hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

Arts & Culture February-March 2019

 

Self-portraits for a digital age

Exhibit puts Instagram ‘selfies’ among art exploring gender, identitys

 

The South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s 2012 portrait of Kekeletso Khana, part of her “Faces and Phases” series, is among the works on view in the current “Possible Selves” exhibit at WIlliams College Museum of Art. The show also includes 200 Instagram images.Photo courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art

 

By KATE ABBOTT
Contributing writer

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.


This person stands facing away, holding a mirror, with the light falling over a wing inked on their left shoulder.


And this one is laughing, muscled, cupping their face in one hand.


And here, a dark-haired and dark-eyed youth is looking out directly from the colored light and shadow of a wide bloom like a lily.


They have all taken their own photographs.
People from 22 countries created these portraits, reaching out to an international online community. The images are collected in a new exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art. And the show defines a contemporary global conversation and roots it in a tradition reaching back to Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Lorna Simpson and beyond.


Two hundred Instagram photos are gathered together with 65 works from the museum’s permanent collection in “Possible Selves,” an exploration of queerness and photography going back more than 60 years. The show opened in December and remains on view until April 14.
“My greatest hope in creating this show is that people in our community … would feel comfortable to walk in these rooms and see themselves reflected,” said Horace D. Ballard, the museum’s assistant curator and the show’s curator.


One of his joys since the show opened, he said, has been hearing from the guards who see people walk through the rooms and look into the faces on the walls.


“People have been crying, dancing, singing,” he said, “coming back multiple times and bringing their parents.”


Curating the past and future
Ballard and his team have created a unique hybrid, taking on contemporary themes and linking them to the museum’s collection. And the community has responded joyfully.


Students and faculty have been involved from the beginning, he said, talking with him over coffee and exploring ideas. Twenty classes are coming in to work with the show in the spring semester, and student pride groups have visited from local high schools.


“The Williams community early on said, ‘Yes, we will support you in doing this; it will be a resource,’” he said.


Ballard has taken a chance on a new approach to curation, and on a new time period. In his research, he usually focuses on European and American art from the 18th and 19th centuries, but here he has set out to explore a contemporary movement.


In his own life, Ballard came to Instagram late, he said. Two years ago, he was living in Birmingham, Ala., and feeling far removed from the communities at Brown University and the University of Virginia where he had studied and taught.


He turned to Instagram as a way of reconnecting with friends. And as he talked with his students about portrait photography, they began discussing the role “selfies” have begun to play on social media.


They found similarities between images from Instagram’s global community and a 19th century portrait made amid the stark division of the Civil War, or with James Van Der Zee’s photographs of families in the Harlem Renaissance.


Portraits across 200 years might be trying to do the same work, he said, in matters as human as falling in love or expressing curiosity.

 

Portraits for the 21st century
On Instagram, Ballard found thousands of clearly deliberate self-portraits. These are not candid shots, not blurred casual snaps. They are beautifully lit, posed and deliberate photographs -- taken at high resolution, with an eye for composition, setting, color, lighting and objects.
Are these images of daily life? Are they vernacular or high art?


Ballard says yes. He and two Williams students, Al Scarangella and Joseph Messer, looked through thousands of images to distill the 200 they printed for this show. They navigated through algorithms, hashtags, and suggestions from friends and roommates.


And they asked: Why have these portraits taken such hold around the world? What do the artists want to do through them?


Ballard said he feels in the images a shared sensibility in them. Their creators are saying, “I am queer; I don’t have community in the place where I live,” he explained.


So they are reaching out to a wider group with an image that expresses who they are, how they think and how they feel. By putting their bodies online, they find community in the global world; they find friendship.


On one wall of the gallery Ballard quotes E.M Forster’s Maurice -- “You’ll do anything for me except see me” – and gives a glimpse into his own thoughts and influences as he put the show together.


The portraits around the room are saying, “See me -- here I am.”
And Ballard feels a sense of defiance in them.


“In a gallery or on social media,” he said, “if I am brave enough to put this out there for the world …”


By taking a selfie that reveals a queer sensibility and making it public, these artists are taking a risk, and it takes courage. In Forster’s novel, Maurice and Alec left their families and friends, their classes and their work to be together honestly.


Filling a room with these images, Ballard can recognize the artists and yet give them anonymity, and that is important for him. Many of the artists here would not choose to show these images publicly, he said, under their own names, in their home countries. They would not feel safe.
“Anonymity allows a continued space of bravery,” he said. “Some people would say, ‘I respect that, but there’s also a voicelessness.’ There’s a tension.


“If so many of us are doing this in a digital space, why are we not doing this in public? Why does social media seem like a safe place, when it is public?”

 

Joining a global conversation
What does it mean to collect these digital images, made for the visual and anonymous spaces of Instagram, and print them, and bring them into a room where people can gather?


“Images compel us to be honest about our own sense of who we are as individuals and how we navigate our own bodies,” Ballard said.


So he chose these portraits to show people who feel the gender they are born with is seen and supportive to who they are in spirit, and those who identify as trans or nonbinary, and to show them at their best, with as little pretense as possible -- and with excitement.


“What it means to be human is constantly changing,” he said, “and we are acknowledging the way we as humans change every day.”


And for him, talking about what it means to be queer allows the spaciousness to ask what it means to be human. Ballard invites these larger questions into the show as he highlights, on one wall, writers who inspired him as he chose these images.


“You only know it’s big enough to hang a life on,” Maurice says, in love and loved for the first time. He shares Ballard’s wall with James Baldwin.


Jose Esteban Munoz imagines a movement into the future: “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a human imbued with potentiality.”


Emily Dickinson answers him, “I dwell in possibility.”


This kind of meeting of minds is one of the joys of having works from the museum’s collection alongside these Instagram images, Ballard said.


The show invites questions about place, politics and expression.
Looking at the person in this portrait standing tall and broad-shouldered in the sun, is it appropriate to think of a noun or pronoun that assumes a gender, if they seem to be expressing one – and if they seem to deliberately push back at an assumption about what one gender is or should be?


They are wearing a beard and a tank top the same shade as the deep rose of the petals overhead. Would they present this portrait as a man standing under a tree?


“I want to be honest about what is presented to my eye,” Ballard said, “and honest to say that I don’t know this individual and the way they might present themselves to a friend or colleague.”
Contacting people over Instagram to ask permission to show their work, Ballard said he felt the importance of care and trust.


“I’m sure for more than 200 images you have more than 200 understandings of what ‘queer’ means,” he said. “We did not put much of a prescription on what queer meant. We said, ‘There is something about your images the curatorial team finds compelling; here is our definition. … How do you feel about being part of this?’


“And no one said no.”


Some never answered, and some were intrigued and asked for more detail, Bullard said, but no one said the museum’s definition was limiting. And that felt to him like a small but generous sign that the show was on the right track.

 

Seeing and being seen
Two lean people with short, dark hair are standing among fronds like iris leaves, or lying among them and seen from above. Their bodies face each other, one resting a hand on the other’s shoulder, and the farther one looks straight at the lens as the nearer one half turns.


They look out of the photograph together, as though they are acknowledging something private between them and protecting their intimacy at the same time. And their closeness reveals how rarely the portraits in this room show a couple together. These Instagram artists all appear to be fairly young, between 17 and 40, from many parts of the world, and almost all solo.


Ballard said he and his two interns made that choice consciously. Beyond the practical challenge of getting permission from more than one person in an image, he found single portraits powerful.
Queer can be an individual identity, and Ballard said he sees the meaning of queerness encompassing more than desire. Here it becomes a more political understanding.


In the portraits from the museum’s collection, a partial reflection of a face in the side mirror of a truck becomes a statement of queer identity for him, because it is a statement about how it feels to be seen. Being queer means more than being someone who can look and be looked at -- it means being someone who knows the weight and effect of that gaze.


When someone walks through the world feeling always observed, then repositioning the gaze, the way people see them, becomes a queer act.


“It’s a consciousness most of us don’t walk around with as we go through our lives,” Ballard said.
But these artists do. As with the portraits from earlier eras, the selfies in this show often make use of mirrors. The people in these photos are always aware of the camera lens and the people looking in.


“To post that image as an epiphany, redoubled, mirrored, where anywhere from two people to 2 million people can see it in one day,” Ballard said, puts the image of each of these artists into a local, national and international conversation “about who we are, where we belong, the boundaries of a nation, the making of a nature.


“Something about these images with redoubling becomes politically defiant,” Ballard said. It is as though the artists are saying, “You will not claim my body in this way. I will claim it. And I choose to fracture my image so many times that it will not fit.”

 

Intimate, but not always explicit
Although the images in this show are about bodies, gender and love, and they can be nakedly honest, they are rarely nakedly erotic.


One of the contemporary artists in the show, Kameron Neal, told Ballard he had expected it to have more nudity and sexual content. Although the show has some bare skin, almost all of it in the older works from the museum’s collection, far more of the images capture people in everyday moments. They offer the intimacy of someone sitting in their living room or on their lawn, or from the shoulders up in a hot bath.


“He said, ‘I’m pleased, but I wonder why you chose to hold back more than you had to,’” Ballard said, and he paused, considering the answer.


“I think a lot about Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter to Birmingham Jail,” he said.
King wanted to reach out to people he saw as moderate, Ballard explained, “not the people in your progressive corner pushing you to be more liberal, and not the people at a far extreme, but those people in touch with the news who love their family members but who haven’t stood publicly in support.”


In this show, Ballard seeks to evoke and provoke, but not to shock. He wants people to feel comfortable — comfortable enough to come in and stay, and think, and come back again.
“It would break my heart if they walked in and saw frontal nudity and walked out thinking, ‘This isn’t for me,’” he said.


Instead, he wanted people to feel comfortable coming back and bringing others back with them -- roommates and friends and parents. And he found himself asking, “What is a show I’d bring my father to, that he would love? He would look at every image -- he would gasp and shake his head, he would giggle, his eyes would get wide. I think he would cry.”


So it was a joy for him, as the images came together on the walls, to walk through the galleries thinking, “My dad’s going to love this show.”

 

Welcome, one and all
Ballard has made these rooms a space to gather, to play, and an invitation for everyone, because for the first time, he felt it for himself.


“Somewhere in the midst of building the show,” he writes in the galleries, “I realized my colleagues and I were working on a kind of exhibition I’d never seen before: one where I felt represented on the walls.”


He felt it important to acknowledge in the same place, as the curator of this show, that he is a queer person of color.


“I am involved in the evolving sense of this word, as I think we all are,” he said.
And so he thinks about students walking into this space, and into the museum, and how and whether they will see themselves there.


Ballard speaks of museums with warmth and awe, and at the same time he speaks of people who might never have thought that art history or a museum was a place for them.


“It’s such a joy to be tasked with researching, caring for and speaking on behalf of some of the most beautiful things humans have made,” he said. “Being a curator isn’t something I aspired to as a child. I have come to realize it’s some of the greatest spiritual work I could ever do.”


The Williams College Museum of Art is invested now in a season of “hidden histories” -- thinking about how the objects in the collection came to be there, who gathered them, who has recorded what the museum knows about them, what the museum may not know -- and who writes the descriptions in a show, who tells each story, and what perspectives they bring to it.


In that kind of conversation, and in shows like “Possible Selves,” Ballard said, a museum does the work of social justice, equity and inclusion.


“The work of equity is not just recovering, but saying these are living, breathing people and conversations, not just because they are interesting, but because I have a personal stake in their evolutions,” Ballard explained. “WCMA is getting this right.”


And this process is stoking a conversation in the larger college community.
“This is the first show where I can see the possibility of what it might be like to walk into a museum in 10 or 20 years and see a photograph that might reflect some of my experience,” Ballard said. “And that I have curated this is a gift. That Williams has supported me is an added gift -- that they trusted me and the conversations we were having and themselves enough … to show us at our best selves.”

 

Seeing the possibilities
It has been amazing, Ballard said, to engage in this show with contemporary artists in a moment of great cultural change and questioning and to feel the added fire of sharing work and intentions and questions.


He loves creating a show that leaves the viewer wondering what’s next -- and what’s possible.
In academic museums, he sees a resurgent interest in the contemporary, a mission for being a lab space, an innovative classroom and a gathering space for the big ideas of this time.


He hopes to see more college and university museums bring together past and contemporary artwork, to set their collections in conversation with contemporary artists, and to widen the focus still farther: What about a show, for example, on trans people in the African or Asian diaspora?
Thinking of the energy he has felt rising around this show, Ballard recalled one image here: a transitioning person as their scars are beginning to heal.


“They’re a person of color,” he said, “And they are thrilled and shy – ‘Oh my God, I just did this.’ That power of everyday splendor, of joy and vulnerability, awkwardness and self-consciousness all coming together in the making of this moment -- that’s the power of the vernacular for me: acceptance and personal triumph. In our moment, that is art.”


And it is courage.
In early January, as he drove north after the holidays, Ballard was listening to inaugural addresses on the radio, and he said he was struck by an idea.


“In this polarizing moment, the deep good work we can do is to go to parties, to say hi to our neighbors, to baristas -- to do the daily work of being kind, of smiling, of ‘If you see something, say something,’” he said. “The daily living of one’s life is the most powerful resistance. The daily act of finding joy is resistance.”