8 Female Photographers You Should Know at Unseen Amsterdam
The fifth edition of Unseen Photo Fair opens next week in Amsterdam, bringing 53 international galleries to the city’s gasworks-turned-cultural venue, Westergasfabriek. The aptly titled fair focuses on new photography—both breakout work by rising stars and never-before-shown pieces by established names—so expect everything from an augmented reality station to South African photographer Zanele Muholi wielding a camera at a pop-up portrait studio. After sifting through images by more than 150 artists, we present eight female photographers who are reframing issues from race to sexual identity, and whose work is among the most compelling at the fair.
Guinean-Swiss photographer Leuba depicts African culture and identity through a Western lens—whether traveling to her mother’s Guinean homeland to photograph locals as tribal statuettes, or styling Parisian women with feathers, African jewelry, even a broom-cum-mohawk headpiece. Her standout series “Cocktail” (2012) pulls from a glossy, high-fashion vernacular to reimagine the representation of African women. In feathered headdresses and elaborate costumes, her models become glamorous warriors, fearless goddesses, and radiant queens.
The intimate bond between a pair of identical twin sisters; young Chinese lovers embracing in dorm rooms; best friends holding hands. These are but a few of the subjects that fall before Dutch photographer Herman’s lens. In her works, the delicate and vulnerable relationships between individuals—most often young adolescents as they transition to adulthood—take center stage. One of her most prominent series, inspired by her upbringing as an only child, follows the relationship between Herman, her half-brother Jonathan (20 years her junior), and their father, Julian.
A professional dancer and former model, Franco-Chilean photographer and video artist Huidobro first began to take photographs seriously when she documented her performance in a vacant room of an old French castle in 2008. At Unseen, she presents collages of found magazine images that recall the idyllic nudes of Surrealist photographers—Man Ray’s torso of Kiki de Montparnasse, Hans Bellmer’s erotic and dismembered dolls—in fragmented, geometric compositions. The works are overlaid with linen string like musical instruments, and, as Huidobro says, invite the viewer into a sensual ballad of femininity.
Trained as an acrobat since the age of six, German artist Wenzel picked up a camera at 21—ultimately swapping somersaults and circus acts for creating gravity-defying, performative portraits. Her best-known works see contorted female figures before colorful backdrops, their faces hidden as pantyhose-clad limbs and high-heeled feet shape-shift into human sculpture. Most often, the subjects depict Wenzel herself, who embraces the thrill of a 10-second self-timer to jump into the frame and writhe into position.
Muholi needs little introduction. Her powerful and humanizing images—primarily of South Africa’s black and queer communities, responding to the violent hate crimes they face—were shown at Documenta 13 and the 55th Venice Biennale, and have made the photographer an unstoppable force in the fight for social justice. But a recent series takes an unexpected turn: This time the faces in the striking black-and-white portraits are her own. Titled “Somnyama Ngonyama,” or “Hail, the Dark Lioness,” this autobiographical series places Muholi, her skin dramatically darkened, under the guise of various personas and archetypes to confront the politics of skin tone, as well as her country’s political history.
This most recent series by the young South African photographer Boysen was inspired by the history of Namibia and its frenzied diamond rush, sparked by a railway worker’s discovery of a gem in 1908 that would forever alter the course of the country’s history. Her stunning color photographs and collages connect Namibia’s past with its present around the symbolism of the precious stone. In Rostock Ritz (2016), the series’s namesake image, the gates of a tourist lodge in the sand dunes of Namibia frame the country’s natural landscape but also flag its modern holding as a travel destination.
In kitschy motel rooms and bubble gum-pink bathrooms, Calypso stages elaborate self-portraits that feature her alter ego Joyce challenging feminine ideals—imagine a deadpan Cindy Sherman-like character donning a seaweed body wrap or wearing an electronic anti-wrinkle mask bought on eBay. Last year, the series brought Calypso on a solo journey to the couples-only Honeymoon Hotel in Pennsylvania. There, posed as a travel writer and armed with wigs and wedding lingerie, she shot Joyce throughout the lovers’ suites that have gone unchanged since the 1960s, heart-shaped tubs, mirrored ceilings, and all.
Japanese photographer Kawauchi’s serene photographs have been likened to haikus, where mundane scenes of daily life (a slice of watermelon rests on a plate, a Bic lighter ejects its flame) offer deeper meaning. Having taken pictures since age 19, she toyed with 35mm and large-format cameras before landing on the iconic Rolleiflex, the near-silent camera behind the dreamy, six-by-six images that have made her one of the most influential Japanese photographers of her generation.