THE UNKNOWN HEROINE in process… posted in Boulder, Colorado June 18, 2020

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from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019.

During the last few months, while I have been relatively isolated in my home and studio in Boulder, Colorado, I’ve had time to review and produce THE UNKNOWN HEROINE project. I initiated this performative project in May 2019, while at Foundation OBRAS in the Netherlands, working with my long-time collaborator, photographer Luís Branco.

This work was inspired by an essay written by the remarkable French artist, Claude Cahun, titled “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess,” originally published in the 1925 book, Héroïnes. Héroïnes remains a transgressive text as it deconstructs gender roles and stereotypes in Western European fairytales, classic literature, biblical stories and modern life (circa 1925). Cinderella, Salome, Eve, Sappho and Androgyne are among the heroines Cahun renders. I have been working with the English translation of Heroines translated by Norman MacAfee that was published in the book: Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, that is edited by Shelley Rice.*


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Cover of Claude Cahun’s Héroïnes (photo-montage by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore,) Éditions Mille et une Nuits, 2006, Héroïnes was first published in 1925.

I have chosen Claude Cahun as a heroine of my own, an artist to study and embody. Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, France, in 1894. Lucy Schwob chose to take the gender-neutral name Claude Cahun. Cahun became a significant artist ─ feminist, intellectual, performance artist, photographer, sculptor, Surrealist writer and a committed, even jailed, anti-Nazi activist. Claude was also a lesbian, cross-dresser, possibly transexual, but definitely gender ambiguous. Cahun lived and worked with Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) from an early age, until Claude’s death at sixty in 1954.

For more on Cahun, please read my blog post from December 16, 2018:

I selected “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess”  to embody, enact and perform, because the story is close to my own. Cahun characterizes this double heroine with humor, compassion and astute feminist analysis. The heroine, the the Unknown Princess, is unnamed (not baptized) by her mother, the Queen, and this allows her certain freedoms. She marries, though apparently mismatched, and lives a privileged life with her husband. Cahun writes:

“They were very happy, with a goodness without egotism, because they had many children who would unite the ugliness of the father with the incorrigible beastliness of the mother.” 

As the husband and wife age, his attributes diminish, whereas she blossoms and outlives her “Lord and Master.” But “she was still a fine specimen…,” Cahun writes. When our heroine dies, Cahun prescribes her epitaph:

And the entire Race of women, recognizing themselves in this dead sister, consecrated the flat stone of a symbolically empty tomb and solemn feasts in memory of the Unknown Heroine.

There is coincidence in my own life with this story of the Wife, the Princess, the Unknown Heroine, as well as with Cahun’s life. Like Cahun, I come from an intellectual family. I have been married for most of my adult life and am ─ admittedly ─ a bit of a princess. I have raised four children and been (mostly) happy in my marriage. Several years ago, my husband of thirty-two years made the decision to transition towards a more feminine identity. I continue to live with my trans partner and her freedom to choose her gender identity has created freedoms for me as well. I live as a straight woman in queer territory and this liberates me to a certain extent ─ I no longer need to live out cisgender roles (like the Wife and the Princess in Cahun’s tale), and it has emboldened me as an artist so that my work has become more exploratory, performative and personal.


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from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019.

When I arrived at the OBRAS Foundation house in Renkum, Netherlands, a little over a year ago, my first thought was that this beautiful place, named after a castle, was the perfect setting to enact both the Wife and the Princess. My dear friend, writer and curator Cydney Payton, suggested that I use the architecture of the house. Luís arrived, and we worked intensely on photo-shoot after photo-shoot. Most of our previous work had been performed in more wild and natural landscapes and all had been accomplished in Portugal. Within this Dutch mansion and it’s surrounding gardens, Claude Cahun pushed me from the grave; Cydney Payton pushed me from afar; and Luís Branco pushed me right there.

Luís  and I moved through the house: the sunroom, the kitchen, the garden, the stairs, the living room, the bedroom, the study. The performances were alternately oppressive and unconstrained. Luís skillfully captured my emotions and inhibitions within these domestic spaces.


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from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019.

When we finished, we had thousands of images to sort through and I returned to the U.S. with a diary or narrative text as well. Cydney helped sort the images and edit my text. Her skills as both a writer and curator were precisely what was needed. Luís did color corrections and edited photographs we’d agreed upon. I printed more than a hundred of the selected images at 6″x 9″, then printed a few that I intend to exhibit at 32″x 48″ or 80 x 120 cm. I have invited curators and friends to visit my studio to see the array of photos and texts. Their responses have been very encouraging. Many have named the image below as the “masterpiece” of the project. It was shot in the upstairs study during one of our last sessions in the Netherlands.


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from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019.

I knew I wanted to make a book. I asked my stepson, Joseph Logan, a talented book designer in New York, to create the volume for me and he agreed. I was preparing the materials for him last summer but came to the realization that the project wasn’t quite where I wanted it. I put the work aside, went on to other projects and am happy I did. THE UNKNOWN HEROINE needed time to breathe.

This spring the covid pandemic forced Luís and I to postpone our major exhibit in Portugal titled  THE MIRROR BETWEEN US. You can read about this on my blog from April 1st, 2020 :

I have now had plenty of time to thoroughly review the texts and images for THE UNKNOWN HEROINE. In the editing process, I’ve discovered more images that should be included, and I’ve excluded others. I am confident there is a narrative between image and text that relates to Claude Cahun’s heroine and to my own life. The story is both personal and universal.


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from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019.

Luís and I have had many discussions about the image selection. There are between twenty and twenty-four images that we want to produce for the book and for exhibition as well. We are in the process now of looking at images in both color and black and white.  As well as his marvelous color images, he excels at black-and-white conversion.  Above is an image we both love in color and below is one of my favorites in black and white.


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from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019.

THE UNKNOWN HEROINE is moving along. The book format is a fresh challenge, something new to learn ─ very Cahunian! I expect to have all the material ready for Joseph’s preliminary book design this summer. We hope to produce THE UNKNOWN HEROINE as a book and an exhibition ready in 2021. Wish us luck.

*Cahun’s Heroines was translated into English by Norman MacAfee and published in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren and Cindy Sherman, edited by Shelley Rice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000). Exhibition catalogue, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, 1999, 43-94


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