Portraits of the minority Uigur people from north-west China will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery
as part of this year's BP Portrait Award exhibition. The portraits are by Emmanouil Bitsakis, winner of the BP Travel Award 2008. Bistsakis won a £5000 bursary to travel and paint the Uigur following his winning proposal 'to record in portrait form the uniqueness of this minority culture to demonstrate a small part of the vastness of China.'
Bitsakis visited the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region of China in October 2008. The Uigur are a far eastern branch of the extended family of Turkic peoples who live in a large region extending through Central Asia. They are culturally distinct from the majority Han Chinese and alongside their religion of Islam, their music and dance idiom, 'Muqam' is the core of their identity and culture.
Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang was Bitsakis's base during the trip and from here he had access to the main Uigur centres, such as Kashgar and Turpan. During his trip Bitsakis wandered into the Uigur neighbourhoods attempting to speak the local language and record their life by sketching or making portraits of them. He says, 'Focusing on each person's uniqueness helped me to avoid 'exotism'. I illustrated my portraits by using various local, picturesque forms. In these portraits I emphasized the personal features of the sitters in order to penetrate into their own microcosm, which was completely unfamiliar and yet in some ways common and recognizable.'
Colourful miniature oil painted portraits of some of the people Bitsakis encountered will be on display alongside the small notebooks he took on his travels. He used these notebooks to record the lives and habits of the Uigur people with detailed observations and intricate pen drawings. Bitsakis lives in Greece and studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts and at Vakalo School of Art and Design.
Each year exhibitors in the BP Portrait Award exhibition are invited to submit a proposal for the BP Travel Award. The aim of the award is to give an artist the opportunity to experience working in a different environment, in Britain or abroad, on a project related to portraiture. The artist's work is then shown as part of the following year's BP Portrait Award exhibition and tour. Last year for the first time we asked for submissions for the 2008 Award to only be based in China. The National Portrait Gallery and BP decided to make this link with China, to celebrate the hosting of the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing, and the China Now festival which took place in the UK in 2008.
On Tuesday 16 June the winners of the BP Portrait Award 2009 - and BP Travel Award 2009 -will be announced. The three artists shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award 2008 are: Annalisa Avancini for Manuel, Michael Gaskell for Tom and Peter Monkman for Changeling 2.
The BP Portrait Award, now in its 30th year at the National Portrait Gallery and 20th year of sponsorship by BP, is a highly successful annual event aimed at encouraging artists to focus upon, and develop, the theme of painted portraiture within their work.
The BP Travel Award 2008 was judged by;
Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London
Liz Rideal, Art Resource Developer, National Portrait Gallery, London
Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP