Females Doing Art

“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.

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