When Sydney artist Nada Decat was 13-years-old, her mother abandoned her in America with no home, no documents and no family.
Decat slept in cars and survived among San Francisco’s underground youth, raised by a community of artists while her family returned to her birthplace of Japan.
She eventually moved to Australia, where she took up painting with a passion.
Decat has entered her self-portrait titled Le Mat in the Archibald Prize, with successful entrants to be announced on July 21.
Since 1921, the Archibald Prize is awarded annually to an Australian artist for the best portrait of a distinguished Australian. Past subjects have included Hugo Weaving, Gough Whitlam and Tim Minchin.
While Decat professes she is not interested in nationalism, Australian and western identity runs through her work and is the central theme of her entry Le Mat.
“For me, this painting is about migration and creating my life in Australia . . . making my own world here.”
“What does it mean when you’re in the west but you’re made to feel, people make you feel, as if you’re not [western] because you look different.”
Le Mat was painted using walnut oil on primed linen. This approach is unusual among contemporary artists, with walnut oil a common technique during the Renaissance period.
Although Le Mat is painted in a traditional style, Decat has incorporated modern icons into the piece, including the internet meme Nyan Cat, which blended American animation with Japanese music.
Decat is new to painting, having previously focused on music and acrobatics. Growing up in the U.S. she was auditioned for Cirque du Soleil but was turned down due to her lack of documentation.
As an undocumented youth, Decat didn’t miss her absent family as “they weren’t much of a family anyway.”
She was fending for herself from a young age, so when she became “technically homeless”, the change was only a slight alteration.
“I don’t think I had an understanding. I was having fun . . . but looking back it’s like ‘oh fuck’, you know? That’s really fucked up!’”
“Even though I was a victim of a lot of different things I fought. I fought with my teeth and nails. And that’s not a good story . . . people don’t like that. They like to see a victim they can support and I’m not a victim they can support. I’m a victim but not like that. I fight.”
A passion for fighters is evident through much of Decat’s work.
Her entry into last year’s Archibald Prize featured sex worker activists mid-protest, while her other option for this year’s competition was a portrait of feminist Roberta Perkins.
However, Decat does not see her paintings as political.
“I don’t think that’s what (art is) for . . . It’s about culture and expression of our culture which, right now, our culture is kind of disgusting.”
Decat also incorporates internet culture into her work, painting the comments of online trolls into classical pictures of plants and fruit.
She has never directly addressed her past in America in her work.
“I want to. But whenever I start I don’t know how exactly. But I think that it just comes out in all my paintings and things that I talk about. It’s like any history; it’s part of you and it lives on as who you are.”
The finalists of the 2017 Archibald Prize will be on display at the Art Gallery of NSW from June 29 to October 22.