A New York Group Show Surfaces Human Rights Issues through Portraiture

Dare You to Look: Radical Realizations in Portraiture,” the first show at Burning in Water’s new gallery space in Chelsea offers the works of an eclectic group of artists operating in a broad range of styles. Through photography, collage, painting, and mixed media, these artists pose pointed questions of identity and self-representation.

The exhibition is presented in collaboration with UHAI EASHRI, a Kenyan advocacy group focused on the LGBTQI community in Africa. The organization’s relationship with New York has been expanding since the Wangechi Mutu-led AFRICA’SOUT! event earlier this year. “The issue of human rights is a global issue, not site-specific,” Ashley Artis, UHAI’s development director, told us recently. “New York, as the arguable epicenter of the LGBTQI movement here in the U.S., was the perfect place to introduce the western world to UHAI.”

The show features the works of 14 artists, including two of Africa’s most renowned photographers, Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso, both engaging in critiques of colonial portraiture. In Sidibé’s Fans de Jimi Hendrix (1971) and Les Amis Jour de Fete (1972), the artist captures scenes of universal familiarity: groups of young friends faking adulthood. They also come equipped with tape decks and 45s. These are teenagers, after all—they occupy time as much as place. Fosso’s work shares certain traits with Sidibé’s, an oft-cited influence, but here he serves as a foil, helping us imagine the colors Sidibé leaves out. Le Chef (1997) is itself a reimagining of the portrait of the warlord; against a backdrop of textiles from a French department store chain, Fosso himself sits, fully regal, with a sunflower scepter.

Portraits of women are perhaps the show’s greatest strength. Kenyan-American Wangechi Mutu’s Second Born (2013) positions a woman and child (in a pose echoed by Richard Mosse’s Madonna and Child, 2012) against the elements, collage proving a most apt medium for piecing together one life and the next. Robert Mapplethorpe’s volcanic-looking photograph of the female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon bubbles over with physicality. In Bangkok (1992), Nan Goldin renders Thai sex workers with the fragile grace of high schoolers waiting for a dance.

It is to the great credit of the curator Alexandra Giniger and Burning in Water’s principal Barry Malin that artworks produced over the course of five decades and across multiple continents so clearly communicate with one another. “Portraiture is intrinsically a preservation of individual humanity,” Giniger explains. It is a political act that takes on added gravity when, as she says, it occurs “amidst societies that would prefer control.” Indeed, portraiture is an essentially democratic form, one that—for reasons technological, economic, and worse—has not always fulfilled that potential. These artists express its true promise.


—Zack Newick


Dare You to Look: Radical Realizations in Portraiture” is on view at Burning in Water, New York, Nov. 23, 2015–Jan. 9, 2016.

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