Position As Desired: Confronting Canadian Identities


(Fig. 1) Dawit L. Petros, Sign (2003) Image courtesy of Dr. Kenneth Montague/The Wedge Collection.

Position As Desired, on now at the Royal Ontario Museum until March 27, features eight emerging and established photo-based artists who explore African-Canadian identity. The exhibition is inserted into the permanent Canadian collection, providing an opportunity for critical dialogue on the complexities of multiculturalism and the creation of hybrid identities.

Dawit L. Petros’ Sign (2003) confronts viewers as they enter the gallery (fig,1). The young black male in the photograph holds a direct gaze. His presence forces visitors to acknowledge the prejudices he/she may hold when faced with this subject. What does this figure signify? For many, it might provoke (an unfounded) fear. American writer Hilton Als writes about his life as a black male as the “experience of being watched.”[1] For him, this constant observance is a metaphorical lynching.[2] He is the victim of the white world’s anxieties.  In Sign, Petros manipulates the signified by making direct reference to Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait at 28, created just over 500 years earlier. Instead of Dürer’s brown curls, Petros’ subject wears dreadlocks; instead of crimson robes, he is framed in a fur-trimmed black parka. The cropping and non-referential background of the two images is identical. Petros uses the ROM as “both a target and a weapon” for challenging viewers.[3] Art critic Hal Foster writes, “the artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than the producer of art objects.”[4] By reproducing a canon of Western art, Petros reveals how the image of a black male can transition instantly from unsafe to accepted.

Megan Morgan’s Re-Photographed is a series of framed photographic transfers on orange, yellow and white paper. The portraits depict people young, old, black and white. All of them are devoid of environmental context. What these images have in common is Morgan. They represent the components of her genealogical and constructed identity. As the boundaries of national identity melt into hybrid identities, Homi K. Bhabba explains that our selfhood is created in the “overlap and displacement of domains of difference.”[5] Morgan explores the how the dualities of her identity do not oppose but combine.

Position As Desired provides a breath of fresh air in a gallery otherwise filled with colonial furniture and paintings of Niagara Falls. Artists like Dawit L. Petros and Megan Morgan demand that the viewer questions how he/she reads black subjects. These artworks do not define what it is to be African Canadian. Rather, they provide a few voices on the experience of the multi-faceted Canadian identity that forms across borders and genealogy.


[1] Hilton Als, “GWTW,” in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), page 39.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hal Foster, “Subversive Signs” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1038.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Homi K. Bhabha, “On ‘Hybridity’ and ‘Moving Beyond’” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1111.

Bibliography

 

Als, Hilton. “GWTW.” In Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen, 38-44. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.

Bhabha, Homi K. “On ‘hybridity’ and ‘moving beyond’.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1110-1116. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Foster, Hal. “Subversive Signs.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1037-1038. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

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1 Comment

Filed under Essay exhibition reviews

One response to “Position As Desired: Confronting Canadian Identities

  1. Thank you for posting your really insightful examination of Position As Desired/Exploring African Canadian Identity: Photographs from the Wedge Collection, currently displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The ROM is honoured to have worked with Dr. Kenneth Montague and Wedge Curatorial Projects to bring this exhibition to ROM visitors. The photographic works are all of Dr. Montague’s collection and the image included in your article is courtesy of Dr. Kenneth Montague/The Wedge Collection. If at all possible, would you include this information and/or photo credit on your site? Thank you very much.
    Sincerely,
    Marilynne Friedman

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