A stroll through Brunswick will expand your cultural horizons. This suburb of Melbourne has been shaped by immigrants from around the world. Lionia Singh arrived there at the age of 10, having emigrated from Portugal three years earlier with her parents and two siblings. Now 46 and the mother of two teenagers herself, she recalls her earlier childhood in southern Europe.
“We lived in Salvaterra, a small inland town. Our cousins lived on the same street, and we roamed around, jumped off rope swings into rivers and enjoyed a marvellous sense of freedom,” she says. Australia was completely foreign to her – she hadn’t learned English at that stage, and felt isolated. But later, in Brunswick, loneliness became a thing of the past, and friends were made from very different walks of life. “Some of them were Poles, Greeks, Italians, Pakistanis – we all went to each other’s homes, tasted different cuisines, and learned about each other’s customs.” Those experiences left a deep impression on her. “They are the inspiration for the Faces of the World series,” she notes.
In love with the Cayenne
Her large-scale portraits have given Lionia Singh a name. They show people with intense gazes; the eyes drawing viewers into their worlds as if by magic. Today, Singh lives and works in the suburb of Sandringham, not far from the showroom she opened in Bayside in 2020. This charming exhibition space is located on the way to another of her favourite places – the Mornington Peninsula – and as she drives along the coast at the wheel of her black Porsche Cayenne, she says: “Every day I fall in love all over again with the gorgeous details of this car, and enjoy the confident ease of driving it. My family likes to go on long trips, and our dog is also very happy in the Cayenne.”
As a child, Singh spent many hours drawing and pasting pictures from fashion magazines into an album that she has kept to this day. “I can still lose myself in that world,” she says. After earning a degree from the renowned School of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, she and a friend created the Steflion fashion label, which was carried by numerous stores and appeared at Australian Fashion Week. She then returned to Europe
Together with the man who is now her husband, she lived for a year in London, where she worked as a style advisor for the nascent online retailer Net-A-Porter. Now a company posting billions in sales, at the time it only had around 30 employees. “What I experienced in the world of fashion really helps with my art,” says Singh. “Because fashion means making a statement. That plays a key role in my work. And it was in fashion that I also discovered the powerful impact of colour.”
In 2005, the couple returned to Melbourne. The fashion industry’s high levels of stress and frequent travel were not conducive to family life. Her children and a dream prompted Singh to take up drawing again. “My children only saw me as a mother who cared for them, but I wanted to show them something of the life I had led before they were born. Then I had a dream I was traveling around the planet, exploring different cultures, creating large-scale paintings – and that was kind of it!” Faces connect people to places. “My pictures are intended to get people to drop any preconceived ideas, and to find out more about other ways of life,” she explains.
Painting focus on Indigenous peoples
Singh painted international film star Salma Hayek, inspired by her role as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in the movie Frida (2002), and continues to paint stylised images from the fashion world, which also convey human vulnerability. But her focus is on Indigenous people: aboriginal children, Maori women, members of tribal cultures in Africa and Bali. The works are striking, hyperreal, and fantasy-like – expressions of Singh’s longing to arrive at a deeper understanding of the world.
She admires Coco Chanel and Frida Kahlo – who could hardly have more different styles and approaches – but in Singh’s aesthetic rendering, the two converge toward a harmonious juxtaposition. “Coco Chanel was all about minimalism and went by the motto ‘before you go out, take something off’. Frida Kahlo, on the other hand, was about adding more; she went nuts with flowers, and I linger between both of them for inspiration!” Singh commands the classic skills, but tends towards the unconventional – which wasn’t a good long-term fit with the commercial world of fashion.
When she began to paint in 2015, Singh wanted to articulate the discriminatory unrest among Australia’s Indigenous population. She later donated part of her Faces collection to the World Vision Australia development organisation. “When you don’t know something, you tend to be scared of it. But growing up in a multicultural area showed me that we all basically want the same things.”
Support from Porsche
The Porsche Centre Brighton in Australia supported the Faces of the World project with exhibitions. Now, with her art calendars proving a success, and work on a luxurious leather-bound volume of her paintings complete, Singh is ready to blaze new trails. In her latest work, spirituality plays an even greater role. “I’m more interested in the evolution of our soul and the lessons we have to learn in life,” she says, standing in front of a painting entitled Golden Lessons. This expansive mural-like work is a portrait of a weeping woman. It is intense, but also elicits positive responses. “This work says you can cry, but have you learned something from that experience?” she explains. "Sometimes you’re better off from going through a golden lesson in life." In another work a woman’s left eye is set within a heart.
Viewers might wonder whether it’s a symbol of love or simply a façade and, if so, what it conceals. “You can gauge a situation by looking into someone’s eyes,” says Singh. “You see vulnerability and a fleeting moment of truth, and you seek the right balance between curiosity and discernment. Eyes just don't lie. That’s why they play such an important role in my work.”
Text first published in the Porsche magazine Christophorus, No. 399.
Author: Jane Rocca
Photographer: Tim Harris