Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae / Reviewed by Felicity Cole / 22.07.13
A thoughtfully curated exhibition at the diminutive Ben Uri Gallery in north London presents powerful portraits by two photographers who use costume and fancy dress to challenge traditional Western attitudes towards race and gender.
Maud Sulter was an artist of Scottish/Ghanaian origin who created a series of portraits entitled ‘Zabat,’ in which prominent black women artists are presented as the classical Greek muses. Western artistic convention portrays the muses as passive sources of inspiration, and they are invariably presented as idealised white women. Sulter presents the muses as black women who have achieved acclaim in their own right, including playright Alice Walker, artist Lubaina Himid and musician/composer Ysaye Barnwell. Sulter retains the conventions of Victorian portraiture in the work, including traditional compositional and framing devices, but the images are transformed with African clothing and props.
Ysaye Barnwell represents Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred hymns and poetry, and she is depicted holding an ostrich egg. Sulter described the egg as representing both chicken and egg – the past, present and future for black women artists. Lubaina Himid, who curated the exhibition ‘The Thin Black Line’, at the ICA in 1985, which marked the arrival on the British art scene of a radical group of black and Asian women, represents Urania, the muse of astronomy. Himid’s traditional dress in blue and white fabric, set against a blue background, could be seen as reflecting the blue of the sky and the white of the stars and the planets. Curator Katy Barron explains that the title ‘Zabat’ refers to a sacred dance traditionally performed by women, and it also historically meant ‘black women’s rite of passage’, in the context of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty, which therefore reinforces the link to Africa.
Also featuring in the show are self-portraits by Korean-born photographer Chan-Hyo Bae. His series ‘Existing in Costume’ depicts the male artist dressed as a woman in various British historical costumes. He wears wigs appropriate to the era and his features are exquisitely made up. However, the viewers’ perceptions of gender are challenged in images such as ‘Existing in Costume 5’ where his large, dark, masculine hands are not made up to match his pale face, and they are posed to bring attention to their incongruity.
Once again, traditional Western portrait conventions are observed, as are evident in ‘Existing in Costume 1’, where the flatness and symmetry typical of Tudor portrait painting complement the elaborate costume. However, the early nineteenth century British portrait conventions of ‘Existing in Costume 20’ are confounded by the sitter’s holding a modern toy robot (typical of those manufactured in Korea) in place of a book or other feminine favour. The artist thereby challenges the viewer’s preconceived ideas of British identity, in addition to his provocation of notions of gender. Also featured in the show are two images from the artist’s ‘Fairy Tales’ series, in which he adopts both masculine and feminine characters in tableaux images from classic fairytales: Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty, thereby challenging once again notions of both ‘Britishness’ and gender.
‘Looking In’ is the first exhibition in a series at Ben Uri Gallery which explores issues of identity and migration. It is well worth a trip to this small north London gallery to view this thought-provoking show – and look out for the rest of the series, which promises original, intelligent and compelling viewing.
Ben Uri Gallery, 108A Boundary Road, London NW8 0RH