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Remembering Polixeni Papapetrou Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

28 April 2018

The Australian photographer Polixeni Papapetrou, famed for her photos of children dressed up on elaborate sets that echoed art history and other themes, died earlier this month after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 57.

The oldest daughter of Greek immigrants, Papapetrou grew up as an outsider. "I looked different, my food smelt different, I became very conscious of who I was. So I grew up with this sense of not being good enough, not fitting in, of feeling different and I had this unpronounceable name."

After studying law at the University of Melbourne, she worked as a corporate lawyer, a job she very much enjoyed. But "the desire to be an artist was stronger," she said.

She was fascinated by child development, in particular how identity develops through role playing.

Inspired by her childhood feelings of alienation and Diane Arbus's images, she began her career in 1987 by taking photos of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, drag queens, professional wrestlers, circus performers and body builders.

But then she started dressing up children, her own in particular, and putting them in staged settings.

She was fascinated by child development, in particular how identity develops through role playing. She based her 2003 series Dreamchild on Lewis Carroll's 19th century photographs of children in dress up.

Her 2004 series Wonderland relied on scenic backdrops inspired by Sir John Tenniel's illustrations for the the original publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

As her children grew older, Papapetrou moved from fantasy sets to the natural world. Her 2006 series Haunted Country was inspired by 19th century accounts of children who went missing in the Australian bush.

In the 2008 series Games of Consequence she explored her own memories of childhood play outside the home in contrast to the more constricted circumstances of modern life.

She began using masks in Between Worlds, (2009), The Dreamkeepers (2012), The Ghillies (2013) and Lost Psyche (2014) to evoke a more universal and less specific portrait of childhood.

"Normally, the conceit goes that we make children," her husband Robert Nelson, an art critic and professor at Monash University, wrote in his eulogy, "but Poli used to say that the children made her: They made her as a person and made her as an artist."

The sets and costumes went beyond the merely unusual to invoke other recognizable works from art history or literature. Others reflected on environmental, social, psychological and other themes.

Her children Olympia and Solomon Nelson were her main models.

"I know that when I am not here," she said in a 2012 interview, "I have left behind a record of our journey together. They will remember that we had a lot of fun doing this."

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