Like a woman, this exhibition is meticulous and multifaceted. Curated by female artist Holly Marie Armishaw, “Women Artists Representing Women: Through the Lens of Contemporary Photographic Art” presents a selection of diverse but cohesive works that effectively bring attention to various aspects of contemporary feminine existence. The show features five internationally acclaimed female artists who use woman figures as their visual language to explore their identities. While the title suggests that it is an exhibition for women artists to represent women, the artworks on display convey a strong image of women as if they are standing in front of you speaking for themselves what defines them. By the end of the show, you may ask who is representing who?

This is a question of identity in an institutionalized system. Our civilized society is a labyrinth of entities that set forth social rules, and our identities are then defined conveniently according to the communities we belong. To question the social perceptions on women’s identity, this exhibition brings the complex social structures under a microscope and examines it on an individual level. Coming from diverse backgrounds, the five female artists, who are Iranian American, Dutch, British, African American and American, portray women who share an ethnic, political or cultural affinity with them. However, it is not these realms that this exhibition intends to narrate. To the contrary, like an undeveloped film, it unveils the truth about identity from inside out, the blurry images of us before exposing to the world.

The ambiguity of identity is skillfully presented in each of the work on display. The notion of dichotomy is maneuvered in these images in order to challenge the stereotypes of our society. Shirin Neshat’s black and white series “Women of Allah” (1993-97) depicts the silent devotion of Iranian women to Islamic religion, their use of violence in defense of their religion confronts the submissive image of Iranian women in traditional perception. Rineke Dijkstra’s “New Mothers” series (1994) portrays women holding their newborn babies proudly against their chests, the bravery and strength of motherhood. Yet the pale and naked bodies positioned in front of the sparse background of their home, which is where most Dutch women give birth without pain medication, suggests their exhaustion and vulnerability as mothers. The most eye catching works of the show are Mickalene Thomas’ signature flashy and color rich photographs. Each figure in her works on display poses assertively and look directly at the camera. Their glamorous outfits and confident eye contact are an invitation for attention, but are also an interrogation for outer beauty. Will these women still be so proud of who they are without the beautiful shells?

This exhibition represents women in the sense that it allows women to speak for themselves, as the complexity of self is beyond the norm of the society. As Armishaw puts it in her essay The Philosophy of Self-Portraiture in Contemporary Art, “we are trapped within our selves as our identity lies not in any one physical feature or set of characteristics, but in the conscious entity behind these.” [1]

Women Artists Representing Women: Through the Lens of Contemporary Photographic Art runs til December 23, 2016 at Gallery 44, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto

[1] Armishaw, Holly Marie. “The Philosophy of Self-Portraiture in Contemporary Art”.—essay.html