Today’s post comes from Johanna Shain, Vassar class of 2024 and Art Center student docent.
In honor of National Pride Month, I wanted to write about a photography exhibition currently on view in the Loeb, Seeing and Being Seen: Photography from the Loeb in Honor of the First Vassar Pride. This year, Vassar’s LGBTQ+ Center organized a series of events in April to allow students to celebrate Pride together, since the National Pride Month takes place in the summer after students have gone home. To commemorate this occasion, Jessica Brier, Deknatel Curatorial Fellow in Photography, came up with the concept for Seeing and Being Seen in collaboration with a committee of Vassar students. Jess was kind enough to tell me about their vision for the exhibit and the process of its creation. In conversation about a work in the collection by Mickelene Thomas, Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue, we discussed photography’s unique ability to communicate natural and constructed realities.
Seeing and Being Seen is an exhibition featuring photographs from the Loeb’s collection from artists interested in queer representation and visibility through portrait photography. For this project, Jess wanted to create a communal space that Vassar students felt was theirs. She found students through the Loeb and the Vassar LGBTQ+ Center community who would be interested in collaborating; they participated in initial conversations, photo selection, and the writing of wall labels. Early on, the conceptualization of the show revolved around what the team did and didn’t want to represent with the collection. They thought about the commodification and whitewashing of Pride and instead searched for photographs that communicated authenticity and racial and generational diversity.
When Jess showed me around the exhibition, Mickalene Thomas’s Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue attracted my attention. Thomas is a contemporary multimedia artist whose work largely responds to the representation of Black women’s bodies in art history and lack thereof. The images that she creates offer a redefined narrative. In her photograph Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue, a Black woman reclines in a pose that references the “odalisque,” a long-held tradition in the European art canon that portrays enslaved women or concubines as erotic objects. However, unlike in traditional odalisque paintings, where the female subject shies away from the viewer’s gaze, the model looks directly into the camera in Thomas’s photograph. Instead of being docile and passive, she embodies her power and sexuality.
Something that struck me from Jess’s and my conversation about the piece was its fabricated nature. Thomas’s photographs don’t just capture a moment in time; they craft one–her images are the products of staged studio sets. Every detail–the pose, the background, the clothing style, the identity portrayed–can be defined by Thomas. This constructed photographic style contrasts with many other pieces in the collection. Vassar alum, Mariette Pathy Allen ‘62, who has multiple works in the exhibition, tends to photograph her subjects in their natural, everyday settings. While the two styles differ significantly, they both can represent reality. Jess says, “we are trained in a certain way to think that what the camera sees is the way things are, but the camera also can show a fantasy. And sometimes that fantasy is more authentic.”
Construction and the artificial extend to the material items and environments in Thomas’s images, portraying ideas of beauty and presentation. Decor that evokes the 70s—colorful textiles, faux wood paneling, and fake foliage—adorn the subject’s surroundings in the portrait. Thomas gained inspiration from being in the interior spaces of female family members such as her grandmother and aunt while growing up. She came to see these domestic spaces as being close in contact with the self and identity. The objects and decorations one surrounds themself with can act as an added layer or extension of the self in a similar way that dressing up or applying make-up can. Because of their expressive power, the environments of her subjects are just as important in communicating their identities. All of the components in Thomas’s photographs contribute to the way in which we view the subjects in them.
Tara Peterson ’25 is a docent at the Loeb and one of the students involved in the project. She offered the insight that their ideas for the exhibit evolved throughout the process and that they didn’t name the show until the end, when they solidified the concept. She joined in working on the exhibit for the curatorial experience and because of her interest in art representing LGBTQ+ people, especially in mundane, domestic settings. She recalls how other students’ interests differed and how a large part of the process was exchanging these varied ideas and visions. Jess also appreciated this synergy and would love to do more collaborations such as this one in the future. Seeing and Being Seen will be showing until August 28, 2022 in the Hoene Hoy Photography Gallery at the Loeb, and I encourage anyone interested and able to visit the exhibition yourself.