How do we depict “the self” if it is unknowable, inherently constructed, and ever changing? How does the concept of portraiture shift when categories are in crisis, and visibility itself is problematic? Jewish thought on performed and fluid identity can be interpreted in the book of Esther, and in the notion of G-d as “I am that I am,” ineffable and non-binary. These ideas uphold a Jewish understanding of the self as intrinsically mutable, unknowable, and yet self-determined, themes that animate Show Me as I Want to Be Seen.
Taking the work of French Jewish artist and writer Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and her lifelong lover and collaborator Marcel Moore (1892–1972) as its starting point, Show Me as I Want to Be Seen examines the complex and empowered representation of a fluid identity. Cahun (born Lucy Schwob) and Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) are recognized as pioneers in their bold representations of an unfixed self. This exhibition positions their work in dialogue with ten contemporary artists whose artworks—in mediums ranging from painting and sculpture to video and 3-D mapping—also address the opaque, constructed, and shifting self. The contemporary artists in the exhibition are Nicole Eisenman, Rhonda Holberton, Hiwa K, Young Joon Kwak, Zanele Muholi, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Gabby Rosenberg, Tschabalala Self, Davina Semo, and Isabel Yellin.
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were partners in art and in life, best known today for their striking collaborative portraits of Claude’s many iterations of self. These portraits present Claude in various guises, gender presentations, and affect, often with Claude gazing directly back at the viewer in a gesture of empowerment. In some of the portraits, Claude looks at her reflection in a mirror or in water, an act that symbolizes self-perception and a positive reclaiming of narcissism as self-love. From Cahun’s anti-realist surrealist autobiography, to the photomontages that interweave the pair’s collaborative portraits, to their renegade anti-Nazi activism under the moniker “the soldier with no name,” Cahun and Moore’s lifelong practice defied categories of identity, gender, and the self.
Several of the contemporary artists in the exhibition also create self-portraits that return the gaze or employ the trope of the mirror, preferencing self-perception and self-determination over the pleasure or comprehension of the viewer. Many artworks use pose, attire, adornment, and masks to communicate the embodied performance of identities. Other artworks use intentional illegibility to declare the self, representing subjects that defy categorization by moving toward abstraction, fragmenting the body, or withholding visual information from the viewer. Cahun and Moore’s revolutionary oeuvre resonates brightly with these artists’ contemporary responses to the thorniness of representation.
Show Me as I Want to Be Seen is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum and is curated by CJM Assistant Curator Natasha Matteson. The exhibition is accompanied by a 96-page fully illustrated hardcover catalog published by The CJM with original contributions by Natasha Matteson, Rabbi Benay Lappe, and with a newly-commissioned piece of fiction by Porpentine Charity Heartscape.