captured by non-black artists. CT
FIND MORE about the artists and portraits included in the BP Portrait exhibition
FIND MORE about past winners dating to 1990
A real treasure, “500 Portraits: 25 Years of the BP Portrait Award” captures a generation of notable British portraiture. “BP Portrait Award 2018,” “BP Portrait Award 2017,” and “BP Portrait Award 2016” document the annual award. Nearly 300 pages, “National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain” presents a broad selection of the personalities that have shaped the last four centuries of British life.” Published a few months ago, “Eye to I: Self Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery” features self-portraits from the collection of the Smithsonian museum. “The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2016: American Portraiture Today” is covered by a portrait by artist Amy Sherald, who won the 2016 competition hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Sherald went on to paint First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait for the museum.
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