Sarah Jane Moon on her portrait of Dr Ronx, queer visibility, and the contemporary portrait genre


The portrait genre is changing and New Zealand-born, London-based painter Sarah Jane Moon is at the forefront of that movement. Here, DIVA catches up with SJM after she was selected to be part of this year’s BP Portrait Awards Exhibition at London’s prestigious – and arguably heteronormative – National Portrait Gallery.

DIVA: Congratulations on being part of the BP Portrait Award Exhibition this year! Is the work of yours being displayed different to past achievements?

SARAH JANE MOON: Thanks so much! It’s a real thrill to be in the BP Portrait Award as it is such a competitive show to get into and really represents the best of portraiture internationally. It’s an exhibition I’ve been to as a viewer many times in previous years and I’ve always really admired the work included. It’s amazing to be selected for the show, and to have my portrait of Dr Ronx used all over London to advertise it too!

Dr Ronx by Sarah Jane Moon.

What does it mean to paint a portrait in 2019?

Portraiture is inherently about people and relationships. It’s a fascinating undertaking to try and represent someone, their identity, how they see themselves, how they are seen and how they perform various aspects of themselves. As we are human and a social species, I think that personal connections will always hold interest for us. However, portrait painting is a very loaded genre tied traditionally to status and propaganda, and therefore in 2019, I think it’s important to widen this scope. To include people who may not have traditionally thought to represent themselves via a painted portrait and to open out the dialogue around portraiture – to include not just notions of status and position but of authenticity, integrity and diversity.

How do you feel about queer art taking up space in the mainstream art ecosystem? Is there enough of it?

I think it’s fantastic to celebrate and amplify queer people and ideas. This is very much what my work is about. To be represented in such a mainstream space is really important. The BP Portrait Award is one that many young people are taken to on school trips or family holidays and I know that this painting in particular has struck a chord with so many young people of colour, as well as those in the LGBTQI community. Certainly, there could be more queer art prioritised in mainstream spaces – and funded too.

Bernie and Elaine by Sarah Jane Moon.

Dr Ronx’s motto is, “You cannot be what you cannot see”. Why are portraits a good medium to create visibility?

Portraits are visual and immediate. You can look at one and take it in in seconds really, as opposed to a novel or play, and so I think there is an immediacy that is useful in our oversaturated culture. However, most portraits are hung in gallery spaces or private collections, both places that can be difficult to access for a range of reasons. This is why I was so thrilled that my portrait of Dr Ronx made it out on to the streets of London. So many people who wouldn’t normally have the time or desire to go to a gallery were able to see it in their daily lives, which meant a lot to both of us.

Krishna Istha by Sarah Jane Moon.

Why is your subject’s environment so important to you?

Portraits that take in a person’s gesture, mannerisms, clothing and surrounds have always been more visually interesting to me and convey more about someone’s identity than “just the face.” How we sit, stand and hold ourselves is so personal and unique to each of us. I like symbolism in painting too and so the objects included often hint at other aspects of a person’s identity…

Feeling inspired? Sarah recommends checking out visual artists Lola Flash, Sadie Lee, and Zanele Muholi. As part of the BP Portrait Award Exhibition, Dr Ronx will tour the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 7 December-22 March 2019. From 2-14 November 2019, Sarah exhibits 18 paintings in the show Queer Portraits at The Department Store, Brixton.

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