Eyes Don’t Lie
Melbourne-based artist Lionia Singh paints faces from all over the world, seeking the right balance between curiosity and discernment. We reflect on creative tension and family drives in a Porsche Cayenne.
“I saw myself traveling around the planet and exploring different cultures.” Lionia
“Spirit of India”
“Angola Red—African Woman”
“Alma”, inspired by Salma Hayek
Backgrounds: With works like “Dreamtime Child”, a portrait of a young Aboriginal child, the artist wants to encourage interest in other ethnicities.
The work “Om” radiates calm.
Symbol of love or a façade? “Inner Gold”—painted in acrylics—leaves the meaning of the golden heart open.
A stroll through Brunswick will expand your cultural horizons. This suburb of Melbourne has been shaped by immigrants from around the world. Lionia, who prefers being called by her first name, arrived there at the age of ten. She and her parents and two siblings had emigrated from Portugal to Australia three years earlier, initially settling in Sydney. Now forty-six and herself the mother of two teenagers, she recalls her 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 marvelous sense of freedom.” Australia was completely foreign to her. She hadn’t learned English yet, and felt isolated. But later, in Brunswick, loneliness was a thing of the past. Lionia describes friends 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.
The large-scale portraits have given Lionia a name. They show people with intense gazes. The eyes draw viewers into their worlds as if by magic.
Today Lionia lives and works in the suburb of Sandringham. A little further south, in Black Rock, Bayside, is where she opened her art showroom in 2020. This charming exhibition space is located on the way to another of her favorite places—the Mornington Peninsula. We drive along the bay. Sitting at the wheel of her black Porsche Cayenne, Lionia remarks, “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.”
“What I experienced in the world of fashion really helps with my art.”
As a child, Lionia was already spending 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 with pleasure. 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—carried by numerous stores and a respected presence at Australian Fashion Week. But then she returned to Europe. Together with the man who is now her husband, she lived for a year in London. She found an exciting job as a style advisor for the nascent online retailer Net-A-Porter. Now a company posting billions in sales, at the time it had only around thirty employees. “What I experienced in the world of fashion really helps with my art,” Lionia says. “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 color.”
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 Lionia 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.
Lionia painted international film star Salma Hayek, inspired by her role as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in the movie Frida (2002). She continues to paint stylized images from the fashion world, which also convey human vulnerability. But her focus is on Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal children, Maori women, members of tribal cultures in Africa and Bali. The works are striking, hyperreal, and fantasy-like—expressions of Lionia’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 Lionia’s aesthetic rendering, the two converge toward a harmonious juxtaposition. “Coco Chanel is all about minimalism and goes by the motto of ‘before you go out, take something off.’ Frida Kahlo, on the other hand, is about adding more; she goes nuts with flowers, and I linger between both of them for inspiration!” Lionia commands the classic skills, but tends toward the unconventional—which wasn’t a good long-term fit with the commercial world of fashion.
When she began to paint in 2015, Lionia wanted to articulate unrest with discrimination against the Indigenous population. She later donated part of her Faces collection to the World Vision Australia development organization. “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.”
“When you don’t know something, you tend to be scared of it.”
Porsche Australia supported Lionia’s Faces of the World project with exhibitions. Her art calendars were successful, and work on a luxurious leather-bound volume of her paintings is complete. Lionia is ready to blaze new trails. In her latest work, spirituality is playing a greater role. “I’m more interested in the evolution of our soul and the lessons we have to learn in life,” she says. We stand 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?” explains Lionia. "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 wonder whether that is a love symbol or simply a façade, and if so, what it conceals. “You can gauge a situation by looking into someone’s eyes,” observes Lionia. “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.”