Vanessa Turnbull (After Titian)
Acrylic & mixed media on panel,
48"h x 36"w, Item No. 16702,
One of Renaissance painter Titian’s most exquisite and important works, Lady in White, is also one of the most mysterious paintings of all time. It remains unclear to this day as to whether the masterpiece was meant as a portrait paying homage to an individual—i.e. the artist’s daughter, wife, mistress, or a courtesan; or whether the painting was meant as a depiction of the embodiment of feminine grace and beauty.
More than half a millenia later, I chose to portray Australian Bundjalung activist Vanessa Turnbull Roberts, who, as an Indigenous youth was subject to similar ambiguities as that of the legacy of the mysterious Lady in White. She is part of the Stolen Generation of forced assimilation. Throughout much of the 20th century—first by law and then later due to the discrimination, prejudice, inequality, and other consequences of colonialization, hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal children were separated from their families. At age 11, Vanessa was forcibly removed from her father. She has since transformed her personal trauma into tireless advocacy work: she earned a degree in law, and defends Indigenous against forced adoption, racism, and the preponderance of mass incarceration and deaths in custody of people of color in Australia.
Like the Lady in White, I have portrayed Vanessa as an embodiment of luminous, bejeweled grace and beauty. Her attributes attest to her cultural heritage; the flag she bears is that of Aboriginal Australia. Like the Lady in White, she gazes directly at the viewer: her eyes asking the question she posed in a recent Guardian essay: “So tell me, are you the bystander or the person who stood beside? Come and rise.”