Category Archives: Self-Portrait

Malibu Betty (Pinboard #7)

Ali Kheradyar, “Malibu Betty,” 2011, c-print, 48 x 36 inches, edition of 5

Ali Kheradyar is a Los Angeles based artist of Iranian heritage although she was born and raised in the United States.  Her training is in music and dance.  Much of her work focuses on the female body and, in many instances, her own body.  These works use the body as a jumping off point to explore themes such as beauty, sculpture, commercialization, sexuality and gender.

This work entitled, “Malibu Betty” from 2011 is part of Kheradyar’s Dye series.  In Dye, Kheradyar photographs portraits of her pubic hair covered in Betty Hair Dye.  The dye specifically designed for use on one’s pubic hair and is for women who want their pubic hair to match the hair on their head whether it is blonde, brunette, pink, purple, or, as is the case in this work, Malibu Blue.  The minimalistic image features a cropped close-up of Kheradyar’s lower torso, legs and pubic region.  Her pubic hair is matted with a thick layer of the Malibu Blue dye which contrasts starkly to the pale tone of her skin and brings an element of playfulness to an otherwise muted work.

For the artist, the dye raised a number of questions, as she writes, “What was this practice about?  The commercialization of the female?  Consumerism?  Color?  Challenging the male gaze, or partaking in female objectification?  How are these products appealing?  Is this sexy?  What do these products say about sex culture and beauty now?”  Many of these questions remain unresolved in Kheradyar’s work.  Without knowing the artist’s background or the context of the work, the image could easily be an advertisement for the product.  At the same time, Kheradyar’s use of her own body and its simultaneous simple presentation coupled with assertive presentation of the self, echo Ana Mendieta.  However, such contradictions and layered meanings are an essential part of the questioning process Kheradyar is driving at.  Her work highlights the ways in which sexuality can at times be ridiculous, absurd and even funny doing so an practical and straightforward manner.  Rather than poking fun at a product that turns your pubic hairs blue, to form this observation, however, she simply uses it as it was intended to be used.  In this regard, her work turns the questions she seeks to address to the viewer.  You can almost feel her asking the viewer, in genuine curiosity, “is this sexy?”  In turning this question around rather than explicitly asking it by presenting herself in a provocative or sarcastic mode, she is able to effectively disrupt a simple reading of her work.



Glenn Ligon, Self Portrait

Glenn Ligon, self portrait exaggerating my black features / self-portrait exaggerating my white features, 1998, silkscreen on canvas


Glenn Ligon is a New York based Conceptual artist.  He has been active since the late 1980s.  Ligon works across media, from sculpture to digital art.  His work examines the intricacies of racial, sexual and gender identity, as well as the social experience of those identities.  His work is highly citational. His first independent showing featured an untitled piece with the text “How it Feels to be Colored Me”, from Zora Neale Hurston.  His Self Portrait  piece featured in this post is in direct conversation/cites Adrian Piper’s own Self Portrait.  However, unlike Piper’s piece, Ligon chose to not exaggerate actual features and instead attempted to create identical photographs.

Glenn Ligon’s Self Portrait, 1998, is a diptych of two seemingly identical portraits of himself.  He is dressed in a button up light colored shirt, collar open, denim jeans, a belt, and a pair of tennis shoes. His arms relaxed at his side though his hands are cupped.  He looks directly at the camera, head slightly tilted to the right, with a neutral expression on his face.  The image is in black and white.  The caption on the left panel reads “Self-portrait exaggerating my black features” in contrast to the right panel’s “Self-portrait exaggerating my white features”.  He stands against a light colored background that meets a darker colored floor.  I start this out by saying that the images are seemingly identical because when I first saw them, I did read the black features image as darker than the white features image.  When I realized the images were supposed to be identical I found myself confused.  Perhaps I was haunted by Ligon’s words, in one of his untitled pieces, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”.  In the version of this Diptych that I most often encounter (above), the flash on the panel exaggerating black features is brighter, so bright in fact, that it washes out the shirt he is wearing.

The intended meaning of this diptych seems to be to place the viewer in their own head. This seems to be a critique of Piper’s piece that creates an imagined visual difference.  Ligon asks us to contemplate what marks a body as having black features instead of white.  Additionally, the piece seems to be calling attention to the mixedness inherit to the American version of the black body.  The black body in America is the relationship between blackness and whiteness. The black  body that defines both, in as much as whiteness is defined against the black body, but also embodies both, as it is a body that contains both.  Going back to one of Ligon’s other citations, Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it Feels to be Colored Me”, she states “I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief” [1].  It’s a little thing that marks the silliness of defining blackness in a US context even amongst black people.

One of the unintended messages that exists in this photograph for me goes back to that initial reaction to the photos, the place where I was asking, “why does the black features image appear darker?”.  The brightness of the light, and the shadows created by the variation in use of the flash speaks to Sekula’s shadow archive:

“We can speak then of a generalized, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain.4″ This archive contains subordinate, territorialized archives: archives whose semantic interdependence is normally obscured by the “coherence” and “mutual exclusivity” of the social groups registered within each” [2].

By marking the two photographs with a textual racial signifier, Ligon places the viewer in a performative space where they are playing with their own view of race with his body as the stage.  He is taking away the obscureness the we normally associate with reading whiteness and bringing it front and center.  I cannot help but wonder how many people were taken aback upon viewing these two version of the photograph and seeing the darkness in the black image like I did, and, instead of looking past the features on his face, the place where we are compelled to look, simply walked away, not realizing the beautiful shadow play on his shirt, a shadow that highlights whiteness and blackness inasmuch as the photos are in black and white.  We are reading the image being about race, when it is a photograph,  a thing created by light.  The features of the light are heightened when displayed in black and white, where all differentiation in color exists on a gradient line between the two.

1. Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it feels to be colored me.” (1928): 152-55.
2. Sekula, Allan. “The body and the archive.” October 39 (1986): 3-64.

Pinboard 4

“Town and Country” part of “Cover Girl” Series, Iké Udé, 1994

This image is part of Nigerian artist, photographer and designer Iké Udé’s 1994 “Cover Girl” series in which he depicted himself in a variety of roles on the cover of a number of popular magazines.  In this image Úde chose “Town & Country” self-described as, “America’s premier lifestyle magazine for the affluent.”   In the image, Udé’s face is painted in a pseudo-tribal manner that leaves much of his face white with stripes left unpainted.  His clothing contrasts somewhat with his face as he wears a tweed jacket, collared shirt and an ascot clearly referencing the style of a gentleman.  Four headlines are printed on the work: “The Noble Savage is Dead”; “What is Art?  Experts Disagree”; “Ex-President Admits to Sodomy”; “Investment Tips for the Novice”; and “Yellow Cab & Their Enemies.”  The headlines highlight the ridiculous nature of the “newsworthy” magazine articles while at the same time illuminating the subtext that can be easily masked in the representational space of a magazine cover.

As a whole, the Cover Girl series brings to the fore the ways in which magazine covers serve as a political space.  As such they purport to be reflective of the mainstream, but as Udé points out, the question of whose mainstream and by what measure such mainstreams are created often results in a deliberate practice of inclusion and exclusion.  As Udé writes, ‘“Cover Girl” is neither a metonymy nor an apologue, but an earnest interrogation of institutionalized Caucasian practices of hegemonic right to name first, to colonize, to mis/represent and other exclusionary practices.”  The use of magazine covers for such an interrogation remains relevant even as we begin to move away from the medium in popular culture.  Thus, Udé’s work draws attention to ways in which concepts such as “mainstream” or “public” exude inclusion while effectively serving as forces of exclusion.

Although we have become increasingly aware on a socio-political level of the ways in which oppression, racism and sexism manifest in areas such as poverty, and education, it is easy to overlook the obvious mechanisms by which such notions continue to circulate.  Udé’s work provides a template for continued interrogation by presenting imagery and text that does not explicitly dictate answers, rather it provides a set of contrasts and juxtapositions that bring attention to the form, content and means by which identities are perpetuated, created and must be questioned.



The Nude Self (Pinboard #2)

Paula-Modersohn-Becker, a German artist born on February 6, 1876 joined the Worpswede community of artists in 1899[1].  The Worpswede community consisted mainly of former German art students who had become frustrated with their respective art Academies.[2] In such an environment, Modersohn-Becker worked alongside male artists and as a woman artist enjoyed much more artistic agency than she could have elsewhere.  Despite such relative freedom her work was not always well-received and as a woman artist she struggled to be taken

Paula Modersohn-Becker "Self Portrait with Amber Necklace", 1906

seriously.  Modersohn-Becker completed a number of self-portraits that addressed the difficulties she faced as a female artist and her 1906 “Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace” demonstrates how such tensions manifested themselves in her work.

In this self-portrait, the artist has chosen to depict herself nude from the waist up in a full frontal position, filling the frame in an almost confrontational manner.  Her skin takes on a pinkish hue that is echoed in the pink flowers she wears in her hair and holds in her hands.  In addition, these mimic the shape of her nipples which are in turn emphasized by the use of a deeper pink.  The warm hues of her torso are complemented by the lush forest-green flora in the background. Her connection to this natural setting is further strengthened by the thick amber necklace that adorns her chest.  Attention is drawn to her head which is deliberately contrasted to the rest of body through the use of deep reds and oranges that feature bluish undertones as well as through an enlarging of her features and her eyes in particular. Although the nudeness of her body conveys sexuality, its sheer monumentality asserts itself within the frame.  The emphasis on her head reinforces her consciousness as subject and not object demonstrating awareness of own existence as well as that of the viewer.

By painting herself in the nude, Modersohn-Becker co-opted the subject matter of many of her male contemporaries- the female nude – in a manner that relied on the typical associations made with such works while at the same time undermining them.  Painting the female nude was a staple of male artists who used the female figure to demonstrate their own skill and creative energy.  Similarly, self-portraits served as the primary means of identifying oneself as an artist worth admiring. By combining these two subjects into one work Modersohn-Becker regains ownership of the female body while asserting herself as a both a woman and an artist.

[2] “Primitivism and the Modern” by Gill Perry from : Primitivism, Cubism and Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. The Open University, 1993. P. 43.

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