Verbal and Visual Portraiture

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Photo: Nancy Pedri

Questions of identity and the public portrayal of self have guided my research in both verbal and visual portraiture. This research resulted in the publication of various articles in which I have addressed the pivotal role of socio-political movements in transforming both verbal and visual portraiture; engaged in a comparative analysis of literary and visual portraits by Breyten Breytenbach (2002) and Jo Spence (2007); examined the photographic portrayal of gender (and gender transgression) in Virginia Woolf (2005), Daphne Scholinski and Kate Bornstein (2006); unusual photographic portrayals of self in the work of Lincoln Clarkes (2010) and Janice Williamson and Daphne Scholinski (2010) and explored the portrayal of identity in cartography (2009).

In "The Verbal and Visual Mirrors of Postcolonial Identity in Breyten Breytenbach's All One Horse" (2002), I examine the use of South African writer Breyten Breytenbach makes of the mirror when grappling with the difficulty in discovering or constructing an identity in a postcolonial state. An analysis of the verbal and visual allusions to a shattered, fragmented or opaque mirror in All One Horse brings me to conclude that the mirror is an ideal space where personal identity is at once instated and contested through the inevitable interplay between the real subject and its reflected other. This interplay is further explored in "Showing Exile: Portrayals of a Lost Centre" (2002) where I introduce the notion of an accented identity to signal the postcolonial subject's persistent disunity, a disunity that manifests itself linguistically and visually in his watercolours.

In "Portraiture's Formations of Self" (2003), I build upon the work of art historians who examine the visual representation of marginal identities (mostly feminist art historians) to question the tendency to use conventional symbols and, at the same time, break away from such symbols in the portrayal of marginal subjects. I conclude that this reworking of cultural conventions serves to present personal identity as situated between identity-for-self and identity-for-an-other, in an in-between space marked by multiplicity and plurality, rather than binary opposition or exclusion.

"Portraiture's Unruly Faces: Beauty in Jo Spence's Putting Myself in the Picture" (2007) also examines the photographed body, but here the issue is the way in which photographic portraiture sustains socio-cultural ideals of beauty at the expense of individual identity. Through a close reading of photography in Jo Spence's autobiographical narrative, I suggest that the same preoccupation with beauty that renders photography an exclusionary practice also makes it a potential agent for social transformation. Spence, I argue, has seized this opportunity and shown her readers that photographic portraiture does not have to reinforce stereotypes and thus block our perception of ourselves and others. Instead, it can be transformed into a free space, a space where alternative definitions of beauty can be mapped and cultural attitudes about beauty and its portrayal resisted and transfigured.

"The Forbidden Narratives of Looking: Photography and the Anxiety of Self- Representation" (2010) starts from this conclusion, but focuses on the implications of viewing such bodies. The anxiety of self-representation felt by those writing their marginalized selves into existence is shared by the viewer. This transference, I argue, ensures that the portrayal breaks down socio-cultural ideals and begins to dismantle stereotypes.

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