To pretend to be someone one is not.
This Monday I attended art department chair Kathryn Sheilds’ lecture tackling the issue of identity and masks. A handful of students as well as faculty gathered in the Hege Library art gallery to learn about masquerade and contemporary photography. In a fifteen minute lecture Kathryn examined the theme of identity in several photographers’ work- Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Kimiko Yoshida, Nikki S. Lee, Gillian Wearing, and Jillian Mayer.
The idea for this research began when Kathryn was doing graduate studies work at VCU. She was interested in pre-columbian studies and in art. She found a way to meld her two interests together by examining photography as masquerade. She is interested in “the layering of meaning in photography, very much like the adoption of a persona in masquerade.” Her work with this subject began as a presentation at the Weatherspoon art museum a few years ago for a show called Persona: A Body in Parts, a collection of contemporary work related to identity. Somewhere along the line a student at VCU introduced Kathryn to the term “parafiction”, and this really shaped the rest of her lectures and research.
A term used to describe an emergent genre of artwork that plays in the overlap between fact and fiction
Kathryn’s essay has since been published in a collection of essays called Masquerade: Essays on tradition and innovation worldwide. The title of her essay in the book is “The Drama of Identity: Masking and Evolving Notions of Self in Contemporary Photography”.
She read her essay in four “acts”, presenting several photographers in chronological order starting with the “grandma” of the movement and ending with a handful of artists who are the “new generation” so-to-speak.
The first artist Kathryn spoke on was Diane Arbus, who took photos of people whom she called “freaks and normals”. In Arbus’ work, the mask is the photo itself; we see the image and make our own judgements about the subject. As Kathryn says, “people wear masks of both the labels we give them, and the labels they give themselves.”
“Everybody has this thing where they mean to look one way, but they come out looking a different way, and that’s what people observe… there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you”
Kathryn then spoke about Cindy Sherman, who took photographs of herself in various stereotypical depictions of women in Hollywood movies. Sherman intends the viewer to recognize something in themselves through these iconic images.
Act three of the lecture was focused on the younger generation of photographers tackling the issue of identity. These artists explore the notion of roleplaying and “subjective documentary” in relation to gendered identity and photography. The artist who stood out to me the most from this group was Kimiko Yoshida, who “uses makeup in the traditional Japanese way, to cause the wearer to disappear.” Yoshida’s self-portrait The Bride with the No Mask” was particularly striking to me.
All of the photographers Kathryn spoke about demonstrate the weight of appearance on the human experience, and how certain masks and ways of presenting affect our lives and interactions with others, shaping our experiences. So many people see the outward appearance and forget that there is a life under there, however similar the person may be to their mask, they are still a person with their own experiences. These photographers’ work is intriguing because it exposes the stereotypical nature of the way in which humans perceive each other. The photographs are both truth and fiction, drawing attention to and critiquing the tendency to take things at the surface level, to not look beyond the mask.