“There’s a lot of females doing art these days, isn’t there?”
So I overheard a middle-aged (male) visitor to The Gallery at NUCA asking the bemused-looking (female) student staffing the space yesterday. Not knowing precisely what was meant by “doing art”, or indeed “these days”, it’s impossible to verify this curious observation – but it did make me smile. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to see work by six excellent photographers this week, all of whom happen to be female.
Five have work in Reflections on the Self, on show in Norwich until the 15th of October and touring to other locations in the UK. Featured artists Hélène Amouzou, Majida Khattari, Zanele Muholi, Senayt Samuel and Nontsikelelo Veleko explore identity and representation through portraits and self-portraits that are arresting, amusing and haunting by turns.
In a series of three shots, Zanele Muholi adopts the role of beauty queen. She dons sash, swimsuit and stilettoes, but the performance is playful, partial. Her winner’s sash declares her “Miss Black Lesbian”, a satirical foregrounding of the aspects of her identity pushed to the margins of, or excluded entirely from, certain celebrated “ideals” of femininity. Her visible leg and pubic hair highlights both the absurdity and ubiquity of the “beauty regime”, while the distinctly shabby surroundings allude to the superficial & artificial nature of glamour. The images are tongue-in-cheek, yet pose powerful questions about legitimacy, authenticity and visibility.
While Muholi points to the limitations of available female archetypes, Nontsikelelo Veleko‘s street photography documents how young women in Cape Town and Johannesburg use fashion to reject conformity and express complex, unique selves. Veleko’s photographs in this exhibition depict women such as Nonkulukelo (below) and Thobeka, who are at once feisty and cool.
Nonkulukelo’s outfit, like her posture, is laid-back yet assertive. She engages with the camera, meeting the viewer’s gaze head on. Her camouflage trousers stand out ironically against the urban backdrop while her clutch, made from recycled Coca Cola cans, suggests the potential for subversive creativity within capitalist hegemony. Thobeka‘s matchy-matchy commitment to red suggests careful attention to detail, while her jacket, sunnies and stance emit a Danny-from-Grease, too-cool-for-school air of rebellion. Both women combine high-femme items with a masculine, punky quality. Muholi’s eye for contrast and innovation makes for striking images; a certain sensitivity sets her apart from the fashion-blog school of photography and lends her work the weight of portraiture.
Muholi’s staged pieces and Veleko’s street photography offer, in very different ways, images of black women that push against the narrow, stereotyped or caricatured depictions often on show in mainstream media. Hélène Amouzou’s featured series, Between the Wallpaper and the Wall, illustrates a period of invisibility. Taken over the ten years that Amouzou was stuck in Belgium waiting for ID papers to arrive, the double-exposed self-portraits simultaneously record and erase the artist’s very existence.
The eery images speak of the fragility of self and instability of identity. Amouzou’s lived experience of what sounds like an Orwellian nightmare led her to explore profound questions about the nature of self. The question “Who am I?”, she writes “is one every human being asks thoughout their life, whether they are powerful or weak. This question […] is the first one that every human must ask before being able to recognise others, different from themselves, but also so alike.”
Amouzou’s words resonate with A Living Man Declared Dead, the exhibition that I saw earlier this week at the Tate Modern in London. Taryn Simon‘s exploration of bloodlines also invites the viewer to ask “Who am I?” The show comprises 18 pieces or “chapters,” each divided into three panels: the first documents a single bloodline (one person and all their living blood relatives) as a series of portraits; next, the basic biographical information of the subjects is detailed, along with a body of text on the family’s particular context; and in the final panel, visual “footnotes” given flesh to the stories.
Her work is methodical, ordered, somewhat scientific, and yet I found exhibition as a whole deeply affecting. The narratives contained in A Living Man Declared Dead range from surreal to devastating. Children at a Ukrainian orphanage (from which one child has been adopted in 12 months, and which cites 2 vacuum cleaners and an industrial washing machine amongst its most urgent needs); rabbits bred to test diseases designed to reduce the rabbit population in Australia; descendants of the Nazi governor of Poland – all are photographed in the same dispassionate style. The text remains detached, even when describing highly emotive histories. Perhaps this presentation gives maximum room for viewers to experience the work in distinct, individual ways. I walked away stupefied by the amount of cruelty and suffering in the world; a friend described the exhibition as “life-affirming”.
The living man of the title is Shivdutt Yadav (above left), who is legally declared dead in India after family members bribed officials in order to inherit his land. Engaged in a legal battle to prove that he is alive, his contested existence has parallels with Amouzou’s experience, which she describes: “I left home to save my life, wanting to go somewhere I did not even exist”. As Amouzou’s ghostly self-portraits acknowledge her corporeal being and untraceable identity, Simon honours those members of a bloodline who are cannot or will not be photographed. A blank space is left for each such individual, and an explanation of their absence recorded, such as several women “unable to participate due to religious/cultural reasons.” These members of a given bloodline are both there and not there.
Unapologetically cerebral, A Living Man Declared Dead provided immeasurable food for thought. Reflections on the Self was exciting, inspiring and uplifting. Both exhibitions are most definitely worth seeing.
Dates and locations for the tour of Reflections on the Self here, and Taryn Simon’s work is at Tate Modern (for free!) until the 2nd of January.
During my undergraduate degree I took a class on “Philosophical approaches to English”, in which we read Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals – the art of the snappy title not being Immanuel’s strong suit. Other than the term “categorical imperative” (which I’ve forgotten the definition of, but which once allowed me to appear intelligent during an episode of University Challenge), what stayed with me was an idea about means and ends. Kant argued that it is unethical to treat any person – including yourself – as no more than a means to an end. The lecturer, who was fantastic at translating complex theory into memorable anecdotes, explained that “if you find yourself becoming a function of your own ‘To Do’ list, you’re probably not acting ethically.”
Ah, the To Do list: memento of the incomplete, the under-achieved, the abandoned. Professor Bristol’s maxim on its potential for tyranny has proved useful over the years, most recently in relation to Lipstick and Teeth. In the short time since I started this blog, I’ve learned some important things:
1. I really, really like writing. A lot.
2. There are people out there who like reading the things I have written.
What joyous discoveries! And yet, you may have noticed a rather long absence. That may have something to do with:
3. I want to publish things I feel are written to a standard I can be proud of.
4. Writing to that standard takes time.
5. I have a full and busy life, and blogging is one of many priorities. At times of particular pressure, those priorities will just have to play nicely and take it in turns.
It has been so incredibly exciting to see my number of readers growing, to get comments and incoming links from people I don’t know, to have great feedback from people I respect and admire. The flip side of that is the sense of panic that, for me, almost invariably accompanies any kind of achievement, which goes something like this: ohmygodnowIhavetokeepdoingthiswellnowpeopleexpectthatinfactIshouldstartdoingitbetterotherwiseI’ll justbeahugefailureandeveryonewho’sseenmeachievingwillrealiseactuallydeepdownI’mabigfailure
I like to call this voice my inner Screaming Monkey. She’s a whole lot of fun, let me tell you. She’d like me to write every day, publish three in-depth articles per week, submit pieces to other websites, read all the daily newspapers from cover to cover and stay abreast of current developments in feminist theory while I’m at it. She doesn’t really care if I sleep, eat properly, or am actually happy, so long as I’m achieving. And you know what her number one tool of oppression is? That unforgiving, pass/fail inventory of life: my To Do list.
In busy, stressed-out periods, everything becomes a chore to be ticked off and I start treating myself as a means to an end. When Lipstick and Teeth found its way onto my To Do list, I knew it was time to take a deep breath and a step back. Immanuel Kant told me so.
This is a very new project. So far it’s been a lot of fun, and I want to keep it that way. My priority is to stay in touch with the joy of writing – when I’m giving myself a hard time about not having posted for too long, that joy goes out of the window. I like Lipstick and Teeth. I want to do it; I don’t want to have To Do it.
I am so grateful for the support and attention I have had so far and would love for you to keep reading. I see that lots of people have been patiently checking in over my quiet last few weeks; if you’d rather avoid this lately-disappointing ritual, you are most welcome to subscribe – then you will get an email whenever I publish something new. I promise I’ll get back to feminism next time!