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UNSW Art & Design graduate Jason Phu has the rare honour of being selected as a dual finalist in the Archibald and Sulman prizes, two of Australia’s most prestigious art competitions.

Phu’s bold, irreverent ink works explore his heritage as a Chinese Australian born to parents who lived through the Cultural Revolution and Vietnam War.

A 2011 Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate who also studied in Nova Scotia and Beijing, Phu is one of six UNSW alumni named among this year’s finalists for the Archibald Prize for portraiture.

Shaun Gladwell, who was the official Australian War Artist in Afghanistan in 2009, is also in the running for the Archibald with his black and white portrait of Corporal Mark Donaldson, VC, along with Filippa Buttitta, who painted the artist Judy Cassab.


Shaun Gladwell's portrait of Corporal Mark Donaldson, VC.

Phu’s portrait of Carriageworks director Lisa Havilah and her husband Glenn Barkley, former curator of the MCA is done in “new ink” style – a contemporary take on traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Titled Lisa has a much more pleasant face than Glenn. She doesn’t sing horribly while playing guitar or try to put her cat up a tree while I’m painting her, Phu’s piece depicts Havilah, Barkly and his cat Brian against a backdrop of scribbled calligraphy.


Jason Phu's 'Lisa has a much more pleasant face than Glenn. She doesn’t sing horribly while playing guitar or try to put her cat up a tree while I’m painting her'.

The characters are crudely formed – a deliberate commentary by Phu on his rudimentary grasp of written Chinese as the Australian-born child of migrants.

Phu’s father lived through the Vietnam War and his mother survived China’s Cultural Revolution.

He draws inspiration from the tensions inherent in his Chinese-Australian upbringing, embedding childhood stories, poems written on Google Translate and truisms from his parents in the calligraphy.

“It’s little snippets of things I remember them saying to me, but they have been twisted from their original meaning through language barriers, time and a completely different context,” he said.

“In making art you have to be truthful and I’m constantly aware of being a person who was born here. I don’t want to Orientalise myself as some wise Chinaman; I’m trying to interpret what my life is through how I’ve grown up.”

Phu is a finalist in both the Archibald and the Sir John Sulman prize, which is awarded to the best subject painting, genre painting or mural project by an Australian artist.

Joining him in the Sulman race is UNSW Master of Fine Arts student Fiona Lowry, who won the 2014 Archibald prize with her ethereal portrait of architect Penelope Seidler, and alumnus Stephen Ormandy, cofounder of jewellery company Dinosaur Designs.


Fiona Lowry's 'Through me forbidden voices'.

Lowry’s monochrome, metallic Through me forbidden voices, depicts bushranger John ‘Black’ Caesar – an African slave who fled America seeking freedom in Britain only to end up a convict in Australia.

The bushranger had a relationship with fellow convict Anne Power which resulted in a daughter. Four years after her birth, he was shot and killed.

“It’s a curious story because it reveals that colonial Australia was multi-racial from the outset,” said Lowry.  “I was interested in what must have been the despair around his relationship. For me his story holds within it universal truths about love and loss and desire.”

Lowry’s stripped-back portrait , contrasts with Ormandy’s Attention seeker, an abstract kaleidoscope of form and palette.  

Stephen Ormandy

Stephen Ormandy's 'Attention seeker'.

Phu’s Sulman piece, I was at yum cha when in rolled three severed heads of Buddha: Fear, Malice and Death, flips the peaceful, calming symbology of Buddha into something “quirky, stupid and hateful” and contrasts it with yum cha, which he describes as a quintessentially Australian rite.

It is Phu’s second consecutive year as an Archibald finalist but he said it was more of an honour for his parents than for him.

“They have to tell their friends that their son’s an artist, but they can say he’s been in the Archibald so he’s made it,” he said.

“I don’t see it as I’ve made it, but I hope that the public can take something from my work and enjoy it.”

Phu plans to move to Chongqing in September to open a studio and undertake formal training in Chinese painting and calligraphy.


Jason Phu's 'I was at yum cha when in rolled three severed heads of Buddha: Fear, Malice and Death'.

The full list of UNSW-affiliated finalists in the Sulman, Archibald and Wynne landscape art prizes is available here. Winners will be announced on July 17.