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‘Brian Kenna is a rural polymath who has elevated the business of being self-taught into an art,’ says Brian Dunlop. ‘Multi-talented in building and gardening, his approach is characterised by frugality with materials, respect for the natural, meticulous attention to detail, an aesthetic that favours Shaker-like integrity and the ability to devise ingenious, tangential solutions. Having lived in Victoria’s Western District, particularly the marginal farming land of the Wimmera, he is able to repair and build in many areas and adapt to adverse conditions. Although very much a man of the bush, who bears the signs of physical labour on his frame, he has a quick probing mind, reading widely and having travelled in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.’
This painting portrays Kenna imagining the city of Urfa in South-Eastern Anatolia, not far from the Syrian border, from Dunlop’s description. Dunlop has been to Turkey several times. Urfa, he says, lies ‘at a fault line between cultures and beliefs’. The city’s covered bazaar has retained many traditional features. The lanes are devoted to trades such as carpet-sellers, fabric vendors, jewellers and metal-workers while the shopkeepers sit on the slightly elevated platforms inherited from Ottomon times. ‘The background to the painting is the meydan, or open area, adjoining the bazaar, an entirely masculine place where men squat on traditional wooden stools, playing cards, drinking apple tea, eating pide and borek, shaping business deals, memorising the Koran, fingering prayer beads or simply musing,’ says Dunlop.
This painting was originally a picture of that scene but then Dunlop had an extra bit of canvas sewn onto the bottom and put Kenna in front.‘He’d been taunting me about not entering the Archibald,’ says Dunlop, who admits he hadn’t put in an entry for nine years. ‘So I decided to put him in there.’
Born in Sydney in 1938, Dunlop studied at the National Art School. He now lives in Port Fairy in Victoria. Since 1963 he has had numerous solo exhibitions in Australia and London. In 1981 he was the winner of the Sulman Prize.