Home » Sense of Self in Review by Miranda Seaver

Sense of Self
VISUAL | Sense of Self features Bay Area photographers who explore identity and selfhood through portraiture featuring Marcela Pardo Ariza, Tammy Rae Carland, Erica Deeman, Jamil Hellu, and Stephanie Syjuco.

Sense of Self in Review by Miranda Seaver

Article by Miranda Seaver

Venue: San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

Featuring: Sense of Self – Exhibition

We’re all just trying to understand things. To know ourselves, each other, and the ways the past and future play in all our hands.

I can define myself by my qualifiers. I’m a woman – brown hair, brown eyes, five foot six and around two hundred pounds. I am a writer, a lesbian, and I’ve been in the throws of mental illness for most of my life. But these are all just words, and they tend to fall away whenever I cross paths with that enigmatic shape that meets my eyes in every reflective surface. Leaving…what, exactly?

Identity. History. These are the themes that play in Sense of Self, a photography exhibition at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (November 9, 2019 – March 15, 2020).

In this day and age, the art of portraiture is more accessible then ever. There’s no time wasted posing for a painting or waiting for a first-generation camera to develop. Anyone can get a camera, and because of that the depth of perspectives has grown to fit the modern world. Thus is the focus in Sense of Self, where the previously silent voices of queer and POC artists have been brought into the spotlight to flourish in the public eye.

And it’s beautiful, joyous and passionate. There’s a certain hunger for representation and understanding that goes quiet after long enough, only to rush forward as soon as you find that moment of true connection. Take Jamil Hellu, who stepped out from behind the camera to join his subjects from the LGBTQ community in their own interpretation of themselves and their culture. Each title is a quote from the person in the picture. Take the portrait of the leather-bound butch with an American flag balled in her mouth and her first raised in power, titled “When people think of America, they don’t think of someone who looks like me,” voiced Crystal Mason before putting the flag in her mouth. The photographer is seen dressed in matching leather, knelt at her side, turning himself into a prop to further push the power in her stance. He’s done more than document her, he’s joined her in her own perspective, forming a connection far beyond that of photographer and subject.

Or consider Tammy Rae Carland’s series On Becoming: Billy + Katie 1964, a collection of portraits providing fictional representations of Carland’s own parents. She plays both mother and father, framing herself in the early 20th century, gathering laundry from a backyard line or nursing a pint at an unknown bar. These are photos based on ideals and fantasies, as only one actual photograph of Carland’s parents exists. Because of that you get a sense of a mirror reflecting a mirror, as she reconnects the fraying ends in her family history.

While Carland uses her own self to solve her past, Erica Deeman uses her identity to capture the complex beauty of black masculinity. She bathes her subjects in shades of brown similar to her own skin tone, once again blurring the lines between photographer and subject. There’s an open intimacy to the portraits, depicting a true moment of vulnerability. As if they don’t know they’re being watched. Like they feel safe.

Because that’s what makes this collection of portraits so extraordinary, the safety and empowerment that makes the models bloom in front of the camera instead of wither or shy away. You really get the sense that there is a connection being made between artist and model, or even between the artist and themselves. Rules are questioned, pushed, and in some cases broken entirely to better showcase the state of the world today and the lives of the people inside it. It’s not perfect, but that’s the point. To quote a poem by Marcela Pardo Ariza used to go alongside their work Kin Skin: “Kin is messy. It’s viscous, sticky, malleable at its best. Uncontrollable. Sweet and bittersweet; so easy to smear. Contagious.”

It’s so easy to feel alone in the world, and empty within yourself. That’s why portraiture has gained a new importance. It shows more than a face, it shows the interlocking web of history and community that makes up a single human life.

So next time the light hits you or your friend, don’t be afraid to catch a picture. It may feel silly – but that right there is your kin. And as Ariza ends their poem, “Kin is what keeps us here”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.