Longings for love, sex, connection, and status inspire elaborate social performances that guide how individuals navigate interactions with others. Using the human body as the point of departure, the photographers in this exhibition document, investigate, and criticize the social customs that define who and what is desirable, and why.
René Peña and Zanele Muholi use their own bodies to simultaneously question the formation of personal identity and subvert the power of consumer culture to define the standards of beauty and desirability. In a recent series of self-portraits she calls Somnyana Ngonyama—which means “Hail, the Dark Lioness” in Zulu—Muholi performs and embodies various roles and personas to better understand the development of her identity and psyche. In HeVi, Oslo, Muholi wears an afro wig, darkens her skin, and stands against a background of foliage to presents herself as a stereotyped, erotic “other” and in doing so, confronts her own pain and the lingering psychological and social wounds of racism she suffered growing up in South Africa. René Peña poses with consumer products in his White Things series, and as an advertisement that depicts a young, white woman as the face of Don Algodón, a Spanish clothing company for chicas con principios (girls with principles). By wearing the marketing on his chest and posing with the white cigarette and bra, Peña subverts the power of consumer culture to define beauty and calls attention to how the sexualized body drives the desire for both consumption and status.
Humberto Díaz and Kelli Connell create performances in private and public spaces. Connell’s visions of quiet intimacy are digitally constructed from multiple images of the same model; the artist recreates the scenes based on personal memories of domestic interactions. The doubling of the same model represents the duality or multiplicity within each individual, questioning the fixed notions of sexuality, identity, and proscribed gender roles that have long shaped relationships. Using his own body and those of people close to him, Díaz creates and photographically documents jarring public interventions to question freedom (or lack thereof) in his native Cuba. Díaz’s plastic wrapped figures are simultaneously preserved and discarded, drawing parallels between constricted desire and restriction of movement; bodies are wrapped, like pieces of meat, ready for possession and consumption. Signs of the desire to possess and consume echo throughout this selection of photographs, particularly in the work of Gözde Türkkan whose Pay Here series focuses on the outward manifestation of sexual, psychological, emotional, and sociological identity. The confrontational gaze of the women in Türkkan’s photograph suggests a consideration of the potential costs of desire.
Vik Muniz’s classically inspired Bather combines the allure of sexual desire and the revulsion of the “dirty” human body. His depiction of the human form created from dirt invokes mortality and the process of flesh returning to the earth. The desire to evade death, to chase youth and remain forever young is an important theme in Youseff Nabil’s photographs of sleeping young men. Their youthful reclining bodies are depicted as permanently elusive, suspended moments in time, forever untouchable objects of desire.
This exhibition was organized in conjunction with the 2017 Louisville Photo Biennial, which takes place September 22 – November 11, featuring 50+ photography exhibitions – spanning traditional to contemporary, local to global work – at museums, galleries, universities, and cultural institutions throughout Louisville Metro, Southern Indiana, and surrounding communities.