Michael Christofas’ ‘Persona’ goes to print: project honoured by Governor-General

"It was recognition that yes the project was worth it, the veterans who've given so much to this country were recognised, the struggle with mental health was recognised," Christofas told Neos Kosmos

Melbourne based photographer Michael Christofas’ latest project ‘Persona’, created in association with the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM) went to print earlier this month.

Releasing just in time for ANZAC Day, ‘Persona’ is a hardcover photography book featuring images of Australian Defence Force veteran artists captured by Christofas, with accompanying text by Gabriel Holmes; the work curated by ANVAM’s Tanja Johnston.

Speaking with Neos Kosmos late last year, Christofas said the seed for what ‘Persona’ was to become was planted during an exhibition hosted by ANVAM in 2017 showcasing the work of veteran artists.

“These people have a story that needs to be told,” he said at the time.

“Some of the subjects in this series have had, or still have mental health issues, such as PTSD, as a result of the traumatic experiences they went through while serving their country.”

With a desire to know more about the people behind the works exhibited and after a chance conversation with ANVAM’s Head of Arts Tanja Johnston, the concept for the series of images began to take shape.

What started off as an idea some five years ago has now gone through a three-tiered iterative release.

In spite of COVID-related postponements, in March 2022 ‘Persona’ was launched at an event held at the Victorian State Parliament’s Queen’s Hall, where twelve portraits were displayed for attendees, including veteran artists, MPs and other members of the community.

Soon after the project launched online as a virtual gallery showcasing the combined work; with captivating imagery of the honoured veteran artists complemented by equally compelling commentary on their individual journeys through life and the artistic world.

And just a couple months prior to the print launch of ‘Persona’, in February 2023, Christofas was presented with an award in recognition of the work from the Governor-General of Australia, David Hurley, during an afternoon tea at Sydney’s Admiralty House.

“It was a little bit surreal, its one of those things where you think, ‘this doesn’t really happen to me’,” he laughs while speaking with Neos Kosmos.

“It was recognition that yes, the project was worth it. The veterans who’ve given so much to this country were recognised, the struggle with mental health was recognised.”

“It made clear that a veteran is not just this stereotype of an old man at a parade, they come from all walks of life, those veterans who were featured in the book couldn’t believe it either, everyone was just over the moon,” he said.

Recently, Christofas told Neos Kosmos that it’s the story behind the image which drives him in his work as a photographer.

As the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words; and that much is evident in the print release of ‘Persona’.

Take for example the story of army veteran and painter, Guy Warren AM; who celebrated his 102nd birthday on 16 April.

Born in 1921 in Goulburn, New South Wales: at the age of 21 Guy enlisted owing to the outbreak of the Second World War serving in New Guinea and Bougainville.

Having had a keen interest in drawing since his youth, Guy’s passion saw him study at the National Art School (NAS) in Sydney upon demobilisation.

Following his graduation from NAS, he moved to London, where he remained for eight years.

Though in that time, he found the English countryside “a bit uninteresting,” as the basis of his work, not for a lack of beauty but simply due to personal preference.

Voula Manousaki sits by pieces of her work at her studio in Heraklion, Crete. Photo: Supplied/Michael Christofas

Instead, he drew inspiration for his art from his memories of New Guinea.

On one occasion, a documentary on the people of the island piqued his interest and his artistic zeal.

When he phoned the BBC about gaining access to the film for reference, he hit a bit of red-tape regarding the lending out of material.

Until he got “a call back from this fellow,” a man by the name of David Attenborough, who asked if he could bring the material around to his home personally so they might review it together and circumvent any bureaucratic roadblocks.

According to Guy’s interview for the ‘Persona’ project, he and Attenborough kept in touch occasionally over the years, he even received a card from the British national treasure to mark his 100th birthday.

“To be honest, being in the presence of someone who’s seen so much, done so much, it was a bit intimidating!” Christofas reveals of the time he spent with Guy Warren.

“But at the same time, he was just so easy to talk to, sharp as a tack, he was truly a delight, we spoke on and on for what had to be a few hours,” he recalls.

A recipient of the 1985 Archibald Prize for his piece ‘Flugelman with Wingman’, Guy himself was the subject of Peter Wegner’s 2021 work which won the same ward.

It’s stories like these which form the character of ‘Persona’, deeply intimate and telling accounts from the lives of defence force veterans whose service informs their works.

But ‘Persona’ is just Christofas’ latest endeavor, with a career in photography spanning 16 years he’s told plenty of stories; with plenty yet to come before his lens.

Stories like the one he gave us a glimpse of at his Mitchell House studio recently.

That of Voula Manousaki of Heraklion, Crete.

“Manousaki is one of the most acclaimed hagiographers throughout Crete, Greece and globally” Christofas says, “In her late seventies, she still works every day in her studio.”

He explained that their meeting was a serendipitous thing, he’d been walking past when he noticed her work and curiosity got the better of him.

Christofas describes 102-year-old veteran artist Guy Warren AM as “someone who’s seen so much, done so much, still sharp as a tack and a true delight. Photo: Supplied/Michael Christofas

“These beautiful works of art she’d make by hand, they’re nothing like the cheap stuff you’d pick up in a tourist trap in Plaka,” he makes clear “this was high end quality work, made the old way with gold foil and tempera.”

“So, we went back a couple of times, she’d call us over as we walked by, all the while she’d have customers there making orders and browsing her works,” he says.

“She’s a treasure, her icons hang in churches, galleries and private collections around the world.”

These are the stories Christofas shares through his work, personal stories about lives lived, trials triumphed and above all, the humanity of his subjects.

And as he told Neos Kosmos, there’s more to come.

With a backlog of images and a strong sense of enthusiasm, he says a second volume of ‘Persona’ is certainly a possibility on the not too distant horizon.

“There’s a reason we called this one ‘volume one’.”

Find more information on the ‘Persona’ project and its print release at https://www.persona.org.au/

Voula Manousaki of Heraklion, Crete, makes her icons using age old techniques passed down through generations. Photo: Supplied/Michael Christofas