Anne Zahalka, Marriage of Convenience (1987)


…the idea that appearances can be deceptive has been central to Zahalka’s practice. Often conflating reality with fiction, she has appropriated or re-staged iconic images and simulated period styles as part of an ongoing enquiry into the nature of image making, and the representation of the world in which we live.” (Rees, 2007: 41)

Marriage of Convenience is part of the wider ‘Resemblance’ series produced by Australian photo-artist Anne Zahalka during a residency in Berlin. This photograph is immediately recognisable as drawing on and referencing a European painting tradition. It is a ‘resemblance’ of Jan Van Eyck’s Marriage of Arnolfini (1434); the original painting depicting Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife.

Zahalka’s version features artists Graham Budgett and Jane Mulfinger, both friends of Anne Zahalka at the time. The original version is steeped with symbolism; the oranges, fur lined robes, glass windows, the large red bed, and ornate candelabra are all evidence of wealth and opulence. It also raises questions; who are the people reflected in the prominent mirror, is she or isn’t she pregnant, and is Arnolfini greeting the viewer? The image is richly textured and nuanced.

Similarly, Zahalka’s version raises questions. Whose keys are on the table, why do they sit beside what look likes two passports; what is the relationship between the two people represented, and what clues do we see to their identities as artists? These clues are, from my perspective, pointing to issues of identity and how it is defined and represented. How our interactions with ‘things’ can be used to define us, in seeing Jane and Graham in this setting we associate them with the setting in which they are placed, it is hard not to assume a relationship.

The presence of the passport seems particularly important as documents very much associated with identity, embodiment and photography. In Foucauldian terms passports are regarded as new ‘technologies of power’, socio-technical artefacts that ‘regulate bodies over their movement.’  (Keshavarz, 2015 :13)

It is through passports that individuals come to know themselves as international mobile – immobile or partially (im)mobile subjects and bodies. (Salter, 2006)

In referencing the tradition of European portraiture, particularly the Dutch tradition, I think Zahalka was also drawing attention to her own identity as an Australian artist at a time when there was much debate about Australian culture and a desire to move away from historical links to Europe. Rather than Van Eyck’s statement of his presence on the wall Zahalka includes her own portrait.

The image also pokes fun at the tradition and includes references that locate it in its own time – the radio in the foreground and Budgett’s ‘Zoological Park’ is on the wall behind him.

Zahalka has mentioned that she sees the subject as just another object in the room, being equally interested in what surrounds them. When we look into these surroundings, however, we know they are not merely décor. They are the staging, and the ceremony, of the world.   (Woodard, 2009)

I was fortunate to see Resemblance in Australia, and was immediately struck by the scale and beauty of the images, at nearly a metre square their presence was arresting. The rich surface quality enhancing the detail of the image.

But a photographic portrait is also only one moment in the course of a sitting and many expressions pass across the face during this time. So while we might want to read into the person presented before us in the photograph, through their face and eyes – the so-called ‘window to the soul’ – there is no real way of knowing. Everything else in the picture however is a clue. (Rees, 2009)

References and citations:

Keshavarz, M. (2015). Material practices of power–part I: passports and passporting. Design Philosophy Papers, 13(2), 97-113.

Rees, K. (2007). Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. In Centre for Contemporary Photography (Ed.). Victoria, Australia: CCP.

Rees, K. (2009). Hall of Mirrors: Anne Zahalka portraits 1987 – 2007.   Retrieved 11th October 2017, 2017, from

Salter, M. B. (2006). The global visa regime and the political technologies of the international self: Borders, bodies, biopolitics. Alternatives, 31(2), 167-189.

Woodard, A. (2009). The Ceremonial Subject. Australian Art Collector(49), 152 -157.



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