Tamas Wells is a contemporary artist and portrait painter based in Melbourne, Australia.
He lived for seven years in Myanmar working with aid organisations (2006-2012). His recent series 'What we see through the window' explores the isolation of old and younger people in Myanmar during 2020 and 2021 through the COVID-19 pandemic and following the brutal military coup of February 2021. See a recent interview with Tamas below about the series.
For further information about Tamas' works and commissions contact us by email
What we see through the window: Interview July 2021
How did the ‘What we see through the window’ series come about?
I am living in Melbourne now but was thinking about Myanmar a lot through last year with COVID. It is one thing to be in lockdown in Melbourne. Much harder for most people in Myanmar. And then after the coup in February it has just been awful there. We have lots of friends there and hearing them talk about the protests and now the impact of COVID, it is a total tragedy and hard to see any way out.
There were the obvious things that we all saw, the footage on the internet. But I was also thinking about all those millions of people inside their houses, scared of COVID, or scared of soldiers on the streets shooting at innocent civilians. So I had that idea of people looking through their windows and trying to represent that.
What made you think about a series of portrait paintings?
That was kind of unconscious actually. We were in lockdown last year in Melbourne. I have always enjoyed drawing but with being stuck at home for months, I started to do a lot of drawings – mostly of older people. I ended up filling up a whole wall in our living room with sketches, which sounds a little crazy in retrospect. But I guess we were all a bit crazy last year. Then I slowly shifted over onto canvases more recently.
There is something about the faces of older people especially that conveys the weight of what is going on Myanmar. I wanted to capture some of that. There are a couple of paintings there of famous Myanmar activists as well. They have just had the weight of the world on their shoulders for so many years. I imagined the fatigue that they must have after this latest coup and tried to capture that in the paintings, especially the one of Min Ko Naing.
You obviously couldn’t do the portraits in person? How did you develop the pictures?
It was a bit hard to be able to travel in this last year! I would love at some point to be able to go and do some painting there. But this time when we were mostly in lockdown in Melbourne I was able to get inspiration from photographs. I looked at the work of some great Myanmar and international photographers. But the paintings are meant to be interpretations. I found it interesting that when you recreate a face there is something different about the emotion that the face brings. Just the smallest turn of a mouth or eyelid and it conveys something different. We are so attuned to reading faces. So a few of the paintings are meant to be representations of real Myanmar people, but others are a bit more imagined.
And what about music? How did you find putting together a series of paintings compared to recording?
There are lots of similar things about the process. The main thing is about sifting between the keeps and the fails. With albums I often have a hundred songs before sifting it down to ten or eleven tracks on an album. It wasn’t quite that many paintings but there were certainly quite a few fails! The big problem with painting is that you can’t go backwards. With recording these days you can always just click undo on the editing or save a different version. Put another layer of paint on a portrait and there is no taking that off again!
And what is next for your painting?
The portrait artists that I love, all have a really obvious voice that they bring. They are representing and conveying something about the person they are painting but they also bring their own clear voice to it as well. I guess it is about trying to develop that voice yourself. It's not that different from music either where you are trying to develop a set of songs that stand together with some coherence. I would love to continue working with contexts in Asia where I have spent a lot of my life, but am also interested in doing a series with people closer to home as well.