In his sketchily rendered, semi-figurative paintings, Australian artist George Raftopoulos destabilizes icons of nationalist history as a means of critiquing colonial identity.
Raftopoulos was born in Sydney, Australia. He lived in the rural town of Grenfell in New South Wales from the age of five, where his was the only Greek family in town. His experience growing up in a migrant family isolated from his heritage would greatly inform his future work. In 1994, he received a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts from the University of Western Sydney, before receiving a Graduate Diploma in Painting from the Sydney College of the Arts in 1997.
In his pursuit to rewrite his own personal history, George Raftopoulos iconises the past through myth and allegory. National history becomes the subject of his psycho-dramas, a collage of his thoughts set against colonial accounts and rendered in childlike narrative compositions.
Raftopoulos' work mines the complexities of personal identity, especially in the colonial context of Australia. With simple yet frenetic mark making, his paintings wittily and often acerbically take historical figures into expressive realms.
His colonial critique is evident in Persona Non Grata (2019), where the silhouette of colonist Captain Arthur Phillip is destroyed by swathes of blue gestural marks—here, a symbolic gesture reflecting the title, an 'unwanted trespasser' in history. Thievery Corporation (2017) makes reference to Woollarawarre Bennelong, an Eora nation senior who acted as the Aboriginal contact point for Captain Phillip, who established the first European colony on the Australian continent. Bennelong is adorned in high-visibility orange, a warning sign to the ominous background figure of the captain. Hooks dangling from the captain's body suggest the dangerous allure of Captain Phillip's agenda, and how Bennelong was ensnared in this role.
The monstrous impacts of colonial invasion are evoked in Protector (2016—2018), where the traditional portrait bust of a First Fleet captain is deformed into a ghoulish blue mask. The grotesque quality of much of Raftopoulos' paintings hint at the dehumanising agenda of colonisation, where nationalist portrait styles are deformed to reflect his own criticisms of Australia's colonial identity. As the artist suggests, 'it's poking fun at the establishment, the intelligentsia, and existing images that people recognise and know.'
Much of Raftopoulos' practice is autobiographical, referencing his Australian identity and migrant Greek heritage. This is laid bare in his works through the cryptic use of his own Hellenic-style 'Greenglish' text, a conflation of English and Greek language that he graffities onto many of his paintings.
This acculturation is similarly manifested through the inclusion of imagery related to migration. Raft of the Medusa (2015) portrays Raftopoulos' motif of men in boats—here, a response to another news story of 'boat people' fleeing to Mediterranean lands. Allusions to migrant stories conflate mythical voyages like those of Odysseus with modern day experiences, both captured under the blue Mediterranean sky that abounds in Raftopoulos' palette. Odysseus in his boat (2015) echoes the pain of this relentless searching for identity and home, with the titular character painted as a spindly stick figure, isolated in a sea of melancholic blue. This semi-figuration, where an ambiguously-bodied character emerges from a cloud of marks, is characteristic of most of Raftopoulos' paintings.