Archibald finalist Shaun Gladwell went to extraordinary lengths to paint Julian Assange

Archibald finalist Shaun Gladwell went to extraordinary lengths to paint Julian Assange
  • PublishedJune 5, 2024

When the judges of this year’s Archibald Prize first saw artist Shaun Gladwell’s portrait of Julian Assange, they were intrigued.

One of the key entry requirements for the prestigious portrait prize is that subjects are painted “from life”, with artists conducting at least one in-person sitting.

So how is it, they wondered, that Gladwell managed to paint Assange, who is currently imprisoned in the UK?

The explanation involves a trip to Belmarsh Prison, 25 British pounds and a Kinder Bueno.

Julian Assange holding a thumbs up while looking out the window of a police van after his removal from the Ecuadorian embassy.
Assange has been indicted by US courts on 17 charges of espionage, and one relating to an alleged password-hacking conspiracy.(Reuters: Hannah McKay)

A covert portrait sitting

When Gladwell first decided to paint the renowned journalist and WikiLeaks founder, he contacted Assange’s brother, film producer Gabriel Shipton, who acted as a go-between and sent messages to Assange in prison.

“We had to think about the requirements of the Archibald … within the demands of a category A, maximum-security prison in London,” says Gladwell.

With Shipton’s help, Gladwell set a date in late November to visit Assange at Belmarsh Prison in London’s southeast, where he has been imprisoned for the past five years. He is currently awaiting an appeal against extradition to the United States over espionage charges, based on the publication of classified documents on his website WikiLeaks.

“You can’t just rock up and demand to see a prisoner, it’s quite a complex process,” explains Gladwell.

“You have to get the prisoner — or in this case, the unlawfully incarcerated journalist and computer programmer — to put your name on their visitors’ list and then you have to make a booking. But the booking is kind of tenuous, [the prison guards] can just pull the booking at any stage.”

There was another hurdle for their prison visit/portrait sitting: Visitors aren’t permitted to take anything into Belmarsh — not even a sketchpad or a pen. And if the guards notice you doing anything they deem “outside the parameters of the security regime”, they’re likely to kick you out. So Assange suggested a plan B.

He instructed Gladwell to bring cash — 25 British pounds, to be precise — to buy chocolate from the prison’s canteen. Gladwell would then melt the chocolate in his hands and use the pigment to sketch Assange with his fingernails, grown especially for the occasion, onto the remaining banknotes.

“It was genius. He had even thought about the fact that [a banknote] is legal tender and, despite any suspicious interruptions or modifications to the money, it’s yours as legal tender and they can’t confiscate it from you. He had worked it all out,” says Gladwell.

Gladwell spent an hour-and-a-half with Assange in the prison’s visitor centre, sketching him quickly toward the end of his visit.

A sketch in blue pencil of Julian Assange, with the eyes and nose drawn over the top of a 5 pound note.
“We found a creative way of getting an image out of the prison,” says Gladwell. (Pictured: Gladwell’s preparatory sketch of Julian Assange.)(Supplied)

He had tested sketching with a few different chocolate brands in advance: Kinder Bueno was the best.

“They came up better than Kit Kat. You put them in your hand and they melt really fast,” says Gladwell.

Under the surveillance of five prison guards, Gladwell managed to covertly sketch Assange, and smuggle the note out with him.

From banknote to canvas

Over the next six months, the Sydney-based artist worked continuously on the portrait, which combines oil paint and aluminium flakes.

He wanted to incorporate Assange’s idea of “scientific journalism”, which involves publishing primary source material, unedited or with minimal editorial commentary.

“It is an extraordinary and remarkable idea, and I thought, ‘Well, this is also a challenge to art.’ Art can be a process that’s so mysterious … If the art speaks for itself, why interrupt it with a didactic panel or an artist’s statement or a concept rationale,” says Gladwell.

“I thought, ‘What would scientific journalism look like as a portrait?’ … So I put a lot of the visual data on the canvas, and actually put it in his face.”

Shaun Gladwell, a white man with long grey beard, kneels on a conrete slab and works on a large blue painting of Julian Assange
“I don’t really have a style. I’m a bit of a hack painter,” says Gladwell.(Supplied)

The finished work depicts Assange as a hot air balloon, with his eyes peeking through a slit, as if he is looking through a prison door. The American flag is taped over his mouth, which is partly inspired by protest posters Gladwell saw pitched out the front of the prison, and a 5-pound note is strewn across Assange’s cheeks, which is a reference to the original banknote sketch but also marks the WikiLeaks founder’s five years of incarceration at Belmarsh.

On his forehead, Gladwell has painted a peace symbol — a dove with an olive branch — and a military helicopter.

“[Assange] is a remarkable thinker and practices what he believes and thinks. He says, ‘If wars can be started by lies, then peace can be started by truth.’ So I wanted to put something on his forehead that would represent that.”

A portrait of Julian Assange, depicted as a hot air baloon with a dove, an Australian $5 note and the US flag across his face.
Gladwell’s portrait of Julian Assange, titled A spangled symbolist portrait of Julian Assange floating in reflection (2024).(Supplied: AGNSW/Jenni Carter)

Last week, the portrait was announced as one of the 57 finalists of this year’s Archibald Prize. The winner will be announced on Friday and the portrait will go on display as part of the finalists’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from June 8. (Gladwell is also the subject of fellow finalist David Griggs’s portrait.)

As part of his submission statement, Gladwell described the portrait as “a protest against the political persecution, psychological torture and illegal incarceration” of Assange.

The ‘patron saint of war photojournalists’

Gladwell is a former war photographer, and spent time in Afghanistan between 2009-10, around the time WikiLeaks published thousands of classified documents exposing human rights violations in US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He recalls the first time he saw the “Collateral Murder” video, a classified military video that shows a US helicopter gunning down Iraqi civilians and a Reuters camera crew.

“It was like seeing myself dying. Two Reuters journalists were shot down by a helicopter gunship because they were misidentified, because their cameras looked like firearms, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that is exactly the same camera as I had,'” he says.

“It was so chilling and profoundly disturbing.”

Six photographs of Australian soldiers sleeping in various settings are framed and hanging as a collection on a gallery wall.
Gladwell’s series Sleeping Soldiers (pictured) was produced while in Afghanistan in 2009.(Supplied)
A photograph of an Australian soldier wearing army greens and a helmet while sleeping.
Gladwell’s war photography focused on ordinary moments in the lives of soldiers.(Supplied)

At the time, Gladwell was coming to grips with his experience in Afghanistan and says WikiLeaks offered him a “more resolved and complex view of the entire conflict”.

“[Assange] became the patron saint of war photojournalists because he showed what we would never have seen otherwise,” he says.

“It changed my worldview.”

Gladwell is best known for his mesmerising video portraits, depicting skating, BMX riding, surfing and parkour.

The 52-year-old COFA-trained artist has only entered the Archibald once previously, in 2015. He was selected as a finalist that year for his portrait of Australian soldier and Victoria Cross recipient Mark Donaldson, who rescued an Afghan interpreter from heavy artillery fire during the Battle of Khaz Oruzgan.

Gladwell had been commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to produce a video portrait of Donaldson, who later encouraged him to develop the original sketch into a painting.

“The only time I’ve ever considered going into the Archibald is if I think of it as more of a public platform and a space for debate, rather than the competitive side of it as a portrait prize,” he says.

A grayscale portrait of a soldier wearing a helmet beneath a skull.
“I wanted to paint this portrait out of an immense respect for Mark [Donaldson],” Gladwell said in his 2015 Archibald submission.(Supplied)

Why Assange now?

Gladwell has been developing the concept for this year’s Archibald entry for nearly eight years.

He describes the process as long and emotional, adding “most of all for Julian and his family”.

“[Painting his portrait] just seemed like the right thing to do. At the moment, no one can actually ‘image’ Julian. He’s incarcerated in conditions that are so severe and so inhumane that it’s just not possible to even get a snapshot or a photo. It’s very restrictive,” Gladwell says.

“So, like with court artists … all of a sudden, drawing becomes functional and has utility again.

“Also, I just wanted to scream and shout a bit. It’s a portrait that’s a protest as well as a question.”

A supporter of Julian Assange holds up a sign reading "Truth is the heart of democracy" outside the Royal Court in London.
“It’s astounding that he as an individual is now representing the ability for the press to speak freely,” says Gladwell. (Pictured: Assange supporters in London.)(Getty Images: Peter Nicholls)

For Gladwell, the timing is significant.

In February, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and federal MPs passed a motion in parliament calling on the United States and the United Kingdom to drop charges against Assange and return him to Australia.

Last month, London’s High Court granted Assange the right to appeal his extradition order but a date for the appeal is yet to be announced. In the meantime, Assange remains in custody at Belmarsh.

A black and white photo of Shaun Gladwell, a white man with long grey hair and beard, wearing a black cap backwards and sitting.
“It’s quite a profound thing … what he’s doing, which is to pursue his beliefs and the truth at all costs,” says Gladwell.(Supplied: Tom Finnigan)

Gladwell submitted his portrait to the Archibald on May 3, the cut-off date for submissions and, coincidentally, World Press Freedom Day. He worked on it right up to the 11th hour, and says, ultimately, he wanted to portray Assange as a revolutionary.

“If the Archibald is to try and look at… individuals who have [made] a remarkable contribution to the arts and sciences or politics… then Julian ticks a few boxes,” he says.

“I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to paint more. I was honoured to paint him.”


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