How Julia’s immigrant roots inspired her award-winning Archibald Prize painting

Wrapped in the orange-checked blanket of her childhood, artist Julia Ciccarone reflects on her award-winning Archibald Prize painting. 

Taking home the People’s Choice award, her self-portrait titled ‘The sea within’ features the familiar family throw and her father’s suitcase, brought to Australia from Italy.

“My parents came out to Australia in the 1950s … they were from poor families and they were looking for a better life,” Ms Ciccarone told SBS News.

“That suitcase in the painting was my Dad’s suitcase that he brought out when he immigrated here.

“It’s been in the family for a long time and it’s travelled to various places [but now] it’s become the case that we put all of our photos and memories in.”

Julia Ciccarone’s painting titled, ‘The sea within’.

Art Gallery of NSW

The two-time Archibald finalist hopes the symbol of the suitcase will resonate for many.

“It’s about journeys and history. So when people see suitcases, they see them as a vessel for stories,” she said.

“I hope …. people can put their own stories in there.”

The portrait was announced as the People’s Choice winner in a virtual ceremony on Wednesday, chosen by the public from 52 Archibald finalists who had been selected from a pool of 938 entries.

More than 7,800 visitors to the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2021 exhibition and the virtual visit voted for their favourite artwork.

Reflecting on an artwork which evokes themes of immigration, vulnerability and belonging, Ms Ciccarone says art can be an exploration of “who you are”. 

“When you go to Italy, you’re the Australian and when you’re in Australia, you’re Italian,” she said.

“It used to affect me more as a child, but now I’m just really proud.

“It’s part of our history.”

‘The Australian story’

Anne Ryan curated the 2021 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prize and says Ms Ciccarone’s artwork had a “strong visual presence on the wall”. 

“It’s painted in a realist style, which is a popular style with the public, but it was also something about the picture itself that felt very applicable to everyone’s experience over the last 18 months,” she told SBS News.

“That sense of being somewhat isolated, surrounded by stormy seas and that desire to protect oneself.”

Melbourne Artist Julia Ciccarone Announced As Winner Of The 2021 Archibald Prize People's Choice Award

Julia Ciccarone self-portrait ‘The sea within’ won the 2021 Archibald Prize People’s Choice Award.

Getty Images

Ms Ryan says the painting is relatable in other ways, too.

“It’s the Australian story; if you are not an Indigenous Australian, your ancestors – whether it be recently or a few generations back – were migrants,” she said.

“The sense of adventure and bravery that a person has to take if they are going to be migrant … a lot of migrants move for necessity, not all, but it requires you to delve into your very core and find that bravery to go to a place that is strange or different.

“And I think that’s a very lovingly depicted scene in Julia’s work. She’s speaking with affection to a very particular story from her own life and her family’s life.”

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2021 exhibition will not reopen in Sydney due to the extension of the Greater Sydney COVID-19 lockdown.

It can be viewed on the Art Galley of NSW website in a 360-degree immersive visit.

The exhibition will tour six regional venues in NSW and Victoria, beginning with the Gippsland Art Gallery on 8 October. 

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