A new portrait of Shami Chakrabarti, Director of campaign group Liberty, has gone on display at the National Portrait Gallery. The photographic portrait is a commission and the first work by British artist Gillian Wearing to enter the Gallery’s Collection.
The black and white portrait was taken with a large-format camera and shows Chakrabarti holding a wax mask of herself hanging from a ribbon. The notion of the ‘mask’ has previously occupied Wearing, but for this commission the idea was initially prompted by Chakrabarti who commented to Wearing that her public persona is mask-like, often interpreted as ‘grim’, ‘worthy’ and ‘strident’. Chakrabarti first sat for the portrait in September 2010, when she was digitally scanned for the wax mask – preferable to a plaster life-cast as it does not distort features. The mask was carefully sculpted and coloured, and includes glass eyes. Chakrabarti then returned to Gillian’s studio in April 2011 to be photographed with the mask. The medium, clarity and composition of this image is reminiscent of the studio portraits of photographer August Sander (1876-1964), whose work has always interested Wearing. Thematically, it makes links to works in the Gallery’s historic Collection that employ masks, including portraits of the actors’ Sarah Siddons by Sir William Beechey and David Garrick by Johann Zoffany. Wearing’s work is an example of a mask portrait which explores a contemporary sitter’s shifting sense of self. It is particularly potent in the portrayal of Chakrabarti, a public figure whose work often raises issues relating to privacy and identity.
Born in London, of Indian heritage, Chakrabarti trained as a barrister and was called to the bar in 1994. She worked as a lawyer at the Home Office for Conservative and Labour governments (1996-2001) before joining Liberty as in-house counsel in 2001 and became Director in 2003. Chakrabarti has written, spoken and broadcast on the importance of the post-World War Two human rights framework as an essential component of democratic society, which includes spearheading specific campaigns on issues such as detention without charge, stop-and-search, and ID cards. She is Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, a Governor of the London School of Economics and a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple.
Turner Prize-winning artist Wearing uses photography and video to explore the disparities between public and private life and between individual and collective experience. Her works include the photographic series, Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-3) made shortly after her graduation from Goldsmiths College, Sixty Minutes Silence (1996), Family History (2006), and a series of photographic self-portraits showing the artist in the guise of members of her family and also other artists, by painstakingly recreating existing photographs using masks and sets. Her work is currently the subject of a major exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery until 17 June 2012