The biannual Sanlam Portrait Awards Top 40 showcases some of the best two-dimensional portraiture in the country. It’s also an interesting look at how South Africans see themselves, writes Grethe Kemp.

They stare at us through the canvas, their head-on gazes at once daring and startling.

Some of them are conventionally beautiful portraits of striking women, such as Themba Mkhangeli’s Serenity, while others, like Kate Arthur’s Genna and Felix, show bodies we don’t always see in portrait work – a queer couple, partially dressed.

Themba Mkhangeli’s Serenity

“I want my work to represent bodies in a beautiful way, but often these bodies have been rejected by society or there might be prejudice against them,” Arthur recently told The Herald.

In fact, Arthur never expected that this work would even be accepted into the Sanlam Portrait Awards, let alone win.

“I never thought Genna and Felix would win because the second portrait was less confrontational. Initially, I didn’t even think [the winning piece] would be accepted and even now, I still don’t know what the broader aspect of winning this competition means to me and my work going forward,” she said.

Arthur, who won the R100 000 prize, says most of the people she paints identify as queer in one form or another, but that “queer doesn’t necessarily mean gender, but includes sexuality and politics.” Her second entry, Kwena, also made it into the top 40.

Kate Arthur's Genna and Felix

Kate Arthur’s Kwena

Hosted by the Kwazulu-Natal Society of Arts, the competition received almost 1 400 entries – almost double that of the 2015 awards.

The winner was chosen by an independent panel of judges, which included the UK’s Peter Monkman, a winner of the prestigious BP Portrait Award presented at the National Portrait Gallery in London. He was assisted by Nkule Mabaso, curator of the Michaelis Galleries at the University of Cape Town and Pretoria-based artist and lecturer Carl Jeppe.

Other entries include Lwando Lunika’s Untitled, whose subject’s relaxed, headlong gaze is rendered almost photorealistic by the artist’s pencil. Leanne Oliver’s Theia captures the strength of her subject, with her challenging gaze framed by the black paint on her chest.

Lwando Lunika’s Untitled

Leanne Oliver’s Theia

Ilandi Barkhuizen’s self-portrait Foute van My Voorvaders – Mistakes of my Forefathers – is uncomfortable and challenging to look at. The spike at the subject’s throat is a metaphor for our nation’s past and present.

Ilandi Barkhuizen’s self-portrait Foute van My Voorvaders

Percy Maimela’s Listen to the Fellow evokes redemption, with the subject doused in a white liquid.

Percy Maimela’s Listen to the Fellow

Jacques Andre du Toit’s The Fledge evokes Gustav Klimt with its high-colour depiction of sex, this time an interacial couple. Cindy Lewis-Williams adds a touch of humour with Judge Me Not, showing a bearded biker propped naked on his bike.

Jacques Andre du Toit’s The Fledge

Cindy Lewis-Williams's Judge Me Not

Questions of who gets to paint who arise. Many white artists presented portraits of black subjects, while the vice versa isn’t true. What does this say about the white gaze – which tends to perpetually face outward instead of being self-reflexive?

We only picked up three black artists in the top 40, and one looks forward to seeing more black entries.

Portraiture as a vocation in Britain saw royalty select an artist who would put them in the most flattering light. Under the painter’s brush, jowelly kings and sour-faced queens were rendered regal and dignified – making their paintings propaganda to the nation.

Not so any more, modern portraiture is focused on finding the truth in the subject matter.

What’s clear, at least in this particular series, is that South African portraiture is more confrontational than it’s ever been. The demure woman painted in light watercolour is gone, and is replaced by bold pieces that show people as they are – flaws and all. Instead of the face, the body is now where the focus lays.

The fresh, challenging work that makes up this prize is an encouraging representation of a brave wave of portrait artists showing themselves, and others, in South Africa.

.The exhibition is on at the the Kwazulu Natal Society of Arts until April 29. It will then go on tour through Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Knysna and George