quinta-feira, dezembro 03, 2009

Comment on Identity

The representation of a human subject in the visual arts relies intimately in the semiotics embedded in the forms that are shaped as communication tools during the conceptual and creative process. Human representation can present several objectives and in opposition reject to serve certain purposes, it is manipulated. Painting was the form used in the early periods of portraiture to represent a sitter, being today possible to perceive, from such paintings (Figure 1), the use of simple symbolisms, highly related to the common cultural references of the artist’s and sitter’s environment and time. Knowing the meanings of what is used in defining the persona of the sitter is the key in understanding her or his identity. However, today visual arts cannot act with the same level of simplicity. Identity is the combination of all characteristic factors relative to a collective or individual that makes of it a definable and recognizable entity, easy distinguishable from entities of different types. In the example given in Figure 1, where a European king from the late 16th century is portrayed, the familiarity with the known symbols allows the perception of the greatness of the role he played in society. The sitter is in opposition to other ranks of his society with less power. One should expect that the meanings of the representation were better perceived at the time when the portrait was created, but also that the portrait may have served as a vehicle to propagate through time the used symbols as being related to what characterizes a king. This propagation can be observed in the 1996 portrait of the king of pop (Figure 2).

In opposition to the king’s portrayal, the expression of a human subject in modernist visual arts from the turn of the 20th century can be characterized by the dissociation between the signifier (outer form of the subject) and the signified (the sitters inner essence)(ref 1). This distance initiated the characteristic rupture and fragmentation of the self into several meanings and messages that is defined today in visual arts. Later, the influences of psychoanalytic theory in art (ref 2) after World War II, combined with a multicultural globalized world, simultaneously exposed and questioned several identities. It is in the act of exposure that I will give special attention to the Portuguese artist Paula Rego in questioning and defining female identity. Among many outcomes of the French and American Revolutions in the 18th century, associated to the evolution of subjectivity into the actual postmodern era since Descartes in the 17th century, the concept of human rights for all women and men gradually became part of the identity of the cultures in the Western World. Today, artistic and popular movements of the Western World, that were developed under the clear philosophical elegy of human rights, have been imported in the last decades into countries like China where there are no human rights, where Olympic stadiums were recently built with slave child labor. Is artistic creation and consequent definitions of identity performed by imitation in China?
The industrial revolution in the 19th century that triggered the development of technology also increased the power of purchase and the quality of life of those who once did not have access to education, health care and other basic needs. World Wars attracted women to the job market. Consequently, habits and ways of life from conservative religious movements associated to old traditions started to be questioned relativity to the negative discrimination of humans in the context of sexual orientation, skin pigmentation, gender, nationality and religious and political beliefs. Socialist movements were born. Nowadays, tolerance towards difference within minorities or socially disadvantaged sectors of society is becoming the rule. Together with global modern societies, visual artists are redefining the identity of women, gay and several minorities of the world after the stated social and cultural revolutionary events. What is the identity of women in a circumstance of equality with the opposite gender? In addition, global issues of identity related to new cultural factors as consumerism related to aesthetics and celebrity culture affect the search of human visual identity in a way that is transversal to all groups of society.
Until very recently, women were unfairly characterized through History by male oriented interpretations of the female identity (ref 3). From Figure 3 to 6, Paula Rego represents women performing roles that are easily perceived by the viewer, but unusual to represent and exhibit. The woman that is represented in her underwear as a dog urinating near the bed (Fig 3) can address either rebellion or submission towards male dominion. Snow white swallowing the apple (Fig 4) in such a familiar home environment can induce on to question of how many women exist in the world swallowing poisoned apples everyday. The woman giving birth in Fig 5 is one of those that terrify me because as a male I will never understand how much of it is true. The woman that is a man or the man that is a woman in Fig 6 reveals a secret that the little girl didn’t want to know and that I would not like to verbalize for the sake of my happiness. All these interpretations are short and are mine, depending on my subjectivity, completely influenced by my cultural background, my personal experiences and empathy and support that I always nurtured for feminist movements. In my opinion, these images are filled with Portuguese references, but maybe a US American would not notice any foreign references. Universally, the experience of seeing women represented in the work of Paula Rego by exposing taboo and uncomfortable truths may activate the need of rethinking the role of women in many aspects of modern societies and consequently their female identity.

1 PORTRAITURE Facing the subject. Edited and Introduced by Joanna Woodall. Manchester University Press 1997. Page 241
2 PICTURING THE SELF Changing views of the subject in visual culture. Gen Doy. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd 2005. Page 145
3 CLAUDE CAHUN a sensual politics of photography. Gen Doy. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd 2005. Pages: 20-23.

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