My Fayum…

Sandra Kontos moved to Athens in 1993 to pursue her studies in archaeology and photography. Photography and archaeology share many qualities, namely they both record or archive the past. It was during this time she discovered the Fayum portraits (first and second centuries A.D.) They fascinated her, “Here I found myself gazing directly into the eyes of people from the ancient world.” Captivated by their melancholic beauty and the mystery surrounding their ancient faces, dress and jewellery, Kontos intensely studied these exquisite portraits. The portraits accompany mummified bodies and were painted on wooden panels by anonymous artists. Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis writes, “Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence.” [1]

Almost a decade later, whilst studying at UNSW COFA, Sandra Kontos experimented with Polaroid transfers. This photographic image transfer process was time consuming and produced fragile unpredictable images. The materiality of the results was a stark reminder of the textured surfaces of the Fayum portraits. Kontos paired the portraits with tea stained replicated maps of the Fayum region. The Fayum “… as it appeared c.1800, when it was surveyed by Napoleon’s Commission. This map, from the Descriptionde l’Egypte, vividly suggests the lush cultivated land, with its small fields, surrounded by rocky escarpments.” [2] This was a definite nod to her Athens days and the magnificent lessons of her archaeological teacher Aggeliki Papadopoulou. Pairing the portraits with the map was also a way of memorializing the dead; of establishing a sense of place for those depicted. An act of making the absent present.

With the discontinuation of Polaroid, this series of portraits now sit precariously in the digital age. The colours of Polaroid 669 film and the tea stained paper stock are unreproducible. These portraits are what Kontos loves about analogue photography. “The process is slow and vivid, random elements are revealed and they are unique objects imbued with the hand of the artist.” Geoffrey Batchen talks about rediscovering photography in the digital age. Sandra Kontos’ photographs are chemical events, actions that occur directly onto the paper stock. [3] The images are made not taken.


Sandra Kontos, Fayum Portrait, 2004


[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, accessed 22 December 2015,

[2] Doxiadis, Euphrosyne, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p. 228.

[3] Batchen, Geoffrey. Blindness and Insight: Photography and/as Ruin, Symposium – The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, SCA Auditorium, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 5 December 2015, Keynote Address.


Pop Art – Perhaps Not So Bright…

After World War II, a sense of optimism prevailed as the United States and Britain enjoyed a remarkable period of economic and political growth. (1) Middle class Americans moved into affordable, mass-produced homes in the suburbs and television became more popular than radio. Mass communication began to saturate homes in the industrialized world. (2)

In Britain, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, artists and thinkers began to rebel against a dull and stifling world bound by social conformity. Looking to the United States, these artists saw “a more inclusive youth culture that embraced the social influence of mass media and mass production.” (3)

Inevitably, a cultural revolution gained momentum, as mass media streamed major events into living rooms around the world. Pop art emerged during the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and the protests it incited, the Civil Rights Movement and its call for equality of African Americans and the women’s liberation movement. (4)

Pop artist’s based “their techniques, style, and imagery on certain aspects of mass reproduction, the media, and consumer society, these artists took inspiration from advertising, pulp magazines, billboards, movies, television, comic strips, and shop windows. These images, presented with (and sometimes transformed by) humor, wit, and irony, can be seen as both a celebration and a critique of popular culture.” (5)

Richard Hamilton’s compelling collage of 1956, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, is crammed with all the new consumer products from the United States. On the surface it is a playful and naïve work, however, as Fiona MacCarthy writes, “at a more profound level it is horribly disquieting. No other work of art of its period expresses so precisely the jarringly ambivalent spirit.” (6) Hamilton’s disdain towards the dominance of America’s consumer culture is abundantly clear in his work.


Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956.

Andy Warhol saw American society as a world of ready-mades. He once famously wrote, “All cokes are the same, and all cokes are good.” (7)


Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962.

Warhol liberated the art world and attitudes towards art radically shifted. It was the ideas behind Warhol’s art that makes him significant. Warhol was saying that Twentieth century America is about this, it is about movie stars, Brillo boxes, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. His art dealer Ivar Karp said, “In this thing orientated world, Andy was a kind of God. America is a thing orientated culture, it’s a culture of objects and we bow down to that God everyday. Andy produced the artifacts. Andy gave us what we bow down to, things, movie stars, boxes, the American dream and life and finally death.” (8)

MarilyndiptychAndy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962.


Andy Warhol poses with his series of prints titled The Brillo Boxes at the Tate Gallery in London on February 15, 1971.

Warhol’s images are contrary to the heroic images of the Abstract Expressionists. On the surface there is a sense of buoyancy and optimism in Warhol’s work. It is glossy and bright, like the products that line supermarket shelves. However, there is also an unsettling quality. For instance, Warhol used a newspaper image of an empty electric chair in 1963 and returned to the subject of the death penalty for the next decade. A disturbing metaphor for death, “the chair, and its brutal reduction of life to nothingness, is given a typically deadpan presentation by Warhol.” (9)

Electric Chair 1964 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1964.

In the aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination, Warhol scoured newspapers and magazines for images of his wife, Jackie Kennedy. Warhol used eight photographs in his series ranging from Jackie arriving in Dallas to attending her husband’s funeral three days later. Warhol said that what bothered him the most was the way the media was “programming everybody to feel so sad.” (10) Echoing his sentiments, Alastair Sooke writes,The serial nature of the Jackie portraits – the way the images are repeated over and over again – is a metaphor for how the news media can work: bludgeoning its audience with a finite set of pictures and words, until we are “programmed” to think and feel a certain way.” (11)


Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, 1963.









8. Andy Warhol A Documentary





Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956.

Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962.

Andy Warhol poses with his series of prints titled The Brillo Boxes at the Tate Gallery in London on February 15, 1971.

Andy Warhol, Electric Chair, 1964.

Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, 1963.