By Paul Gessell
The new show at SAW Gallery (Extreme Self: Art in the Radical First Person) is billed as taking “a look at provocative forms of self-representation in contemporary art.” In other words, this is a show of provocative self-portraits by 10 artists from Ottawa and beyond.
In the case of Ottawa artist Shahla Bahrami, her photographic self-portraits are more provocative — at least in some places — than she ever expected. Bahrami is originally from Iran and much of her art practice revolves around images of women swathed in the head-to-toe black chadors worn by conservative women in her home country.
For the SAW show, Bahrami has 10 self-portraits in different poses. In each, she wears a chador with only a few fingers or a bit of nose exposed. Oversized, colourful flies buzz around her. The flies refer to a Persian poem about conniving people who pursue other people, just like flies, to take advantage of their “sweetness.”
Bahrami was supposed to have an exhibition of this work at a gallery in France. But when the art arrived at the gallery, it was rejected as too controversial.
“I was censored,” says Bahrami.
The wearing of hijabs, chadors, and other apparel worn by conservative Muslim women has become intensely political in France. That extends even to Bahrami’s elegant photographs of chador-wearing women being pursued by pests.
Along with Bahrami’s art, there is much to consider at the excellent multi-media SAW show curated by the gallery’s artistic director, Jason St. Laurent.
The Montreal artist who goes by the name 2Fik has three staged photos in the exhibition. Each photo shows an elaborate tableau in which 2Fik acts out all the roles in different costumes.
In one, there are multiple images of 2Fik dressed in brightly coloured briefs engaged in a ballet-like martial arts display with another gang of men, again all 2Fik, dressed in the long white robes favoured by many Middle Eastern men. These two groups of men, one contemporary and the other traditional, battle for supremacy.
Ottawa artist nichola feldman-kiss, covers one wall with 100 images of herself as produced by a body scanner, which operates like the controversial ones found in some airports. Each image is slightly different, as the scans move one degree at a time to show Feldman-kiss at a slightly different angle.
Body scans are increasingly being seen as a medium to identify people for security purposes as well as for other nefarious purposes echoing the early 20th century eugenics movement, which was designed to weed-out undesirables from the gene pool.
Yes, there is much food for thought at this show. And for dessert, visit the small dark room containing only the model of the head of Ottawa artist Theo Pelmus. It’s made of raspberry gelato and contained in a refrigerated glass container. Should it melt, there is a blackberry version in a freezer somewhere to replace it. We are all, it seems, quite replaceable.
Extreme Self continues at SAW Gallery until Nov. 24.
SAW Gallery, 67 Nicholas St., 613-236-6181. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.