Muses and Messages
Lynne Bentley-Kemp, PhD
That art depends upon myth as a decoding device is no surprise to anyone who has seriously studied history and art theory. Myth encompasses such a large space in so many traditions and cultures that it enables us to understand art in a way that no other method of interpretation can accomplish as effectively. The work of Natasha Kertes utilizes myth to explore concepts in a manner that on the surface seems simple and easily defined. After all, Kertes practices in, what many might think, the superficial realm of fashion. But like Shiva and Shakti she deals in ambiguity and paradox. There is more here than meets the eye.
Her commercial work is arresting and creates narratives that utilize allegorical devices and revel in exquisite elegance. In her life as a fashion photographer Kertes creates a world of alluring beauty with an array of Aphrodites and Apollos at her disposal. The images she makes professionally interpret these compelling figures as trendsetters who reek of wealth and leisure. After all, fashion imagery is bound and determined to sell us style and luxury, not to have us obsess on identity politics and the sacred feminine.
From that standpoint I believe Kertes’ personal work might be considered the antithesis of her professional life. Her muse in this body of work is the chrysalis – an emerging woman in an ancient world. The initial stage of this metamorphosis is embodied through the completely shrouded woman who inhabits each of Kertes’ images and creates a narrative that might be defined as the feminine muse hidden from the gaze. There are more questions than answers here.
What can we make of the veil? Donning the abaya traditionally signifies a woman’s self respect and social status in Middle Eastern society. In the 21st century we are confronted with the popular culture definition of the hijab that emphasizes the distinct differences of the other. It is a fearful response that comes with the baggage of Eurocentric paranoia, although I doubt this is Kertes’ aim.
Kertes may see the veil as liberation, a formative stage in the birth of the goddess. In these images the woman is in the act of breaking the veil and liberating herself to what? Is it a world that will subjugate and confine her? The relationship of the figure to the uninhabited biblical landscape is an enigma. The absurdity of this surreal environment adds a playful element to the scene. It is almost as if a Tom Robbins novel is coming to life and teasing us into believing something more serious is going on while we are trying to parse the semiotics of the image.
So we return to myth and that is where stability reigns. The images exist in a form that is built up of layers of time and circumstance. Our intellect and instinct work together to break down the symbols into something concrete and familiar. Kertes’ pictures defy the easy answer and force us to come to the conclusion that these are not simply surreal images, though they are absurd and theatrical. They work on our genetic memory in way that opens us to a kind of empathy for dreams and visions.
The chrysalis is every woman and the message contained is one of cautious optimism and acute observation. In order to disperse hard attitudes we must understand gentleness and vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be strong and courageous. To be liberated is to operate in all of these modalities. To not know may be as important as knowing.
Lynne Bentley-Kemp is an artist and independent scholar living in the Florida Keys. She is presently teaching The History of Photography as an online course for Florida Atlantic University and has been a college professor for 28 years.
About Natasha Kertes
Russian, b. 1972, Klin, Moscow Oblast, Russia, based in Miami, FL, United States