Hollow people

“Appropriation is to use something with the idea that people will identify the static between its former social presence and the way you’re presenting it now” — John Curran

While working on this series of 22 paintings over the year of 2018, in my mind I always referred to it as ‘Hollow People’ because the people in the photographs were almost always anonymous. Their images survived but not their names or stories; not their substance.

The series builds on my past work, which explored the impacts of the still image, the anonymous historical image, and existing and imposed narratives, especially as they relate to women.

What is present in these works? They are images that shape cultural and gender identity; they testify to cultural appropriation (multi layers of this going on); they are portraits of beauty, adornment, tribal belonging, petulance, comedy and oppression. But our almost instinctive knowledge of the sitters’ objectification and subjugation is counter balanced by the humour created by the incongruity of their settings. The visual language draws on the history of art and various cultural traditions. 

Many artists feel an irresistible compulsion to scavenge and appropriate. My drive to understand why was a parallel occupation during the time of creating these paintings. The result of that was a jointly curated group show with my excellent friends Andrea Hughes and Polly Hollyoak, Scavenged, Black Cat Gallery, 95 Johnston Street, Collingwood, 3-14 April, 2019

Here is a list of the paintings with some notes on the sources I used:

How much of me is here?

Daguerreotype of anonymous girl, unknown photographer, ca. 1850-ca. 1860, collection of University of Antwerp

Epirus, my heart

“Costumes Grecs”, hand coloured postcard, unknown photographer, ca 1870; background from Instagram


“Women of Constantinople”, albumen silver photograph by Pascal Sebah, 1873, from left to right, Greek Girl, Armenian bride, Turkish girl from Istanbul; background from Instagram


Hand coloured albumen silver photograph, Talma & Co., ca. 1880.

Toi et moi

‘Vlachs from Albania’, albumen silver photograph, ca. 1880, unknown photographer; Otways in background

Le femme extraordinaires

‘Working woman’ by Baron von Stillfried, albumen silver photograph, National Museum of Denmark, ca. 1875; wallpaper from Nautigals in Apollo Bay; composition after Edward Hopper ‘Rooms by the sea’

Chic. Chic. Cool. Cool.

Anonymous couple, hand coloured photograph by unknown photographer, ca. 1920; background from Instagram

Groom stripped bare

‘Japanese Gentleman in Western Garb’, tinted albumen silver photograph, 1875-1878, Baron von Stillfried; room setting is taken from the recreation of Duchamp’s room: *la chute d’eau, (the waterfall) *le gaz d’eclairage (the eliminating Gas…) 1946-1966, now Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Old futurisms

‘Miss G. Graham’, toned gelatin silver photograph by Ruth Hollick, ca. 1920-ca. 1930, collection of State Library Victoria; background from Instagram

Leonardo’s ascent

‘Concubine with bound feet’ [title attributed by artist] by Lai-Wah & Co, Shanghai, ca. 1899-ca. 1910, collection of State Library Victoria; background – Staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1516, Chateau de La Rochefoucauld Castle, France

 Popsurrealism/art original

“Young woman with hookah”, albumen silver photograph by J. Pascal Sebah, ca. 1870; background from Instagram

Afrique, latest fashion

“Omani women in Zanzibar, latest fashion” by Gomes & Co., ca. 1895; Otways background.

Waiting for/Theatre de La Huchette

Unknown women, glass lantern slide with hand colouring, ca. 1900, unknown photographer; cinema views of the Theatre de La Huchette, Paris.

Teal sky

“Veiled Omano women in Zanzibar” by Gomes & Co., albumen silver photograph, ca. 1895; background after Grant Wood.

Soda love

“Korean Couple in Street Dress, Seoul, Korea”, 1904, glass lantern slide, unknown photographer; background from Instagram


“Fille de Shanghai”, albumen silver photograph, by Baron von Stillfried, 1872, (with modern colour enhancement); raining caryatids after ‘Golconda’ by René Magritte, 1953.

Ma vie en rose

“Bride’s traditional costume from Roumlouki, Macedonia, Greece”, albumen silver photograph, ca. 1900, unknown photographer; background from Instagram

Merchande de pommes, or Factory of inequality

“Marchande d’oranges Alexandria”, albumen silver carte-de-visite, by Hippolyte Delie, 1869; background, British Museum colonnade

Candy foyer

Anonymous child, ambrotype by unknown photographer, ca. 1865  background from Instagram

Secrets, they surface

‘Fille de Lanzhou’, albumen silver photograph, by Baron von Stillfried, ca. 1870 (collection of The MET)


Kensington window, albumen silver photograph by Clementina Hawarden, 1863-64

Speak my name

Anonymous young woman, ambrotype ca. 1860; unknown photographer

Memento mori

This year the Duldig Studio, Museum & Sculpture Garden (East Malvern, Victoria), ran an umbrella decorating competition to raise funds for the care of its collection.

At the opening last night, I learnt that I won!

Here are some pictures and the short artist’s statement that went with the work:

Memento Mori

2018, collage and gold doilies on umbrella; irregular size

Inspired by 19th century photography and reflections on mortality, each image was selected for its beauty and power. Most portraits used are of women, or those identifying as women. Portraits of mourning, decoration, tribal belonging, patriarchal oppression, frippery, joy, power, challenge.

The judges were Leah Justin, Director, Justin Art House Museum, and Ella Hughes, Gallery Manager, Bundoora Homestead. Here’s their statement about their decision:

The winning entry- Olga Tsara’s work Memento Mori Black appealed because of her inventiveness, her clarity, her  level of excellence in execution-  and her beautiful use of everyday materials

The umbrella with its black and white photocopied images fringed with the gold doilies, when first seen in the garden, was both striking and arresting and stood out as much for its simple beauty, as its quiet power. There is an interesting poignancy, discipline and tranquility emanating from the work and we felt the umbrella had a timelessness to its design. It seems to reflect and transcend both eastern and western art traditions with its sparing but selective use of women’s images. Perhaps subliminally Olga also pays homage to Slawa Duldig and the challenges, joy and power she also had in executing her works.

The Absence of Narrative

Though based on photographs of real places, the visual fragmentation evident in these paintings offers no narrative and they don't stand neatly on their own in storytelling. Not that paintings need to have an obvious narrative to have meaning; meaning can be assigned by the viewer. 

Responding to William Eggleston's snapshot aesthetic, I sought to explore how a painter could respond to the challenge of seemingly removing meaning. But removing meaning is harder than it sounds. Painting is not achieved at shutter speed. 

The use of cropping and saturated colours were Eggleston's way of presenting the banal and everyday. It's not really what I've achieved here, but it's been an interesting experience.

These paintings were made for a solo exhibition at Brunswick Street Gallery, 20 October - 1 November 2017. The exhibition is the one I was awarded as second prize in the Small Works Show 2016. Feeling exhausted and uninspired, the works I produced seemed to have no meaning; I seemed to have no need to say anything through them. So that's it. My paintings are visual experiments. 

I hope there is some beauty there. 


A short historical note about the Tapada paintings

The Tapada Limena, (or the covered woman of Lima), was a phenomenon that existed in Lima, Peru, from the 15th to mid-19th Centuries.  Aristocratic white women (criollos), a tiny minority in colonial Peru, wore a skirt and shawl (saya y manto) when going out. The manto was held over the face, revealing one eye only, and afforded the women anonymity. In most aspects of life these upper-class women were tightly supervised, and the customs and norms of Lima were very restrictive. This costume however, would be worn by women when they went to mass every morning, and also as they promenaded in the afternoon. They would then flirt and engage in intelligent and candid conversation with men, never revealing their identity. 

Many attempts by religious and civic officials were made to ban this form of dress, based on the belief that such anonymity would allow immorality to flourish. Scholars writing about and analysing this history talk about European and North American visitors being scandalised by Tapadas, finding their resemblance to Arab women disturbing. Others pointed to their resemblance to the Catholic nun, rendering their assertive, sexual presence very unsettling. Further, men worried about the possibility of unknowingly flirting with their own wives or daughters, or that there may not be an upper-class woman under the veil, but a slave, or a native woman. Or a man. 

By the time colonialism ended in Peru in 1821, this form of dress had all but disappeared. Not because of protest or scandal, but because women wanted to embrace French fashion, and link themselves to symbols of progress and national independence. The photographs on which my paintings are based were created in the 1860s-1870s, when the custom of the Tapada had completely disappeared. There are no known photographs from earlier times of actual Tapadas; the face, hidden by the veil, made the women anonymous, so they were not suitable subjects for studio portraiture. In later decades, as in these examples, the outfit was seen as 'historical costume' and became a profitable subject for photographers seeking to capture ethnic and racial 'types'.

Image 1:  Tapada Limena #1, after albumen silver carte de visite by Courret Hermanos, ca. 1870, 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.

Image 2:  Tapada Limena #2, after albumen silver carte de visite by Courret Hermanos, ca. 1870, 2016, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.

Image 3:  Tapada Limena #3, after albumen silver carte de visite by Villroy L. Richardson, ca. 1865-ca. 1875, 2016, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.


Notes on photographers:

Courret Hermanos. Company of brothers Eugenio Courret and Aquiles Courret. French photographers. Eugenio arrived Lima, Peru 1861 and worked there until his return to France in the 1880s.

Villroy L. Richardson, active 1859-1895. North American painter and photographer. Arrived Lima, Peru 1859 and worked there until ca. 1875.



McElroy, Keith, "La Tapada Limena: The Iconology of the Veiled Woman in 19th-Century Peru", History of Photography, vol. 5, no. 2, April 1981, pp. 133-149.

Poole, Deborah, Vision, Race and Modernity, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997.


Unreadable Presence

The paintings in this series are based on 19th century photographs of anonymous women who are hiding their faces in one way or another. They are anonymous because their names were never recorded, or if they were, this information has not survived. Their hidden faces add to this anonymity and render them 'unreadable'; we don't know their names, and we can't guess their feelings.

Because the images were pre-existing – I have not invented them – my role was to interpret and present them so a certain narrative is conveyed. Through these paintings I explore the taboo, the symbolic and various rights of passage. I hope the works challenge the viewer to consider oppression and empowerment. When imposed, the hidden face is oppressive; when chosen, it’s empowering.

The treatment of the subjects varies: the figures in the small paintings are blended and soft – and black and white – a nod to their intimacy and an attempt to replicate the sublimeness of 19th century photographic techniques. The larger pieces are blocked with colour – bringing them forward into a world where the pop aesthetic speaks volumes about undeniability and presence.

The paintings also explore how photography has responded to women. While some of the images are based on photographs that were probably commissioned by the women themselves or their families - like the picture of the women mourning; or the long haired girls and women, showing off their femininity and virtue; the hidden mother, propping up and comforting her babies while they are photographed; or the flirting Peruvian Tapadas - other pictures are obviously the constructs of the photographers themselves, and depict preconceived racial and generic 'types'. These were almost certainly taken by photographers wishing to capture the foreign and the exotic. Photography has always challenged us to consider questions about the viewer and the viewed, the object and the subject, the passive and the active, the constructed and the truth. Making these vintage photographs the subject of my paintings is part of the narrative I’ve tried to create.

These paintings will be on show at Alternating Current ArtSpace, 248 High Street, Windsor, 3 - 25 March 2017.


List of works & images:

1. Women with long hair, after tintype in the collection of the International Centre of Photography, New York, by unknown photographer, ca. 1860-ca. 1870, 2017, oil on canvas, 92 x 92 cm.

2. Woman with back to camera, after albumen silver photograph by unknown photographer, ca. 1860, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

3. Mourning women, after albumen silver photograph in the W.M. Hunt Collection, by unknown photographer, ca. 1865, 2016, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

4. Hidden mother, after albumen silver photograph in the Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr collection, by unknown photographer, ca. 1860-ca. 1870, 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.

5. Turkische Frau, after albumen silver photograph by Felix Bonflis, ca. 1870, 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.

6. Femme Alger, after albumen carte de visite by Pierre Antoine Leonce Nesme, ca. 1878-ca. 1886, 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.

7. Chinese brides, composite image after albumen silver photograph and glass lantern slide by unknown photographers, ca. 1870-ca. 1880, 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x40 cm.

8. Tapada Limena #1, after albumen silver carte de visite by Courret Hermanos, ca. 1870, 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.

9. Tapada Limena #2, after albumen silver carte de visite by Courret Hermanos, ca. 1870, 2016, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.

10. Tapada Limena #3, after albumen silver carte de visite by Villroy L. Richardson, ca. 1865-ca. 1875, 2016, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

11. Geisha in winter costume #1, after albumen silver photograph by unknown photographer, ca. 1870, 2016, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 cm.

12. Geisha in winter costume #2, after albumen silver photograph by Baron Raimund von Stillfried, ca. 1875, 2016, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 cm.

13. Two women, composite image after tintype by unknown photographer, ca. 1860, and salted paper print in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, by Onesipe Aguado de las Marismasca. 1862, 2017, oil on canvas, 76 x 122 cm.

When routine bites hard...

The opening line of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart.

This series is called Routine, and the images are taken from the Joy Division film clip. The first few seconds of the film have deteriorated, so the tones are khaki and rust. I found the colours very moving.

I'm drawn to images of stairs; their pulse, rhythm. The comfort of routine.

These four small paintings are currently on show at 40 x 40 2016, Brunswick Street Gallery, 11 December 2016 - 21 January 2017. They will also form part of my solo show there in October 2017.



This series of work explores the impact of close-ups and fragmentation. Small details, presented as finished works, appear abstract and dramatic. A wider perspective may reveal them as the mundane objects that they really are; objects that burden our lives: a kitsch vase, a replica Murano ashtray. 

These paintings were exhibited in the group show All I Wish, Black Cat Gallery, 1103 Burke Road, Hawthorn East, 1-20 December, 2016


White tiles only

This small painting is my entry in the Belle Arti Prize 2016 show, at Chapman & Bailey, 350 Johnston Street, Abbotsford, 13 July - 27 August 2016.

My thinking is that I wanted an image that will have a strong integrity within the canvas size and shape (which is supplied, for an entry fee of $50), and also that its subject matter is something I'd love to keep in my home, given the beauty of the child pictured, and the canvas itself (because I don't entertain notions of either selling it or winning the acquisitive prize). 

It's based on a photograph of Sophie at Versailles, when she was eight.

Post script, 17 July 2016: Yesterday we saw the exhibition for the first time; the painting had sold. Mixed feelings; mostly good.

White tiles only, 2016, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 cm.

White tiles only, 2016, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 cm.


The web gives us the world. Sight, sound and movement (no smell or taste though, which somewhat sanitises things). The past is there too. We consume history from a series of stills from photography archives.  Things happen, things move, we watch. 

We watch this movement while we are still. 

Past generations travelled and collected views of the places visited - either taking their own photographs, or buying postcards or photos on their 'grand tours'. The travel experience was fundamental and primary; recording it was a by-product.

This series of paintings is about our consumption of 'happenings' from our static position, and is based on images captured from the web. It's a work in progress. 

A selection was on show at SmallWorks 2016, Brunswick Street Gallery, from 15 May - 4 June, 2016.

Post script: Stillness #1: YouTube won second prize at the SmallWorks 2016 show.

Postcards from Hockney

Taking visual prompts from pink flamingos and the vivid blue skies of mid-century Nu-Colour-Vue postcards, these paintings present views of buildings in Melbourne and beyond. If David Hockney created postcards, this is how they might look.

These are paintings of soul buildings, representing some essentials of life - water, food, shelter, belief, charity and fantasy.

Postcards from Hockney and other paintings will be on show at 69 Smith Street Gallery, Collingwood, from 25 May - 12 June 2016.


Child, ca. 1968

I painted a portrait of my friend from a photo taken when she was about 6 years old. She is tiny and white. White hair, white clothes, white skin. A blank canvas, beginning her life. 

A friend of mine described this painting as Matisse-like, which was funny, because I struggled with it; I was happy with the girl right from the start, but struggled with the background. Then I asked myself, what would Matisse do?.  I flattened out the back and added 'wallpaper' - as Matisse would. I think it works much better.

It's currently on show in a group exhibition: Girlhood #2, Union Club Hotel, 164 Gore Street, Fitzroy, 20-26 November 2015

Here are its various morphs until I finished it....

Series: Abaya

These seven paintings are my attempt to explore the beauty and dignity of women who have lost aspects of their freedom. It follows that the paintings are also about misogyny and sexual jealousy.

In some countries, men (and women) make women dress this way so they can control them.

Veiled, masked, hidden, with no face, women and girls dress this way for their protection, for their self esteem, for their religion, for their liberation, for their parents, for their safety, for their identity, for their non-identity. 

The paintings are also about resilience and endurance. They are interpretations of a selection of images of women in burqas found online. I originally found thousands of images of women wearing burqa, when I searched the term 'abaya'. A friend had spent time working in Saudi Arabia a few years ago, and spoke about having to wear an abaya. I wasn't sure what this was; It turns out it can be a synonym for burqa.

This friend also mentioned funny, little things about how women forced to dress this way, tried to cope and get around in a modern world. There are laundry liquids that are kind to black fabric and won't fade it. There are signs next to escalators, warning women to be careful not to get their abaya caught in the machinery, and injure themselves. 

Google images is mind-blowing. A search for burqa or abaya reveals pages and pages of images of women dressed this way. Who takes these photographs? I doubt some of these are authentic; some seem staged. 

The first two paintings were done in 2013, and five more finished in November 2015. I wanted to achieve the impact of that image-nausea the online environment creates. The pop colours point to the commodification of the women, and the consumer culture which permeates every arena of life.

The colours are also my attempt to make something as oppressive as this, less threatening; I'm looking for some beauty, for some power. The colours bring the images into our Western world, and remind us that misogyny and sexual jealousy are not confined to just a few far-away lands.

Exhibition at 69 Smith Street Gallery

This is my first blog post, and I'm just testing how it will work...

In April this year, I had my first solo exhibition at the artist run gallery, 69 Smith Street Gallery. This Gallery has seven exhibition spaces that they lease out to artists. I was in Gallery 2 on the ground floor.  It was a very interesting experience in many ways. Many friends and colleagues came to the opening, or visited the show while it was on, and were very supportive and encouraging. Polly Hollyoak helped hang it (well, she hung it, I watched) - that's her in the pictures - and Angelo & Sophie helped unpack and pack the show.

What was strange though, was the intense feelings of exposure and worry. I'd shown a couple of things before in group exhibitions, and I show my work on social media (which took some getting used to), but at least on fb and intasgram, one gets feedback in the comments section or the 'like' thumbs. This makes it a bit more personal and comfortable. Showing the original works was so impersonal in comparison. Who saw it? Who hated it?  Did I have cause for embarrassment?  A friend, George, calls what I felt 'post-opening blues'. Hehehe. Yep, that's what I had. 

Olga Tsara - Paintings, 69 Smith Street Gallery, 15 April - 3 May 2015