The power of self-representation

Image provided by the Winnipeg Art Gallery and photography by Ella Cooper.

Currently on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) is Born in Power, an exhibition of photography and installations that speak to the identities and representations of Indigenous and Black people — particularly women and non-binary people.

Curated by Jaimie Isaac, curator of Indigenous and contemporary art at the WAG, Born in Power was meant to open back in November 2020, but the unveiling was postponed due to COVID-19. However, the exhibition was augmented this past February to include a variety of virtual programming, in partnership with Safe at Home Manitoba in honour of Black History Month, to give audiences opportunities to engage with the exhibition’s topics with other community members, and to make this exhibition more accessible throughout the pandemic.

Born in Power features artists Anique Jordan, Meryl McMaster, Ella Cooper, Kali Spitzer, Hagere Selam “Shimby” Zegeye-Gebrehiwot and Raven Davis, among others. These artists explore the power in self-representation through the mediums of film and photography, which have historically been employed as weapons of colonial objectification and racial violence.

The artists reclaim the power that comes with being the director of these lenses, using it to discuss collective and intersectional histories and oppressions while simultaneously asserting their rights to occupy space and control the representations of their own bodies and identities in institutional spaces.

To visit Born in Power, patrons cut through Simply Splendour, an exhibition of decorative arts and drawings from the WAG’s collection. The shift in tone between this exhibition and Born in Power is striking. Simply Splendour’s colourful, European-focused works juxtaposes Born in Power’s powerful, minimalist and highly contrasted imagery in a way that feels as if you are travelling forward through time and into contemporary reality.

Upon entering Born in Power, the space is filled with sound. This includes audio of the subjects from Spitzer’s work, “An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance Project,” speaking about their own life experiences and identities, faint music from Davis’s video installation “It’s Not Your Fault,” and audio from Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s video “yaya/ayat.” These sounds and voices create an all-consuming ambiance for the space and, for Spitzer’s work in particular, add another layer of realism and vulnerability to the photographs displayed.

Visually, the first set of works noticed upon entering Born in Power’s gallery space is Anique Jordan’s series “Darkie.” Circling through each of Jordan’s images repeatedly, I enjoyed the artist’s wonderful use of movement, texture and contrast to create these close and carefully composed self-portraits that challenge western and Eurocentric beauty standards.

Meryl McMaster’s “Ancestral” series is also a sight to see. In these photographs, the artist projects images of their own ancestors onto themselves, raising questions about finding one’s identity in relation to past generations. McMaster’s projection process wasn’t obvious at first, which made these ethereal self-portraits even more fascinating to look at, decode and realize the nature of their surreal energy.

Each step further into Born in Power is a step into the theme of identity and positionality within the context of our current sociopolitical realities, yet embedded in the colonial histories that have been presented to us our whole lives from the white, male anthropological point of view.

This results in a solemn, yet intimate act of self-determination and reclamation of representation and the medium of film photography itself. In the images Born in Power presents, we as an audience also find space to reflect on the images of Black and Indigenous people that we have seen throughout our lives, as well as our own positionality in relation to these ideas.

 

Born in Power is on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until the summer of 2021. For more information, please visit wag.ca.