From home to body, women have historically been responsible for the maintenance and safekeeping of interior spaces. Acknowledging the fragility of our existence, this work speaks to the perception of persistent threats, and the relationship between our psychic and material worlds. All using photography in one way or another, the four artists considered here create conceptual assemblages of found objects and historical references that reverse, even implode, traditional ideas of intimacy and domestic security. In the process, they illuminate themes of poverty and wealth, vulnerability and protection, and the possibilities of latent forms of power.
Antonia Dewhurst's series Gimme Shelter draws inspiration from the Welsh tradition of Tý Unnos, in which it was said that anyone who could build a dwelling in one night and have smoke coming out of the chimney by sunrise could claim ownership of the structure and its surrounding land. As part of this series, Dewhurst constructed small huts out of photographic prints, string, and other found objects. The images themselves are close-up shots of various colored and textured surfaces such as peeling paint, tarpaper, and rusted corrugated metal, creating a palpably scavenged appearance. Most of the huts measure less than five inches on each side. Displayed as a collection, they can read as a village of doll- or birdhouses. The playfulness of their scale is subverted, however, by their allusions to poverty. Like the song from which it takes its title, this work speaks to insecurity and vulnerability and suggests a longing for protection.
Taking us inside, in Casa de Mujeres, Rachelle Mozman depicts a fictional Latin American home focusing on the relationships between two sisters and their maid, characters all performed by Mozman's mother. These theatrically staged photographs dramatize everyday performances of diverse identities and consider the complex intimacies housed in postcolonial domestic spaces. In En el cuarto de la niña, for instance, the light-skinned mistress of the house sits on the edge of a little girl's bed wearing a dress of evident quality, while a doll lies on the pillow. The darker-skinned, uniform-clad maid stands in the background. Both women cast their gaze downward. Surrounded by flowered wallpaper, a religious painting hangs above them, and the mistress's reflection is framed in a mirror on the wall—an image within an image. Together the figures form a pyramidal composition that provides the unified feel of a Renaissance painting. The characters have taken their positions and fit into the order of things, yet this fixity is destabilized as we recognize the same woman as both mistress and maid. Enclosed within a shared interior space, suspended in relation to one another, multiple selves manifest variable associations with power and privilege.
More physically intimate, the large-scale color photographs in Xaviera Simmons' Index/Composition series each feature a truncated body lifting a skirt to reveal assemblages of objects clipped together and dangling from the figure's waist. Set against a solid backdrop, legs in colored tights converge with a swath of bright or patterned fabric through nests of hair, animal skins, photographs, masks, pouches, drawings, and pages torn from magazines to form a three-dimensional collage, which Simmons then flattens onto the photographic plane. Like other of her works, this series plays at the intersection of performance, sculpture, and photography, and engages with art and cultural history from the Western canon as well as Africa and its diaspora. That the possessions revealed in these images are kept close to the body, and under a skirt, allude to the intimate significance and condensed power of a fetish. Referencing multiple meanings of the term1, Simmons' photographs, like the television show Hoarders, expose hidden collections that, as Christian Metz describes in "Photography and Fetish," suggest "both loss... and protection against loss."2 The gesture performed also carries apotropaic associations: anasyrma, the lifting of skirts, was a form of ritual obscenity in ancient Greece that was believed to ward off danger.3 Likewise, the Index/ Composition series seem to be unveiling a power heretofore obscured, one that draws its strength from a multiplicity of cultural and spiritual sources.
Hannah Smith Allen's images of inverted pockets also imply proximity to the body and transform the everyday into the mysterious. Detailed textures, seams, and soft sculptural folds exposed, the pockets are isolated and wrapped in the darkness of a black background, like precious objects held in velvet cases. Printed larger than life at 24" x 30", they are both beautiful and ominous. The image Red (with black holes) is particularly disturbing. Like the others, this pocket resembles female genitalia, but its deep red color and frayed seam also hint at a violence that could be read as torn flesh, or more aggressively as vagina dentata. Intimate physical spaces, pockets provide a holding place for the things we carry closest to ourselves. Holes reveal a vulnerability to loss, and the gesture of pulling pockets out is a familiar social sign indicating that their wearer has nothing—to hide, to spend, to give. More than lack, however, the rich symbolism of Allen's empty pockets suggests a discovery of unexpected value.
1 Originally used in the 18th century to describe objects in "primitive" religions, the term fetish was extended in 1985 by William Pietz to refer to "the problematic social value of material objects as revealed in situations formed by the encounter of radically heterogeneous social systems" (7). See William Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, I," RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics No. 9 (Spring, 1985), pp. 5-17. In a psychoanalytic context, Freud used the concept of fetish in his theories about the fear of castration, specifically describing the psychic origin of the fetish object within the mind of a little boy shocked by the sight of his mother’s genitals.
2 See page 84 in Metz, Christian "Photography and Fetish" October, Vol. 34. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 81-90.
3 Marina Abramovic's Balkan Erotic Epic references a similar tradition from the Balkans. Anasyrma is also associated with the mythic figure of Baubo, who was said to make a despondent Demeter laugh by flashing her genitals.
Elizabeth White is a multidisciplinary artist whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, most recently in "A Map is not The Territory" a two-person show at FiveMyles Gallery in Brooklyn curated by Jessamyn Fiore. She has been awarded residencies in Leipzig, Tbilisi, Marfa, and Governorâs Island, and has received support from CECArtsLink and the Hattie Strong Foundation. She holds a BA from Vassar College and an MFA in photography, video, and related media from the School of Visual Arts, where she was the recipient of an Aaron Siskind Fellowship. Based in Brooklyn, she teaches at Bennington College in Vermont.