Portraiture as an Expression of Cultural Identity
Emily Rose Larsen
+September 28, 2019
Much of the portraiture we see on a daily basis is trying to sell us something. A new look, this seasons trends, a new lipstick color that will fix our face, underwear that will hide that we are wearing underwear, sunglasses that will finally give us style and class, and probiotics to fix our stress induced bowel trouble and a useless sense of inadequacy. The images are mostly empty of substance as portraits, not telling us much about the subject except that their look suited the needs of an ad agency and they look good against a millennial pink seamless. The rise of social media influencers hasn’t helped either, bringing with them a rash of fake and staged “authenticity” meant to sell you something pointless, like a detox tea, based on a curated persona you think you know. It is easy to forget, when inundated with this particular brand of mis-representative photography, that portraiture is supposed to tell us something about the subject, or at least attempt to.
Portraiture can teach us about the mood of a person, their values, lifestyle, environment, challenges and relationships (to name a few). It is also a powerful tool in representation, authentic expression and the study of what the world actually looks like when you remove the veneer and white wash. It can reveal hidden worlds, alert us to issues around the world and explore the hidden realities of different social stratas. There are many photographers taking a serious look at portraiture and its ability to explore identity critically, culturally and honestly. The following photographers have been utilizing the many facets of portraiture to discuss cultural identity and how culture affects one's understanding of identity.
Rebekah Williams (@bexphotosphere), a current student at the Manchester School Of Art, is a photographer making work that “addresses either the celebration of black culture, or highlights the struggles still faced by people of colour” and bring to light the beauty of different walks of life. In Women In Colour Williams “celebrates the beauty, strength and diversity of what it means to be a woman of colour in today’s society.” She is interested in highlighting women who are often excluded from what society deems as beautiful. Each image is a close-up portrait of a woman in a natural environment and looking directly into the camera, unflinching and self possessed.
Each woman expressing herself as she sees fit and is complemented by her place in the vibrant, natural world. Each portrait is an intimate celebration of individuality and inherent beauty. Where Women in Colour is focused on individuals The Beachy Head Women discusses black women in a cultural context. It is an ongoing project exploring the “hyper sexualization of the Black female body whilst also examining the lack of relationship that it has with the British landscape even though historically, Black people were present on the British landscape long before the British were.”
The images feature looming, bleached cliffside landscapes with nude black women posed in ways that suggest openness and connection. The women's dark skin is in sharp contrast with the white stone walls towering over them and even the darker stone ground is littered with splotches of white stone. The landscape Williams has chosen is the perfect tool in discussing the whitewashed history of Britain and the loss of black culture to the British Empire throughout history and all over the world.
Tiffany Smith (@ms_ladyt) “is an interdisciplinary artist from the Caribbean diaspora who works with photography, video, installation, and design to create photographic portraits, site responsive installations, user engaged experiences, and assemblages focused on identity, representation, cultural ambiguity, and displacement.” Much of Smith’s work discusses multicultural identity and the representation of women of color. In her project A Woman, Phenomenally Smith “reacts to a history of photographic representation of people of color by focusing on how identity is constructed."
The photographic portraits feature subjects that can be classified generally as “women of color” despite the specifics of their identity. Through a collaborative process with each woman, [she] creates images that challenge exotified and stereotyped depictions and reclaim agency in “performing the other”.” Each portrait is a vibrant display of props, dress, foliage and staged environments she sets the scene based on cultural tropes and generic signifiers for a specific culture as typically viewed by western white culture. The titles of the images undermine those tools to reveal the true nature of the complexity of a multicultural society. In her project For Tropical Girls Who Have Considered Ethnogenesis When the Native Sun is Remote, she turns to self portraiture to “cast herself, a self-proclaimed “home grown immigrant,” as the subject of an ethnographic survey of invented personas who author their own representations of a blended cultural heritage.
Smith masquerades in costumes and throughout sets crafted to mine the personal and collective memory of cultural signifiers of the Caribbean and produce microcosmic explorations of the formation of cultural identity in multinational America.” To make the series she draws on her own experience navigating assimilation and cultural preservation as the first generation of her family to be raised outside of the Carribean. Both projects are unique and engaging discussions of identity formation and cultural influences on both how we form our identity and how we view others.
Lana Yanovska (@lana_yanovska) is a Ukraine born, Austria based photographer and video artist covering the perception of gender norms and sexuality with the aim of challenging you to take a closer look at your own views and where they came from. She has two projects that embrace the power of diptychs in portraiture to study a given subject. Selective Perception depicts two images where one person poses with a man in one frame and a woman in the other. In each image the depicted couple is posing as you would expect them to if they had some form of relationship. In each pairing one of the couples is real and one is staged.
In some, both have been real at some point. The project “is about the viewer's expectations of sexuality, gender roles and norms. It is about how fast we put others boxes, based on our own background, presumptions and experience.” By making the images monochrome diptychs the viewer can not help but analyze each image like a detective searching for the hint of a lie. Convinced that each gesture, smile, stare and touch will somehow give something away. Yanovaska is masterful at using subtlety to force the viewer to question what they are seeing and why they are seeing it.
Polarity is a series she started in 2015 exploring the dual nature of androgynous people or people who do not adhere to strict ideas of gender steryotypes. Yanovska again presents two images of each subject, one fashioned as a woman and one as a male. By “separating them into two classic genders makes this polarity visible and present while mirroring back the viewer's norms and stereotypes.”
She challenges us to question our own learned ideas of gender and turns the assumptions we have of others back onto ourselves. Why am I making that conclusion? What am I really searching for in these photographs? Perhaps, most importantly, why is this distinction still important to so many of us? One of the most fascinating revelations of the project for me is how subtly the subjects were refashioned between images, showing us how deeply ingrained even the smallest aspects of our presentation are defining us to others.
Smith, Yanovska and Williams all use portraiture to discuss, express and challenge ideas of cultural identity, stereotypes and representation. Whether forcing us to check our own ethnocentric interpretations of the images and people we see in life and in pictures or by documenting the broad spectrum of humanity that builds every aspect of our global society. It is easy to become complacent with how we understand each other, and these artists pull us out of that comfortable ignorance to remind us that we have never been able to water down a person's cultural identity to one word, or location or race or assumption without ignoring the complex reality of what builds us up. Isn’t that the aim of most art? To build us up, bring us closer together and educate us?