Identity through portraiture: cultural identity

Learning objectives

  1. Explore how artists convey cultural identity through a range of media and techniques.
  1. Develop portrait analysis, visual literacy and critical thinking skills.
  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A Black woman sits back on a wooden chair in front of a map of London. She is wearing a red cape and gold boots. Her legs are crossed and her arms are folded.
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith)
by Toyin Ojih Odutola
pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper, 2018-2019
88 in. x 42 in. (2235 mm x 1066 mm) overall
NPG 7105
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. is an important part of a person’s overall Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. . It contributes to how we see ourselves, who we identify with and our sense of belonging to a community. Nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, the generation we belong to, and where we live all impact on our cultural identity.

Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. means the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular group of people or society. For example, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our language, religion, rituals and family relationships are all part of our culture. Culture is often an important part of childhood and family life.

  1. Think about your own identity. What elements are most special to you? These could be anything – a friend, family member, hobby, food, place or item of clothing.
  1. Fold a sheet of plain A4 paper in half and then fold it in half again. Open it up. You should have four sections.

    Make a simple, small drawing or yourself in the middle of the page where the folds meet.

    Now draw four things that are special to you – that have influenced your life and helped shape your identity – one in each section.

First impressions

Look closely at these portraits. Look at each one for at least a minute. Notice:

  • the colours the artist has used
  • the Sitter The person in a portrait. ’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. and expression on their face
  • the sitter’s clothes
  • any objects
  • the composition (how the image is arranged)

and anything else that strikes you about the portrait.

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A Black woman sits back on a wooden chair in front of a map of London. She is wearing a red cape and gold boots. Her legs are crossed and her arms are folded.
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith), by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019
  • View larger image
    Yinka Shonibare CBE RA,    by Sal Idriss,    2006,    NPG x128612,    © Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, by Sal Idriss, 2006
  • View larger image
    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7052,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018
  1. What are your first impressions of the person in each portrait?
  1. What is the overall mood of the portrait?
  1. What do you think each the artist is trying to say about the sitter and their cultural identity?

Look closer at ‘Sadie’ (Zadie Smith) by Toyin Ojih Odutola

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A Black woman sits back on a wooden chair in front of a map of London. She is wearing a red cape and gold boots. Her legs are crossed and her arms are folded.
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith)
by Toyin Ojih Odutola
pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper, 2018-2019
88 in. x 42 in. (2235 mm x 1066 mm) overall
NPG 7105
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
The portrait makes me feel as if I belong somewhere.
Zadie Smith, 2020

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith was born in London in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and an English father. She was given the name ‘Sadie’ at birth, as in the title of this portrait, but changed her name to ‘Zadie’ when she was 14.

Smith is a writer. She has written prize-winning novels, short stories and essays and is now a professor of fiction at New York University. Her writing often refers to events in politics and Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. , deals with issues relating to Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. and belonging, and sometimes reflects her own life.

Toyin Ojih Odutola

The artist of this portrait, Toyin Ojih Odutola, was born in 1985 in Nigeria, to Nigerian parents, and grew up in the USA. She is known for her detailed Mixed media Artworks made from a combination of different materials or artistic media such as pen, ink or chalk. drawings on paper.

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A Black woman sits back on a wooden chair in front of a map of London. She is wearing a red cape and gold boots. Her legs are crossed and her arms are folded.
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith), by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019
    • Toyin Ojih Odutola has drawn Zadie Smith with her legs crossed and arms folded. She looks relaxed and confident.
    • Her head is tilted, and she looks out at the artist, and at us, in a warm friendly way.
    • The portrait seems to invite us, the viewers, in so that we feel as if we are part of the conversation.
    • Zadie Smith’s red cape and gold boots make her look heroic (like a super-hero!). Ojih Odutola is a fan of Smith and wanted to show her as a strong, accomplished, brilliant woman.

    • Smith wore a headwrap for the sitting, but she later sent Ojih Odutola a photograph of herself with her afro hairstyle.
    • The artist chose to show her with her hair uncovered in a natural Afro style, as a celebration of her Black Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. . Both artist and Sitter The person in a portrait. wanted to reference Smith’s Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. in this way.
    • It was the first drawn or painted portrait in the National Portrait Gallery of a woman with an Afro hairstyle.
    • The map and palm leaf shadows on the wall behind her reference Zadie Smith’s Mixed heritage The fact of having a family background in which your parents come from two different countries, cultures, religions or ethnic groups. .
    • The map is of Brent in northwest London, where she grew up.
    • Ojih Odutola has used palm leaves to symbolise Jamaica where Zadie Smith’s mother is from. They also link her to her mother’s ancestry, back through the generations to West Africa.
    • Ojih Odutola worked from a photograph taken on her iPhone during a sitting with Zadie Smith (while the two listened to music by the singer, Solange Knowles). Smith doesn’t like having her photograph taken but remembers the session as ‘just a conversation: an exchange of energy’.
    • Ojih Odutola then drew the portrait, adding in the imagined background of the map and palm leaf shadows to help reflect Smith’s Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. .
    • Photographs taken on mobile phones might make us think of quick portrait snaps taken to express an individual personality. By adding more elements to the portrait, Ojih Odutola makes us aware of a wider Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. and heritage that is bigger than an individual.
    • As Zadie Smith said in an interview, the portrait reveals to the viewer ‘a whole world which you are being asked to recognise as significant’.
    • Ojih Odutola used Pastel A type of crayon made from pigments (colour) ground with chalk. , Charcoal A black material made by burning wood slowly in an oven with little air. and pencil on paper to make the life-size drawing.
    • She used a combination of techniques including line, dense Hatching An artistic technique used to create tonal or shading effects by drawing (or painting or scribing) closely spaced parallel lines. and scribbling, and smudging.
    • She has used different approaches to mark-making for the different areas of the portrait. For example, the soft palm leaf shadows are made by smudging the Pastel A type of crayon made from pigments (colour) ground with chalk. . This contrasts with the more Graphic Designs and drawings that are made using simple lines and sometimes strong colours. lines, dashes and dot-like marks that she has used to draw the map.
    • She has used fluid lines and shapes to suggest the folds of Smith’s cloak and trousers. The pattern created by the folds of her cloak and white top seem to echo the shapes of the palm leaves behind her, perhaps emphasising that her Jamaican roots are very much a part of who she is.
    • A detailed, Gestural Painting or drawing using sweeping, energetic movements. pattern of bright yellow marks and lines suggest the sparkle of her gold boots.
    • Ojih Odutola’s closely observed and detailed treatment of Smith’s clothes creates an overall sense of energy and dynamism which contrasts with the Flatter To make somebody appear more attractive, more powerful or better than they are in reality. , more graphic style and softer surfaces of the background.
    • She has chosen to draw a full-length portrait of Smith. This allows her to use Smith’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. and clothing to help show who she is.
    • The composition is relatively simple. The background is divided into Geometric A geometric pattern or arrangement that is made up of shapes such as squares, triangles or rectangles. shapes: the floor, the wall and the map. Smith’s dynamic pose is a striking contrast against these simple shapes.
    • Smith’s figure doesn’t fill the composition. The background elements that reflect Smith’s Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. take up a similar amount of space to Smith in the portrait. This perhaps emphasises the role they play in her story and her cultural identity.
    • Ojih Odutola has created a sense of space within the portrait, through the perspective The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. of the floor tiles as well as the relatively small scale of Smith within the painting.
    • Smith is shown as comfortable within the space and ‘owning it’. The space also seems to make room for us, the viewer. We are invited to be part of the space and join in the conversation.
I wanted to create an homage to the significant work this woman has done, but also a love letter to Black Britain.
Ojih Odutola, 2020

Look closer at Yinka Shonibare by Sal Idriss

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    Yinka Shonibare CBE RA,    by Sal Idriss,    2006,    NPG x128612,    © Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA
by Sal Idriss
chromogenic print, 2006
14 9/16 in. x 14 7/16 in. (370 mm x 367 mm) image size
NPG x128612
© Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London
I’m very interested in the colonial relationships between Africa and Europe, and the fabrics have become a metaphor for that.
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, 2018

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA

The artist Yinka Shonibare CBE The abbreviation for ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’, an award given by the British king or queen for a special achievement. RA was born in 1962 in Britain, where he now lives. He has also spent time living in Nigeria, West Africa, where his parents are from.

Shonibare’s work explores Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. , Colonialism The practice by which a powerful country controls another country or other countries. and Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. . He works in a range of media including painting, sculpture, photography, film and installation.

Shonibare has a physical disability, paralysing one side of his body, so he works closely with assistants to realise his art. He readily acknowledges physical disability as part of his Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. but this does not define his work.

Sal Idriss

Sal Idriss was born in Kumasi, Ghana, and came to England in 1985. He has worked as a professional photographer in London since 1995. He has photographed many significant and inspiring sitters in the public eye including artist and film-maker Isaac Julien, politician David Lammy, actor Sophie Okonedo and writer Bernadine Evaristo.

  • View larger image
    Yinka Shonibare CBE RA,    by Sal Idriss,    2006,    NPG x128612,    © Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, by Sal Idriss, 2006
    • The photograph shows Shonibare sitting on a chair and turning to smile at us in a friendly way.
    • He seems at ease with the photographer and with having his photograph taken.
    • Sal Idriss has photographed Shonibare close-up. He is evenly lit and his features are clear.
    • This means that we immediately engage with his face and his smile. (It is almost as if we are chatting to him and sharing a joke.)
    • The space he sits in is shallow with the background cut off by the brightly coloured, patterned fabric behind him.
    • This suggests the fabric is a key part of the portrait. It is included because it is important to Shonibare and provides us with a clue about his Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. .
    • Shonibare is wearing a traditionally European-style formal jacket. Its pin-stripe pattern has been popular in Britain since the late 1800s.
    • This contrasts with the fabric Backdrop A large piece of material, usually cloth or paper, that is hung behind a person to create the background of their portrait. . This is Dutch wax printed fabric, popular in many African homes across the world. The fabric has a complex, multi-cultural history, which relates to his own Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. , as both British and West African.  
    • He is clearly displaying a medal pinned to his breast pocket. This is the MBE The abbreviation of 'Member of the Order of the British Empire', an award given in the UK for a special achievement. he was awarded in 2005 for the contribution he has made to British society and Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. . In 2019 he was awarded a CBE The abbreviation for ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’, an award given by the British king or queen for a special achievement. – an even higher-level award than the MBE.  
    • Shonibare’s work explores Colonialism The practice by which a powerful country controls another country or other countries. and Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. . It highlights the skills and traditions of peoples whose cultures were suppressed when their lands were colonised by Europeans.
    • The patterned Backdrop A large piece of material, usually cloth or paper, that is hung behind a person to create the background of their portrait. is Dutch wax print fabric. Shonibare uses this type of fabric extensively in his art because of its association with West African societies and Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. .
    • He also uses it to explore the relationship between colonialism, Cultural appropriation The adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of elements of cultural identity from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status. and national Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. . The fabric has a complex, multi-cultural history, which relates to his own Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. , as both British and West African.
    • The fabric was a Dutch imitation of Batik A method of printing patterns on cloth using wax on the parts that will not have any colour; a piece of cloth printed in this way. , a hand-dying technique used in Indonesia, a Dutch Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another country. , which then became popular in West and Central Africa.
    • By using this fabric in his art, Shonibare suggests that the things people use to identify a culture aren’t always what they seem, and that cultural identity is often complex.
    • That Shonibare proudly wears his MBE The abbreviation of 'Member of the Order of the British Empire', an award given in the UK for a special achievement. medal may seem at odds with the Colonial Connected with or belonging to a country that controls another country. themes he explores in his art (MBE stands for Member of the Order of the British Empire). Shonibare is perhaps reminding us that our histories and cultural Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. are complex.

Look closer at Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat

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    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7052,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai
by Shirin Neshat
archival ink on gelatin silver print on fibre-based paper, 2018
60 in. x 40 in. (1524 mm x 1016 mm) overall
NPG 7052
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
When I look back on our encounter, I am left with impressions of humility, wisdom and a rare sense of inner beauty.
Shirin Neshat, 2018

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai is a campaigner for girls’ education. She was born in Pakistan and now lives in Britain. Her outspoken passion for change led to her being shot and seriously wounded at the age of 14 while on a bus to school. This attack was committed by the Pakistani Taliban The Pakistani Taliban is made up of a number of extreme Islamic groups with the shared aim of overthrowing the Pakistani government and establishing a strict Islamic one in its place.   , an extremist group who wanted to ban schooling for girls.

In 2014, Malala became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize The Nobel prizes are awards given every years in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. They are awarded to people "who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind" in the previous 12 months. . This was in recognition of her charity, the Malala Fund, which advocates for girls’ education internationally.

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat is an internationally recognised artist.  She was born in Iran in 1957 and migrated to the USA in 1974. Neshat creates photographs and films that focus on women in male-dominated cultures. She was Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. by the Gallery to take this photographic portrait of Malala Yousafzai.

  • View larger image
    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7052,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018
    • Malala is shown facing forward looking straight at the camera and at us.
    • Her gaze is steady and warm. She isn’t smiling but looks relaxed and calm. We have the impression of a confident young woman.
    • Malala wears a Hijab A piece of clothing that covers the head, worn in public by some Muslim women. , a head covering worn by some Muslim women. It reflects the fact that she is a practicing Muslim and that this is an important part of her Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. .
    • Islamic head coverings come in many forms, but a hijab is usually a piece of cloth wrapped around the head and neck, covering the hair but leaving the face visible.
    • Malala is shown close-up, and the composition is cropped so that only her head and shoulders are in the portrait.
    • This type of composition and Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. is generally used for Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. photographs (such as passport photographs), so that a person’s features can be clearly seen by officials. The artist, Shirin Neshat, is perhaps reflecting Malala’s willingness to face scrutiny for her activism and for standing up for the rights of women and girls.
    • Neshat has chosen to create a black and white portrait of Malala. Her black Hijab A piece of clothing that covers the head, worn in public by some Muslim women. blends into the black background which makes her face stand out in stark contrast. This adds to the power of the portrait as we are drawn to look at and engage with Malala’s face and eyes.
    • She is lit slightly from one side, so although her features are clear, there is shadow down the left-hand side of her face. 
    • The shadows emphasize the forms of her face and help to make her features stand out against the Flatter To make somebody appear more attractive, more powerful or better than they are in reality. , dark background. 
    • They also add to the dramatic quality of the portrait.
    • The ink hand-written text is a poem, Malala II, by Rahman Shah Sayel. It was written in 2011 and is in Pashto, a language spoken mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both Sayel and Malala speak Pashto. Malala met Sayel when she was a young girl. 
    • The poem draws connections between Malala of Maiwand, the Afghan national folk hero, and Malala, praising them both. One line reads: ‘You might have seen the wreckage of your country, but this Malala II is fit and proper enough to find a solution for compensating for that wreckage’.
    • Notice the eyes have been left clear of writing in the portrait. This perhaps symbolises her clear-sightedness and vision for the future. It also makes us aware of her fearless gaze and invites us to engage with her and with the issues that she feels strongly about.
This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change.
Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 2014

Compare and contrast two portraits

Shirin Neshat took a series of photographs of Malala Yousafzai before selecting these two for the National Portrait Gallery Collection.

  • View larger image
    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7053,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018
  • View larger image
    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7052,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018
  1. What are your first thoughts on seeing the two portraits together? How are they similar and how are they different?
  1. What is the mood or atmosphere of each portrait?
  1. How do you think Neshat wants us to respond to the different portraits?
  1. How has Neshat used composition (and cropping of the image), lighting, props and placement of the texts in each portrait?
  1. In what ways might this change how Malala appears and how we see her in relation to her cultural identity?

Reflecting on cultural identity

Think about the portraits you have looked at in this resource.

  1. Have your first impressions of each sitter changed? Why?
  1. In what ways have the artists told you more about the sitters than simply ‘what they look like’?
  1. Do you think cultural identity is an important part of who we are? Why?
  1. If you were creating a portrait of someone you know, how would you tell their story? What would you include in the portrait to reflect their cultural identity?

Exploring further

Explore Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. and Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. further through this selection of photographic portraits from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.

Choose one that interests you.

  1. What techniques and media has the artist used?
  1. How is the portrait composed (arranged)? What does this achieve?
  1. What is the mood or atmosphere of the portrait? How has the artist achieved this (e.g., lighting, expression, pose)?
  1. How has the artist used formal elements such as colour, line, shape, form, tone, texture and space to communicate ideas and meaning?
  1. How has the artist used elements such as props, objects, clothing, background, pose or expression to communicate the sitter’s identity?
  1. What do you, personally, think or feel about this portrait? Do you like it? Can you relate to it in any way?
  1. Find out more about the artist and/or the time and place the portrait was made. Does this change your ideas about the portrait?
  1. How might this portrait, or other portraits you have seen in this resource, influence your own work?