The walls of Doug Heslop’s Hamilton North studio are lined with portraits that document a horrifying time in history.
The Head is a series of “unsaleable” portraits created by Heslop that depict the faces of clergy and other religious workers who have appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
A selection of 12 portraits in the series saw Heslop selected as a finalist for the Blake Prize; a $35,000 prize that encourages conversation about spirituality and religion through art.
Each of the faces has been depicted in stylistically varied ways. Some grotesquely, others more softly; the binding theme results in an unsettling, stomach-turning collection.
“I want the finished work to be recognisable as the perpetrator, but also to depart from it just enough that so that people can get a sense as to what this character is actually like or what they represent to the victims,” Heslop says.
Heslop gathered the source images for the portraits from newspapers. As many of the men depicted have since passed away, most of the images came from historical records, showing the men in their religious dress. Other images have been taken as the individuals left the courthouse.
It’s the least that victims deserve.Doug Heslop
One particularly distressing aspect to the collection is the sheer number of portraits. Heslop has so far painted 22, but says there were reports of over 30 perpetrators in the Hunter Valley alone from the Royal Commission.
While some people might argue that faces of these men should be forgotten, Heslop says he believes it is important to continue to examine these uncomfortable issues. He hopes the viewer will reflect upon not only the abhorrence of the individuals’ deeds but examine the systemic failure to protect children.
“These are local faces, but they are represent a far greater problem than just themselves,” he says.
“As an artist you’ve got limited means as to how you instigate change, but making art about important issues is one thing you can do.”
Heslop says he believes there is still much that needs to be done to prevent these events from occurring again.
“I think there needs to be more than just the Royal Commission. As much as we can, we need to try to keep some sort of pressure on, so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,” he says.
“For example, the penalty for having knowledge of child sex abuse has remained at two years imprisonment. It hasn’t been increased and I don’t think that’s good enough.”
The series has undoubtedly been challenging for Heslop and he says the project has taken a personal toll.
“Initially, I was reading all the transcripts of the Royal Commission, but that can put you in a really dark place. I eventually had to back off and access it via news articles,” Heslop says.
“I did have to pack up the works for a while to focus on making some happier art.”
Raised in a Catholic family in Wollombi, Heslop was a regular altar boy at the local church before being sent to boarding school in Sydney for his high school years. He says that his upbringing was also an influence in his decision to complete the project.
“It was certainly part of my reasoning for making the work. I suppose I feel like I had a bit of a near miss,” he says.
The Head will be part of a touring exhibition next year initiated by artist and abuse survivor Rob House of the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN). After touring, the collection will be bequeathed to the National Gallery of Victoria.
Heslop hopes to finish the series by completing 30 portraits.
“The exhibition will be a good opportunity to get the work shown in some high-profile places and keep the issue on the table,” he says. “It’s the least that victims deserve.”
Heslop’s decision to bequeath the paintings to the NGV is illustrative of the difficulties that come with creating a collection of work of this nature.
“It’s very hard to get work like this off the ground. It’s one thing to make it, but it’s another to convince someone to show it,” he says.
How does he respond to galleries that label the series too inflammatory? Heslop says he is critical of institutions that shy away from taking risks.
“The irony is that the approach mirrors the damping down and the non-passing of information within the church,” he says. “The ‘burying of the past’ on the pretext of not upsetting the victims, is a cunning argument the church has used to silence victims and their calls for justice.
“A series like this brings up some uncomfortable conversations, but it also brings up some really important ones.”