Portraits from the pandemic

A new exhibition of vivid realist portraits by Adelaide-based artist Daniel Connell highlights the struggles faced by many temporary visa holders during the COVID pandemic, as well as the contribution migrants make to the community.

Feb 02, 2023, updated Feb 08, 2023
Installation view: Daniel Connell's 'CoViv' exhibition at Newmarch Gallery. Photo: John Nieddu Photography

Installation view: Daniel Connell's 'CoViv' exhibition at Newmarch Gallery. Photo: John Nieddu Photography

Daniel Connell: CoViv
Newmarch Gallery

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told temporary visa holders that they should return home, creating uncertainty for many individuals and a period of labour shortages that continue today. This inspired Adelaide-based artist Daniel Connell to reach out via social media to anyone on a temporary visa to send a photo and a story about their current situation in an attempt to reveal more about the people we live with in our community.

The first 14 responses Connell received are the subjects of the expressive realist portraits on display at Newmarch Gallery in the CoViv exhibition.

Temporary visa holders can include working holidaymakers, skilled temporary residents, New Zealand citizens, international students, and seasonal workers. They are often doctors, nurses, IT professionals, telecommunications experts, food growers and suppliers, teachers and carers. Through these portraits, Connell highlights the struggles of temporary visa holders and the contribution they make to our community.

Portait of Keer Bu by Daniel Connell; charcoal, acrylic and oil on canvas, 100xm x 140cm.

The project is part of Connell’s ongoing work with migrant communities. He co-founded, with Rama Ramanathan, the South Australian Professional Networking Association for Migrants (SAPNAM), which has become one of the largest free and voluntary employment services for new migrants in Australia. It also set up Matilda Street House in Eastwood, providing accommodation for recently arrived migrants.

CoViv is a continuation of Connell’s broader art practice of developing large-scale portraits of migrants, particularly of members of the Indian community in South Australia.

The artist uses portraiture as a socially engaged practice, exploring encounter, translocation and belonging. He runs a Portraits and Identity course at the Adelaide Central School of Art, where he employs migrants as models. As well as sitting for the students, the migrants also share their lived experiences of issues relating to identity.

“I have found it to be a powerful project,” Connell says.

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“The students love it and the models love it because they are heard and they are seen in a new space, and they have a chance to be honoured and respected. People who create portraits generally do it out of respect; it creates a respectful space.”

When COVID hit and lockdowns began, Connell wasn’t able to run the course, so he started his new portrait project. The title for the exhibition, CoViv, is a play on the word COVID, adapting the Latin words “co” and “viv”, which means “living with”.

The exhibition has been three years in the making and reflects the relationship that Connell has developed with the subjects over this period, from the initial callout through to the final portraits hanging on the gallery wall.

In addition to the paintings, the exhibition also features a film Connell made with Riggy Ghia of Backfields Productions. The film is an opportunity for the subjects of the portraits to tell their stories and experiences of moving to Australia, with migrants from Germany, Chile, India and China recounting experiences of racism and the difficulty of leaving family behind, especially during COVID. They also discuss the fact that employers are often hesitant to take on individuals on temporary visas, making it difficult to get a job.

Sehas Singh Sodhi, Rehas Singh Sodhi and Kamaldeep Singh Sodhi in front of Daniel Connell’s portrait of Paramjot Singh. Photo: John Nieddu Photography

Paramjot Singh, the subject of one of the portraits and a nursing student, says: “At the beginning of the pandemic, I arrived in Australia, having left home for the first time. My grandfather had suddenly died and he was my main mentor and support. Suddenly we could not work and it seemed we were alone and locked out of everything. This project has already drawn attention to who we are and how we struggled, and it will continue to do so. We are a big part of the South Australian community.”

CoViv offers a snapshot of the many temporary visa holders in South Australia and gives the audience some insight into the struggles and experiences many have faced. Connell has created an exhibition that is only the start of the conversation as he invites the audience to engage with the portraits and learn more about the people we live with, in our community.

CoViv is showing at Newmarch Gallery (128 Prospect Road, Prospect) until February 18.

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