At first it might be surprising that the earliest known self-portrait turns out to be a masquerade (i), but, as Roland Barthes (2) suggests, photography has a closer relationship with theatre than it does with painting so role playing, camouflage, mimicry, disguise and performance have been an integral part of photography from the very outset.
Barthes builds on his ideas about the closeness of photography to theatre explaining that the first actors used makeup to to play the role of the dead, and by doing so became simultaneously alive and dead, dual personalities, dual entities. He sees in any portrait photograph a painted mask, the made-up face “beneath which we see the dead”. In fact the mask is a recurring theme in Camera Lucida (2), Barthes, never a man to let a good metaphor off the hook too easily, returns several times to the idea that a portrait photograph is the picture of a mask, it is an untruthful representation of the real person, a put-on face, an adopted persona for the camera.
If we follow Barthes’ idea to its natural conclusion all portraiture becomes masquerade, not a conclusion I subscribe to, but it does help to explain why photographers have always been exploring masquerade in one form or another. It is often an investigation into the representation of self and identity, of how the mask changes reality to move us nearer to or further from the truth. However, as a genre, masquerade is a broad church, its practitioners diverse, and its uses varied so although the first impression is usually of a dramatic performance rather than documentary there are examples where the line between fact and fiction is blurred.
This essay looks at a cross section of artists who are well known for their use of masquerade. Cindy Sherman, the doyen of photographic masquerade, is discussed in a previous essay (here) and her influence is a common thread in the work of contemporary practitioners but where she has been an influence here the artist has mapped out a very different path.
The obvious conclusion to this line of research is that self-portrait masquerade is inevitably about identity. Wearing is investigating being part of a specific gene pool, Fosso is talking about the identity of modern Africans in a world that has been shaped by colonialism, Morimura is concerned with the dilution of Japanese identity through the dominance of Western culture and Lee is exploring the multiple and fluid identity of American subcultures from the perspective of an immigrant.
Gillian Wearing is one of the most literal masquerade artists, in her Album series in 2003 she had realistic, photograph based, masks made of her family and pictured herself wearing the them; only her eyes show through each mask. Wearing’s work is often very exciting, I especially liked Signs, (3) a project from 1992 -3 where she asked strangers to write what was on their mind and then photographed them holding the results, a project that could be repeated time and time again and still capture the imagination.
Album is a less assessable piece, the photographs are reminiscent of high street studio portraits, factual and competent, the prosthetic masks are splendid but overall it is only becomes an interesting series because of the context she provides. “I was interested in the idea of being genetically connected to someone but being very different. There is something of me, literally, in all those people—we are connected, but we are each very different.” (4) It is described by Susan Bright (5) as a metaphorical way of exploring her family so that she could “better understand the role of family on the formation of her identity.” It is quite possible that she achieved this objective but it raises the question of whether the viewer is discovering anything about either Wearing or her family and if her exploration is in any way relevant to the outsider.
Another and very different photographer who uses masquerade and disguise extensively is Samuel Fosso (6), who Peter Beaumont of The Guardian (7) describes as one of Africa’s most important living photographers and contemporary artists. Fosso was born in Cameroon but moved to Bangui in the Central African Republic at an early age. When thirteen or fourteen he opened a basic studio specialising in portraits and passport photos whose motto was “You will be beautiful, elegant, delicate, and easy to recognise”. Because his customers wanted their prints the next day he started using up the remaining frames on a roll by taking pictures of himself, which he saw as a historical record, a way to show his future children how handsome he was in his youth and to send to his mother to show how well he was doing. At some point he began to use props and costumes that became increasingly experimental. He was “discovered” when he won an award at the Bamoka Encounters (8) photography biennial in 1994 and has subsequently achieved international recognition.
Fosso’s masquerades have some of the same ambiguity that we find in Cindy Sherman’s work; he poses as both men and women and taken out of context his portraits appear to be nothing more than a collection of quite formally posed study shots. The textual context he offers is very general, for example the captions are factual, and whilst in interviews he explains the political meaning behind some of his better known pictures there is little explanation of the main body of his work. However, by using self portrait and masquerade as his main device he is providing the most complete context we could hope for, once we know that he is in every picture we realise that the photos cannot be taken at face value; we are compelled to unravel the underlying meanings or to devise working narratives.
Fossa has appropriated the genre of mid to late twentieth century, formal, studio portraiture to explore the representation of African identity, often with a satirical twist that brings wit and humour to the questions he is raising about being African in the post colonial era. His work and underlying motivations are best summed up in his own words in which he explains is portrait of an African chief: “With this photo I wanted to say to Westerners, look we had our own democracy before you came, we had our own rules, our own presidents but it was our ruler that you came and got rid of and in his place you set up your hierarchies, your systems.” (9)
Since becoming established as an art photographer he has taken masquerade and theatre in, for him, new directions creating complex narratives with himself as the only actor such as in Le réve de mon grand-pére (My grandfather’s dream) (5) which has an additional autobiographical layer. It is an ambiguous series that tells the story of the young Fosso being cured of a debilitating disease by his grandfather, the village healer, and the realisation of his grandfather’s dream than Fosso would eventually succeed him as the healer. It is therefore a mixture of factually based memory and fiction, which Ingrid Holzl describes as a story of self and a self which could have been possible. A blend of autobiography and dream-like fiction.
Part of the intrigue that surrounds Fosso’s work lies in the evolution of his practice. His earliest self portraits were very much about his external self, a representation of himself as beautiful and successful; this develops into role play and one imagines the first works of this type were simply Fosso having fun with the props that were lying around in his studio; which in turn evolves into staged, costumed self portraits that express his ideas about colonialism and post colonial Africa and more recently his work has evolved into the use of masquerade as sequential and autobiographical narratives that explore his personal history.
In many ways he has gone full circle, from autobiographical external self to autobiographical inner self so, somewhat surprisingly, Fosso’s work tells us more about him that we usually expect from masquerade artists.
Yasumasa Morimura offers yet another perspective on masquerade, his meticulously designed and extravagantly staged studio portraits of himself consistently explore the representation and identity of gender, the nature of political identity and the mimicry of Western culture in Japan but the different perspective lies in the way he parodies through copying, often creating precise and accurate reprisals of iconic images.
As a result his method of appropriation goes far beyond Fosso and Sherman who generally adopt styles; in a long career he has appropriated classic artworks such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Mona Lisa (several times); Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills; recognisable 1940’s studio portraits; known formal political portraits and news photographs. Like Sherman he uses make-up and hair styling to mimic his subjects but, unlike Sherman’s earliest work where she seamlessly slips into character and “looks the part”, Morimura offers uncomfortable parodies such as Marilyn Monroe as a Japanese man, a young Mao Zedong in the old man’s suit or a maniacal Hitler in the style of Peter Sellers with a supporting cast of animal headed party officials.
The Saatchi Gallery describe him as an agent provocateur (11), an idea that is supported by the way he subverts Western culture by infiltrating its iconic images. Morimura is concerned that Japan’s unique cultural heritage is being swamped by Western art (5) so inserting his Asian features into Western art is part of a consistent protest statement that implores Japanese artists to find their own path and not to be seduced by the West. In this light it is interesting that he cites Andy Warhol as a key influence on his his work. (12)
Morimura’s work asks us questions about originality and copying, a debate that is explored by Jessica Backus (13) who points out that the idea that art needs to be original is relatively new. The Romans are one of many civilisations who have copied Greek art, British Empire era architecture and statutory is directly influenced by Romano-Greco styles (ii) and ever since it opened its doors in 1793 the Louvre has actively encouraged young artists to copy its collection of masterpieces (iii). In one of my favourite books, Steal Like an Artist (15), Austin Kleon collects together dozens of quotations from artists on the importance of copying but somewhere along the line we have confused copying as an artistic process with plagiarism and promoted an idea that originality is a key measure of artistic worth.
Morimura, copies a wide range of material and Aneta Grezeszykowska (15), has reprised the complete Cindy Sherman Film Stills albeit in colour are using “accurate” copies as a way to investigate their identity, gender and ethnicity. They are copies in the sense of visually matching the original work but fundamentally different in terms of the intent.
Nikki S. Lee
Nikki S. Lee has an interesting perspective on identity, a perspective that is no doubt shared by many second generation immigrants. She recognised that she adopted a different persona depending on whether she was with her family or her friends (5) and has taken this idea as the basis for much of her work. It would be easy to reference her work back to Cindy Sherman in the way she disguises herself as stereotypes of contemporary culture and there is in much of her work that has the same sense of each image having been plucked from a sequence so the viewer is encouraged to create a back story and a concussion.
However, her approach is very different in the sense that, whilst Sherman works in controlled sets, Lee places herself inside documentaries, she not only adopts the persona of a hip-hop fan but photographs herself within a hip-hop group or she disguises herself as a Hispanic American and becomes part of a group of Hispanics (a process that took her many weeks). Operating in such uncontrolled environments brings a very different flavour to her images, there is a sense of her living the part more than acting the part which questions assumed identity in a social rather that theatrical setting.
So in the same way that Morimura is infiltrating iconic images, Lee is infiltrating American sub-cultures and testing her ability to assume the identity of any given group. Although the questions she is trying to answer are important ones, especially to immigrants who find themselves on the fringe of their historical cultural group and of the group that now surrounds them, it should not be ignored that Lee, like Sherman and Morimura is also involved in performance art, her own words describe this well “essentially life itself is a performance. When we change our clothes to alter our appearance, the real act is the transformation of our way of expression—the outward expression of our psyche.” (16)
The point is that she recognises that performance is a social reality rather than art-form contained within a theatrical setting.
Notes on Text
(i) That first masquerade by the way was a protest photograph, a statement of despair by Hippolyte Baynard that he was not receiving the art world’s attention to the same degree as his contemporary Daguerre. (1)
(ii) The use of Romano-Greco styles by the British Empire, Napoleon, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and in American political architecture is one of the most obvious modern uses of art as a political statement. A nation proves that it has achieved the status of “Empire” by appropriating the symbols of the Roman Empire – Eagles, Greco columns, domed political buildings, triumphal arches and Romano-Greco statues. This is art as a signifier of power.
(iii) An offer taken up, amongst many others by Tunfer, Ingtes, Manet, Degas, Chagall, Cézanne and Giacometti. Cézanne described the Louvre as “the book where we learn to read”. (14)
(2) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books
(5) Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: the Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames and Hudson
(15) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.
(1) Baynard, Hippolyte (1801 – 1887) (accessed at classic photographers 6.5.15) – http://www.classic-photographers.com/hippolyte-bayard/
(3) Wearing, Gillian (1992-3) Signs (accessed at The Tate 7.5.15) – http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wearing-im-desperate-p78348
(4) Wearing, Gillian. Gillian Wearing: Trauma and the Uncanny (accessed at The Guggenheim 7.5.15) – http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=732&id=155
(6) Fosso, Samuel. Samuel Fosso (accessed at The Walther Collection 6.5.15) – http://www.walthercollection.com/sites/default/files/samuel_fosso-pr_7.28.14.pdf
(7) Beaumont, Peter (2014) Rescued from War-Torn Bangui: Photographer Samuel Fosso’s Life Work (accessed at The Guardian 8.5.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/06/bangui-photographer-samuel-fosso-central-african-republic
(8) Bamoka Encounters (accessed at The Biennial Foundation website 9.5.15) – http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/rencontres-de-bamako-biennale-africaine-de-la-photographie/
(9) Taylor, Jessica (2002) Here’s Looking at me (accessed at The Guardian 6.5.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jun/27/artsfeatures2
(10) Holzl, Ingrid (2008) Self Portrait / Self Vision: The Work of Samuel Fosso (accessed at Academia 10.5.15) – https://www.academia.edu/404372/SELF-PORTRAIT_SELF-VISION_THE_WORK_OF_SAMUEL_FOSSO
(11) Morimura, Yasumasa. Selected Works by Yasumasa Morimura (accessed at The Saatchi Gallery 6.5.15) – http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/yasumasa_morimura.htm
(12) Morimura, Yasumasa. Yasumasa Morimura: Theatre of Self (accessed at The Warhol 10.5.15) – http://www.warhol.org/responsive/event.aspx?id=20708
(13) Backus, Jessica (2013) Yasumasa Morimura and the History of Copying (accessed at Artsy 6.5.15) – https://www.artsy.net/article/jessica-yasumasa-morimura-and-the-history-of-copying
(14) Harriss, Joseph (2001) Master Class (accessed at the Smithsonian Magazine 10.5.15) – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/master-class-69130767/?no-ist
(15) Grzeszykowska, Aneta. Works (accessed at Raster Art 10.5.15) – http://raster.art.pl/gallery/artists/grzeszykowska/prace.htm
(16) Lee, Nikki S. Nikki S. Lee: the Hispanic Project 1998 (accessed at Albright-Knox Art Gallery 10.5.15) – http://www.albrightknox.org/collection/collection-highlights/piece:lee-hispanic-project/
Zohar, Ayelet (2011) The Eli(va)sive Portriat: Mimicry, Masquerade and Camouflage (accessed at Trans Asian Photography Review 6.5.15) – http://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0002.102/–elu-vasive-portrait-mimicry-masquerade-and-camouflage?rgn=main;view=fulltext
O’Hagen, Sean (2010) Photography: Self Portraits as an Art Form (accessed at the Guardian 6.5.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/aug/08/photography-self-portrait
Morimura, Yasumasa. Yasumasa Morimura (accessed at Artsy 6.5.15) – https://www.artsy.net/artist/yasumasa-morimura
Morimura, Yasumasa. Yasumasa Morimura (accessed at Luhring Augustine 6.5.15) – http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/yasumasa-morimura
Jones, Amelia. Claude Cahun’s Ambiguos Self Images (accessed at Academia 6.5.15) – https://www.academia.edu/8998686/Excerpt_from_Exposure_Self-Portraiture_Performativity_Self-Inquiry_2010
Gray, Loiuse. Confess All: The Revealing Art of Gillian Wearing (accessed at DB Art Mag 6.5.15) – http://www.db-artmag.com/archiv/2005/e/5/1/356.html
Henley, Jon (2011) Photogrpaher Samuel Fosso’s Best Shot (accessed at The Guardian 6.5.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jun/19/photographer-samuel-fosso-best-shot
Iduma, Emmauel (2014) The Self Portraits of Samuel Fosso (accessed at Guernica 6.5.15) – https://www.guernicamag.com/art/the-self-portraits-of-samuel-fosso/
Stephens, Autumn. Masquerade at the Museum (accessed at The Monthly 6.5.15) – http://www.themonthly.com/upfront1207.html
Karantonis, Pamela (2008) Staged Photography and the Performance of Autofacture: Cross-Genre Impersonation in Cindy Sherman’s Self-Portraits (accessed at Research Space 6.5.15) – http://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/1349/1/PK%20International%20Journal%20Final%20Copy%20StagedPhotographyandthePerformanceofAutofacture%20(1).pdf