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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

On Tuesday, I visited the National Portrait Gallery. To be honest, I was really there to meet a friend for an impromptu happy hour… but I was early, so I wandered the halls. I’d been there many times before, so I wasn’t really paying too much attention, until I saw the current exhibit, Portraiture Now: Staging the Self. The Smithsonian describes the work as featuring “six contemporary Latino artists … who present identities theatrically, in order to rid portraiture of its reassuring tradition that fixes a person in space and time.”

I was most drawn to the work of Rachelle Mozman. Her photography (staged narrative, mostly, I think) depicted the odd disconnect between people of different social classes even in home settings. I spent a long time viewing the following photograph from the “Casa de Mujeres” project, imagining what its story might be. 

“El Espejo” (The Mirror). C-Print, 2010. Rachelle Mozman. Digital image published by npg.si.edu.

I always feel closer to exhibits, like I more fully understand them, when I am able to contextualize their efforts. Usually, this is by reading the artist statements and descriptive information the museum staff publishes.  I never want to read a lot, but skimming through a gallery without having any idea what I’m looking at feels like a waste of time to me. After I read the description on the wall, I took another look at Mozman’s photographs, and I have to say that I did think about them differently. Here’s what the wall said:

“In the last two decades, Rachelle Mozman has worked between her native New York and Panama, the country of her maternal family. Starting often from her own experience and family history, Mozman explores how culture shapes individuals and how environment affects behavior. She takes on these questions through multiple photographic series that conflate both documentary style and fictional narrative. Mozman’s photographs show servants and masters in their most intimate surroundings. They engage each other sparsely, if at all, playing off of established social roles. The common introspective look of Mozman’s lone characters suggests alienation—not what one would expect in a domestic setting.”

I added the emphasis on that italicized part above so that I could explain my reaction to those lines. They are the first sentences I saw as I glanced up at the wall, and they are the most important to me. We all “stage our self” to define, name, exhibit, and announce our personal identities in public. But what about at home?

How do we act out societal roles and cultural influences even in our most private of spheres, even when no one is watching?

The Staging the Self exhibit of the Portraiture Now series will be open at the National Portrait Gallery from August 22, 2014 through April 12, 2015.

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