‘It’s like they’re time travellers’: the peculiar portrait of an artist’s parents, bought by a friend

In our series on artworks in Australian homes, Anna Guthrie shows us a curious triptych that is magical and mundane in equal measure

When Anna Guthrie was working at a Melbourne addiction treatment centre 20 years ago, she could hardly have guessed that a portrait of a colleague’s parents would become one of her favourite artworks.

Her co-worker was artist Sanja Pahoki, and at an exhibition in 2006, Pahoki’s curious triptych of her mother and father, titled Up in the Sky, seized Guthrie’s imagination.

“I just loved it from the moment I saw it. It’s the colours and the strangeness of the composition,” says Guthrie.

Pahoki’s parents were photographed in a deserted Federation Square, posing like tourists, and looking ominously into the sky above.

“They look enormous. There is no one else in the images – it’s like they’re the last survivors after the apocalypse, or time travellers.”

Portentous as they may be, Guthrie says she also finds the images strangely comforting.

This juxtaposition of tension and innocuous familiarity, Guthrie says is typical of the sense of humour and curiosity she shares with her friend. “She’s very drawn to celebrating the absurdity and mundanity of the everyday, and I’m right there with her.”

Triptych of an elderly couple in Melbourne’s Federation Square, looking at buildings and pointing at the sky
‘It’s like a Seinfeld episode about nothing’: the magical and the mundane collide in Pahoki’s work. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

“We aren’t laughing at them,” Guthrie hastens to add. “Sanja genuinely sees her parents as muses … there’s a real reverence for them in her work.”

Visitors, she says, are “absolutely baffled as to why I would have photos of elderly people who aren’t my parents on the wall”. But the creative writer in her continues to be intrigued.

“It’s very hard to pin down how you feel when you look at it. It’s a mix of concern, intrigue and joy. It’s almost like a Seinfeld episode about nothing: there’s a lot of questions for sure, but it’s really compelling because of its ordinariness.”

Despite her 20-year friendship with Pahoki, she has never met her parents and hasn’t asked for any details about the inspiration or intentions behind the images. “I don’t ever want people to explain what their art is supposed to mean,” she says. “I think the important thing is that you make your own interpretation and that it gives you lots of ideas and stories.”

  • Sanja Pahoki’s work is part of the Light Sensitive exhibition at Melbourne’s Town Hall Gallery until 15 July.

  • Is there an artwork with an extraordinary story hanging on your wall? Email australia.lifestyle@theguardian.com with the subject heading “Wall Stories” to be considered for future columns.


Doosie Morris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘It’s like a living installation’: a young family’s Fear and Loathing portrait
In our series on artworks in Australian homes, Clarissa and Tim Harris show us the gonzo painting they commissioned, which will grow with their family

Doosie Morris

16, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘I love that they’re not by an artist’: the accidental pop art found in a dollar shop
In our series on artworks in Australian homes, Melbourne artist Beci Orpin shows us the handcrafted sale signs she chanced upon at a local store

Doosie Morris

25, Jun, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
‘After I die I can haunt it’: a portrait of a comedian with Archibald ambitions
In our series on artworks in Australian homes, Paul Verhoeven shows us the portrait that will forever wed him to his Magnum PI moustache

Doosie Morris

28, Jan, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
‘I couldn’t stop thinking about it’: one woman’s hunt for Facebook Marketplace treasure
In our series on artwork in Australian homes, Jorja Brown shows us the alpaca wool-weaving that sparked an internet-wide search – and a big career change

Doosie Morris

04, Feb, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
‘We should all try to be this sexy cockatoo’: a voluptuous sculpture’s ode to Australiana
In our series on artworks in Australian homes, Que Minh Luu shows us the supremely kitschy sculpture that makes her feel ‘almost patriotic’

Doosie Morris

07, Jan, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
‘I’m proud of us in the picture’: a family portrait captures laughter in lockdown
In a new series sharing stories of the artwork in Australian homes, Alice Gage shows the painting she commissioned for her husband’s birthday – which still gives her a shock every time she sees it

Brigid Delaney

07, Oct, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
Wall stories: a Franciscan friar’s wedding portrait is a call to compassion
In our series about artworks in Australian homes, theologian Cath McKinney shares a painting by a man whose art and life showed the grace of vulnerability

Doosie Morris

18, Feb, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
‘I love romanticising our own city’: the Melbourne painting that’s become family lore
In our series on artwork in Australian homes, Ally Smith shows us the painting she was given first on a postcard – then on canvas

Doosie Morris

10, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘You do see a bit of Jackson Pollock in it’: the country pub with a striking Nicky Winmar artwork
Pat Furze shows the painting by the AFL great that has a special place in his regional pub

Brigid Delaney

28, Oct, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
‘Everyone wants to smell it’: a seedy university art project finds order in chaos
In our series on artworks in Australian homes, Anna Matilda shows us the project she made as a student years ago – and has recently unearthed

Doosie Morris

09, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM