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Self-portraits admittedly waver between earnest confession (as stressed by Philippe Le Jeune in Le Pacte autobiographique, Seuil, coll. "Poétique", 1975) and concealment. It is often a representation of the self that goes beyond the idea of the artist as subject in order to tackle wider notions. In a similar way, the self-portrait in costume or disguise (in painting, photo or video) may either protect the artist from self-disclosure or put his own self at risk. It is a multi-faceted genre or mode that this conference purports to explore. In painting, clothing has recently received a long-deserved interest: in Fabric of Vision : Dress and Drapery in Painting (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), Anne Holander underscore that clothing does matter as much as any other component of the composition in the eyes of the painter. This applies even more forcefully to self-portraits in costume.
Some classical painters have playfully included an image of themselves in period costumes in their compositions or painted self-portraits in costume. Veronese features dressed in white in The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562) while Rembrandt portrayed himself in oriental costume in The artist in an Oriental Costume (1631). The act of self-portrayal –as a creative process—may be viewed as an intimate act and private performance or as a staging of the self for public display, questioning the social and political status of the artist, the individual or his community. The costume inevitably introduces a twist or trick that may be playful or more intriguing: this strategy has not been fully explored and deserves more attention.
Given that self-portraiture is an experimental and mediated exploration of the self (and a nearly unavoidable step for many artists in the intimacy of the creative process), it is an invitation to explore lighting, stances, and costume either humorously or more introspectively. Costuming or masquerading, that is seemingly assuming someone else’s identity, may partake of a documentary or fictitious project and rely on various autobiographical modes. The artist may metamorphose him/herself exploring different time-periods, geographical areas, or identities; the dress may be normative or conversely singular. The manipulation of the self in the visual arts may be liberating, as is the case in the tradition of the masquerade or fantasy photographic portraits: through costuming the artists free themselves from the constraints of society and its prevalent dress-codes. Handicrafts, intermediality and bricolage may be used to costume the self in a process-oriented approach sometimes close to artistic performance. The body may disappear entirely and the artist be buried in the costume, faceless; conversely the artist may be reduced to a shadow or use synecdoche to escape exposure.
The costume (attire, dress, props, or make-up) being more than a sign of belonging entails performative embodiments and blurs the identification process thereby disrupting the conventions of self-portraiture. As a matter of fact, the self-portrait in costume often entails narrativity and fictitious self-representations in which the artist may drift towards fantasy and virtuality to explore complex forms of otherness.
Portraying oneself in exotic attire is a means of drawing the spectator’s attention to the artificiality of portrait-painting and the theatricality of social roles. The self-portrait in costume, relying as it does on shared sartorial norms and social codes, articulates culture and counterculture and may debunk myths, stereotypes and normative discourse centered on the body. The self-portrait in costume thereby constitutes a puzzle for the viewer who finds himself trapped into the contrivances of the staging. When costuming also means revisiting previous images and relies on intericonicity, the viewer may be complicit and laugh or mislaugh at the quote or distortion. Contemporary photographers and video-artists conceive fictional or fictitious autobiographies inducing generic and referential instability. Artists related to postmodern and postcolonial art portray themselves in costume to critically explore identity construction and the notions of authenticity and nostalgia. In a postcolonial perspective, self-portraits in costume tends to question the politics of representation, power relationships in the modern society, representation of minorities and a multiplicity of possible identifications torn between cultural and social contradictions. Other self-portraits are haunted by a nightmarish vision of the artist as Other, referring to the divided self from a psychoanalytic perspective. The advent of the post-human has made these imaginary explorations more tangible.
There is, we suggest, more than imaginary playfulness in these self-staged performances: the self-portrait in disguise may verge on parody or satire and entail carnivalesque reversals; it may conceal, even camouflage, the true personality of an artist for various reasons; it may also challenge the notion of physical integrity, singularity and authenticity especially when produced in series. By changing his/her sexual, ethnic, social identity, the artist may convey a strong message and situate his/her practice within society. This conference is an invitation to consider the complexity of the self-portrait in costume particularly in the contemporary period. Indeed, both postmodern reflexivity and self-referentiality, and the extended possibilities offered by image manipulation have revived this genre, with the success of selfies or avatars for instance raising new questions.
Contemporary creation puts the relationships between animality/humanity, body/machine under scrutiny, and is inspired by ontological theories (E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, Donna Haraway, Mel Y. Chen). The otherization of the self or the incorporation of the other –and the other-self in works concerned with the motif of the doppleganger—are processes of self-investigation that are worth analysing.
Centre de Recherche sur les Identités Nationales et l'Interculturalité (CRINI) -Université de Nantes
Faculté des Langues et Cultures Etrangères
Chemin la Censive du Tertre
44312 NANTES Cedex 3
Cell phone: 00 33 6 86 90 05 41