Grace Tame and Kirsty Neilson with her portrait of Tame.
Grace Tame and Kirsty Neilson with her portrait of Tame.
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Grace Tame and the woman who painted her Archibald portrait

Among the famous faces in the 2021 Archibald Prize, which begins a regional tour next month, is Australian of the Year Grace Tame. The story behind the portrait is one of two women speaking out for survivors of sexual abuse.

Published Saturday 25 September 2021
By Sandra Fulloon
Source: SBS Small Business Secrets

Content warning: This article contains references to sexual abuse. 

Grace Tame is an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual abuse - and is a survivor herself.

What many people don’t know is that she is also an artist.

“Art is a pure human expression that transcends language barriers. It is a freedom of creativity, and of the self, that is so healing,” she says.  

Grace Tame accepting the Australian of the Year award in Canberra earlier this year.
Source: AAP

The 26-year-old Australian of the Year is speaking to SBS from her semi-rural home near Hobart, which she shares with her partner Max. 

“Art really speaks to what I do, as well as someone who advocates for people with lifelong trauma,” she says. 

From the age of 15, Tame was groomed and abused by her maths teacher, who was later jailed for his crimes.

"Grit, you gotta have grit. That is one of the things that I learned," she says of taking on the perpetrator. 

After helping to change the law in Tasmania to allow sexual assault survivors to publicly speak out, she was announced as Australian of the Year. She has used her profile to campaign for a greater focus on the prevention of violence against women and children.

"If I didn't use this platform to speak my truth, which is the very reason I was given it, I would be a hypocrite. And I couldn't live with that,” she says.

“However, creating change is a marathon effort and progress is slow; that's the nature of the beast.” 

'Making noise'

With her platform, too, came many offers from other artists to paint her portrait for the Archibald Prize.

The exhibition, now in its 100th year, is a who's who of Australian culture. The winner receives $100,000.

But it was 34-year-old Sydney artist Kirsty Neilson who stood out to Tame. Neilson has worked with survivors of sex trafficking in Cambodia.

Grace Tame with Kirsty Neilson at the Archibald Prize.
Source: Supplied Kirsty Neilson

It was a "no brainer," Tame says. "When I looked at Kirsty’s work, I saw the raw emotion that stood out.”

“I also have an eye for authenticity and integrity. Those are two of my highest values." 

The artist and subject have now become friends. 

When I looked at Kirsty’s work, I saw the raw emotion that stood out. I also have an eye for authenticity and integrity.

- Grace Tame on Kirsty Neilson

“I was really honoured and blessed that she picked me to paint her portrait for the Archibald,” Neilson says. 

Her work in Cambodia with charity Esther’s Voice helps women and children rescued from sex traffickers, and the details are difficult to hear. 

“Some of the youngest girls we worked with were five and six years old. And that was just heartbreaking. Some are actually trafficked while in the womb," she says.    

“Some fathers will sell off their daughter's virginity to pay off gambling debts, or they'll allow their daughters to be gang-raped out the back of their house by all their friends to pay off debts.”

Grace Tame and the woman who painted her Archibald portrait

While Neilson doesn't speak Khmer, the most widely spoken language in Cambodia, she says she connects with survivors through painting and drawing.

“I've been able to do art therapy with them, and so many who cannot communicate in any other way, cannot express themselves verbally, will use art to share the trauma they have been through."

"We've seen such incredible transformations by the end of these retreats where these girls that were so shut off are smiling, which is a huge thing."

Kirsty Neilson with an early sketch for the portrait.
Source: SBS Sandra Fulloon

Her portrait of Tame, titled ‘Making Noise’, highlights her subject's strength and vulnerability, she says. 

“Grace is so victorious, in my eyes. She is the voice of 2021. She is doing so much good and creating so much change.”

“I wanted to show her passion and her determination as a young female who had been through so much horror, and is still coming out the other side.”

She is the voice of 2021. She is doing so much good and creating so much change.

- Kirsty Neilson on Grace Tame

The pair met for the first time in March for a sitting on the Gold Coast.

“I wanted Grace’s eyes to speak volumes. She has very beautiful eyes, very piercing eyes, and a very strong presence,” Neilson says, looking at the preliminary painting she did, which remains at her home on Sydney's northern beaches.

“I wanted that strength, that courage, that bravery, that honesty, that survivor to come through.”

Kirsty Neilson's finished portrait of Grace Tame.
Source: Supplied Kirsty Neilson

The portrait is among 52 Archibald Prize finalists - selected from 938 entries - that will go on a regional tour next month. 

“To have that painting hanging in this amazing milestone exhibition of the Archibald’s 100th-anniversary celebrations, it just blew me away," Tame says.

But it's not a level of fame she's quite comfortable with yet. 

“I'm not going to lie, it's a strange experience to go look at a picture of your face.” 

"Little old me from Tasmania being among Australian icons and legends who I've looked up to my entire life, you know, it feels a bit out of place."

Sexual violence increasing

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates there are 25 million victims of human trafficking around the world, generating about $150 billion in profits each year. 

It’s an issue Tame and Neilson are working to change through their shared platforms of advocacy and art.

“I was so excited to help bring light to this really, really important issue,” Neilson says. 

“And because of Grace, [violence against women] is getting so much attention.”

Kirsty Neilson and Grace Tame have become friends.
Source: Supplied Kirsty Neilson

Authorities have reported a rise in human trafficking and sexual exploitation cases this year, with police in Cambodia alone arresting almost 300 suspects and rescuing 721 survivors.  

Sexual violence against women in Australia has also risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics says recorded incidents of sexual assault increased 21 per cent from June 2019 to 2021, a rise of 1,367 incidents in one state alone.

Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia CEO Hayley Foster says it points to a desperate need for reform.

“There are horrendous situations taking place during the pandemic and it shows much more support is needed.”

During the recent National Summit on Women’s Safety, Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded Australia is failing to do enough to protect women, calling it a "national shame".

But Tame is calling for more energy and funding to be put into preventing gendered violence from happening in the first place.

“Personally, as an advocate and as a survivor of child sexual abuse, I am at a crossroads,” she says.

“Although we are hearing some mighty great promises, I do not see the political will that is needed to make the necessary changes that are being asked for, not only by myself, but by the experts.”

The portrait will go on a regional tour.
Source: Supplied Kirsty Neilson

Foster applauds Tame and Neilson for raising awareness of such important issues. 

“We should all take our hats off to these incredible women and be very grateful for what they've achieved,” she says. 

"They are driving generational change in our country's efforts to address sexual, domestic and family violence. And, more importantly, to prevent it from happening in the first place."

The two women say they hope to join forces again in the future.

"I would collaborate with Kirsty in any capacity, whether it was in the creative sphere or in an activism sphere. There are lots of synergies there," Tame says.

“Who knows what the future holds; the sky's the limit.” 

The touring exhibition of the Archibald Prize 2021 finalists, including 'Making Noise', begins on 8 October at Gippsland Art Gallery. A full list of dates and locations can be found at artgallery.nsw.gov.au

If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.


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