Now You See Me

by Sandy Saad-Smith

Bringing together artists who consider the power dynamics of image-making in their distinct practices, Now You See Me includes Black, Indigenous, and artists of colour, who variously identify as women, femme, and non-binary. They use photography to explore issues related to gender and cultural identity, asserting themselves as directors of their own images to pose questions about the complex cultural and gender-related politics that underlie self-representation.

Using photography to question the line between empowerment and objectification, Dayna Danger’s work negotiates the complicated dynamics of sexuality, gender, and power. Combining BDSM gear and beaded leather fetish masks, Danger’s larger-than-life photographs explore Indigenous and Métis visuals and erotic sovereignty. Kablusiak also explores the objectification of Indigenous women and femmes in Piliutiyara (Robin Hood) (2021). In this work, the artist dominates public space wearing lingerie, an unyielding gaze, and a refusal to smile or tone down her sexuality. From this stance of empowerment, Kablusiak deconstructs sexualization and confronts the settler-colonial gaze. Meryl McMaster’s Truth to Power (2017) grapples with Duncan Campbell Scott’s 1898 poem, “Onondaga Madonna.” Scott played a significant role in the development of Canada’s residential school system, and his poem racially stereotypes an Onondaga woman and her child as savage, pagan, and doomed. Asserting an alternative narrative, McMaster had a 10-year-old Kahnawà:ke girl write out the poem by hand, and then juxtaposed it with a photograph of the artist standing defiantly amid a grid of trees, representing the corporal efficiency enforced in residential schools.

Confronting contemptuous visual histories, Leila Fatemi and Gaëlle Elma take unique approaches to combatting reductive narratives historically perpetuated by photography. Fatemi’s A Vessel to Bend Water (2022) examines the relationship between past representations of North African women and the common appearance of water vessels in their studio portraits. Through visual interventions into photographs found in Orientalist digital archives, Fatemi reveals the ways in which the water vessel became a prop used to perpetuate colonial agendas, and acted as a symbol for the contained and servile roles of women and their bodies. Elma captures evocative moments of stillness and confidence as she works with her subjects/collaborators on finding a sense of peace in nature. Through her deliberate refusal to portray the Black body as the “other,” her practice defies the violent visual legacy of Eurocentric world views. Offering counter-narratives, her photographs present Black people in empowered states within natural landscapes.

Drawing from personal cultural heritage, Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s and Vivek Shraya’s works deeply consider the ramifications of cultural norms. Dong’s photographic and augmented reality series Skin Deep (2019) explores the concept of shame in Chinese culture. Used as a tool of social control, shame is often a means of preventing citizens, especially women, from acting in ways that disrupt the status quo. Dong’s series of self-portraits conceal her face in symbolic Chinese silk fabrics—a masking gesture that implies submission to the powerful effects of shame, obscuring those whose identities fall outside what is deemed acceptable. Inspired by the 1994 film Legends of the Fall, Shraya’s queered performance in the photographic series Legends of the Trans (2021) reflects the value of gender non-conforming role models. Tristan Ludlow, the main character played by Brad Pitt in the original film and the inspiration for Shraya’s photographs, is reimagined through her own brown trans body. By positioning herself at the centre of the frame, Shraya gestures toward the rejection of traditional gender roles, presenting both feminine and masculine aspects of the character. Shraya’s Tristan wears a bindi in each photograph, drawing on a semi-autobiographical narrative while creating space for conceptions of self-representation, of South Asian diaspora, and of brown trans women that are fluid and open.

Employing tactics of performing, concealing, and revealing their bodies and those of their collaborators, the artists in Now You See Me produce photographs that challenge normative, colonial assumptions. They offer divergent narratives that reveal paradoxes inherent in representations of racialized bodies. Through their work, the artists address pressing political realities that are closely tied to their personal histories, and explore the social and cultural construction of femininity through cultural identity. Generated from different perspectives and experiences, these works share a reckoning with the historical and contemporary uses of the camera as a tool to perpetuate degradative narratives. As directors of their images, these artists shift perceptions of the politics that underly image making with surgical critique and blatant defiance, kicking the door open for new stories and conversations.