Talking with Malachi Nagobi as he walks across the august grounds of the National Art School in Sydney is not easy.
His progress - and the conversation - is constantly, happily impeded.
“Mal!” comes a voice. “Hello Mal,” another. Every handful of steps, another person wants to stop to chat.
Nagobi rambles easily among the grand sandstone buildings, pointing out landmarks and legends of the place. This, he says, is a joyous part of his job, talking with students, discussing their projects, seeing their works in development.
“I just love it here,” he says. “I go everywhere, I see all the work people are doing. It is amazing to watch these artworks be created before your eyes over weeks, over months.”
The self-declared “granddaddy” of the National Art School in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, Nagobi, campus assistant here for seven years, finds himself now, for the first time, a subject too.
Against the boldest of green backdrops, his likeness has been rendered in oil for this year’s Archibald prize, by first-time entrant Lesley Wengembo.
Wengembo, something of a child prodigy at his home in Port Moresby, arrived in Australia in late 2018, excited to attend the National Art School, and anxious to explore just how far his talent might take him.
For as long as he can remember – “I think about four or five” – he has loved to draw. Any scrap of paper he found, any board, occasionally a wall at home, was suitable canvas for his burgeoning talent.
He found, too, teachers eager to encourage, rather than impede, his gift.
At 15, he discovered painting, having followed his mother, Josephine – who makes bilum bags and Meri blouses – to the monthly craft markets at Port Moresby’s National Art Theatre. There he met art lecturer Martin Morububuna, who introduced him to painting with oils “and gave me some of the skills of proportion and body structure”.
Inspired too by the work of Vincent Fantauzzo, he began to develop a photorealist style of huge scale and extraordinary detail.
Still just 23, Wengembo has painted portraits of some of the lions of Papua New Guinea’s political and cultural life: Sir Julius Chan, Sir Michael Somare and Sir Mekere Morauta, as well as an ageing local policeman in his neighbourhood, relatives from his ancestral highlands home and his own father.
Wengembo arrived at Sydney’s National Art School anxious to learn, but shy about what he feared was an underdeveloped ability.
So shy, in fact, Wengembo hid his talent, and showed nobody his art or the style he had developed, instead throwing himself into learning new ways to paint and express his creativity.
It was only through his Instagram account that his talent was discovered, first by his classmates and then by his teachers.
His longstanding ambition to enter the Archibald – Australia’s most famous art prize – was further reason to reanimate a hidden talent.
Nagobi and Wengembo share an easy connection. They speak only a little – much of their communication is little more than knowing looks and raised eyebrows – but they laugh easily and often together.
They share the connection of Melanesian heritage (Nagobi is from Fiji) but also an understanding of uncertainty.
“When he first came, I could see he was shy,” Nagobi says of Wengembo. “I remember what that felt like, and I wanted to help him.
“And then when we saw his talent, this gift he has been given, it’s so important for that to grow to its potential.”
But seeing himself on canvas?
“Just amazing, it’s an honour I never expected.”
Wengembo credits Nagobi with helping instil in him a belief in himself and his art.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know many people, I was shy, and then I saw Mal, another man from Melanesia, and I thought, ‘I should talk to him’. We developed a connection and, very quickly, he became a mentor to me.
“But it’s not just me he has been a mentor too. He encourages a lot of people here. The Archibald prize is for people in the creative arts, so I thought ‘Why not paint him?’”
But painting a friend and mentor – let alone a person you see every day at school – was a more difficult assignment.
“When you paint someone you know, it is not just a subject, it’s someone you have a connection with. I wanted to capture that soul, that person, the generosity that everyone sees in him.
“I hope I have done that.”
Finalists in the Archibald prize are announced 17 September.