London’s National Portrait Gallery Acquires Five Self-Portraits by Female Artists

The National Portrait Gallery in London, which is currently closed for a major redevelopment, has acquired five self-portraits by women-identifying artists as part of a three-year project to boost female representation in its collection.

The acquisition includes the first self-portrait by a Black woman to enter the gallery’s holdings, Everlyn Nicodemus’s Självporträtt, Åkersberga, from 1982.

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In the painting, Nicodemus’s identities as artist, woman, mother, and wife converge. Speaking of the work to the Guardian, the Tanzania-born, U.K.-based artist called the work “a form of psychological survival.”

Nicodemus is the subject of an upcoming solo exhibition at Richard Saltoun Gallery, which maintains spaces in London and Rome, set to open April 5.

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest acquisitions also include a painting by Rose Finn-Kelcey, a major figure in British contemporary art who had a playful, feminist practice spanned performance, installation, photography, and sculpture. Her self-portrait, Preparatory Study for “Divided Self”, depicts mirror images of herself deep in conversation while seated on a bench in London’s Hyde Park.

In Chila Kumari Burman’s 1988 self-portrait Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed, the artist is similarly cast in two different roles simultaneously, as a young woman and a warrior. A work by the conceptual artist Susan Hiller, Ace (Retrieved), belongs to a series of self-portraits inspired by photo booth images, with artist’s visage reproduced many times over with slight variations in pose in each image.

In contrast, Celia Paul’s painting Portrait, Eyes Lowered features a single melancholic image of herself. Her face is shown yellowed and gaunt, and her eyes appear adrift in contemplation. The work was created as part of series of self-portraits debuted simultaneously with her 2019 memoir, in which the artist opened up on her life and partnership with Lucian Freud. In the memoir, Paul, a frequent muse of the famously domineering Freud, pondered the act of reclaiming one’s power through portraiture. “The act of sitting is not a passive one,” she wrote, adding that now, “I am my own subject.”


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