Mirror at Santa Susana, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2017.
The image above, Mirror at Santa Susana, was to be shown in the exhibit The Mirror Between Us ‑a large exhibit of Luís Branco and my work made over the last five years in Portugal that was scheduled to open in the beautiful Igreja de São Vicente in Évora in April 2020.
2020 began, for me, with the excitement of preparing for the exhibit The Mirror Between Us. I had returned to Portugal in Oct 2019 to plan the exhibit, sponsored by the Municipality of Évora and the OBRAS Foundation. Curators and friends Ludger van der Eerden and Carolien van der Laan and photographer Luís Branco and I had the exhibit planned, produced and ready to install. Cydney Payton wrote an insightful essay “Mirror Image” specifically for the exhibit. Announcements were ready, my plane tickets bought, parties planned. In the middle of March, with the rising specter of covid, we decided we must postpone and reschedule the exhibit just weeks before it was to open. What a disappointment! Thankfully, Ludger and Carolien have rescheduled The Mirror Between Us with the Municipality of Évora for the spring of 2022, though this seems a long time away . . .
The good news is that this rescheduling has offered me the time to reflect, write and produce the work I had initiated with French artist Claude Cahun (1894-1954) as my inspiration in May of 2019 while at OBRAS-Holland. Cahun has become a double mirror for me, reflecting in both my written and visual work. Cahun was a prolific writer and visual artist, producing Surrealist texts as well as stunning black and white “self-portraits” (and many other forms of writing, sculptures, photo-montages) throughout their life. With Claude Cahun fully in my mind, this last spring, I began again the process of writing and rewriting text, and the editing and selection of images, and the production of my own work inspired by this remarkable artist.
First I produced My Claude My Medusa. Luís Branco and I had performed a “remake” of a photograph Cahun had made in 1915 when Cahun was about 21 years old. We shot hundreds of images of me with my head on a pillow and my hair splayed out in a similar fashion to Cahun’s iconic photograph (when I was 63 years old). When I first saw the images (of me) I said “Oh My God I look like Medusa.” I decided to exhibit the image of myself as Medusa and the reprint of the image of Cahun together (both large!) and write a poem about this enactment and embodiment with Cahun. My dear friend Cydney Payton, curator, writer and creative agitator stepped in and helped me with this poem. These works were installed and exhibited together in the exhibit “Pink Progression Collaborations” at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities this past summer and fall.
Reprint of Claude Cahun’s 1915 Self Portrait for My Claude My Medusa, b&w digital image,36 x 48.”
My Claude My Medusa, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019, color digital print, 36 x 48.”
The poem above expresses the complexity of entering into dialogue (and embodiment) with another artist who was obviously queer in today’s terminology and in Cahun’s own terminology neuter or androgynous.
“Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
– Claude Cahun in Disavowals
Concurrently with the development of the My Claude My Medusa project this last spring I began to pour myself back into my larger project with Cahun – THE UNKNOWN HEROINE. This was the primary project that I initiated with photographer Luís Branco at OBRAS-Holland in May 2019. Cydney Payton has been involved with this larger project from its inception as well. Luís and I shot 1000’s of images in the beautiful Huize Grunfoort in Holland‑ all based on my embodiment and interaction with Cahun’s short essay titled “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess.” This short story is one of fifteen essays in Cahun’s text Heroines first printed in 1925 in France and translated by Norman MacAfee into English and published in the 90s. Heroines remains a transgressive text that deconstructs gender roles and stereotypes in Western European fairytales, classic literature, and biblical stories. In this complex work Cahun approaches archetypal figures such as Cinderella, Salome, Eve, Sappho, Androgyny and then reconstructs/rethinks these heroines into modern life with feminist acumen and sardonic humor. I selected Cahun’s essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess” to contemplate, enact and perform, because this narrative (of all the Heroines stories) is closest to my own (though my own real-life story has diverged in the latter part of my life from what are considered stereotypical gender roles). During the time in the Netherlands I also began writing my own text that I addressed specifically to Cahun.
I returned home from Holland in June 2019 and realized that I wanted to make a book with (some) of the images from Holland and my own text, an “artist’s book”. I spoke with my stepson, Joseph Logan who is a brilliant book designer in New York, and he agreed to design the book for me. I started working with Cydney on the text. Luís did some initial editing of our images with me. I started putting together short pieces of narrative text with specific images with Cydney. It was all very exciting, but I also realized I needed to give some time and space to the project to distill and find it’s form … I decided to put the work aside and go on to other projects for a period.
from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2019.
This last spring, I was able to begin again and look a fresh at the images and the text. At a certain point Cydney and I decided that she would work as my “official” editor on the book. Over the last several months we have worked and reworked (or as Cydney describes it “burnishing”) the text and the images.
from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco , 2019.
from THE UNKNOWN HEROINE series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco , 2019.
Self Portrait, Claude Cahun, 1928.
Concurrently, I have continued my research into Cahun’s work and life‑examining Cahun’s Heroines text in more detail and reading their Disavowals. Both of these Surrealist style texts are complex and full of allusions to classical literature, to history and other authors, not easy reading but fascinating and compelling. I have also read some of François Leperlier’s scholarship on Cahun (though most of his work is not yet translated into English and I am not literate in French). I have continued to investigate more recent feminist and queer scholarship and critique of Cahun and their partner Marcel Moore’s life and work together.
my Claude Cahun library
A few months ago I wrote Norman MacAfee, the translator of Cahun’s text Heroines, to ask if I could use the essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess” (yes it is “the the” not a typo) in my book. MacAfee and MIT press have graciously allowed me to reprint Cahun’s translated essay in my book.
Joseph designed the initial draft of the book THE UNKNOWN HEROINE in November and it is going to be gorgeous! Cydney is writing an essay for the book! She has a keen understanding of this project as well as my long-term practice Searching Selves with other remarkable women artists of the 20th century. I owe tremendous gratitude to Cydney, Joseph and Luís – they have been and continue to be my “dream team” for this book and project.
Michael Warren Contemporary will exhibit the project THE UNKNOWN HEROINE as an installation of text and images March 9th to April 17th 2021, during Month of Photography in Denver. The book will be printed and ready for the exhibit. I am so grateful for Mike and Warren’s support and the support from OBRAS-Holland and OBRAS -Portugal, and for the encouragement and support of many friends and family near and far. I hope that my Colorado friends will come out to see the exhibit. I will get a copy of the book to all who want one. And I am forever grateful for the inspiration and the magic mirror of the remarkable Claude Cahun.
QUE ME VEUX –TU? (WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?), Claude Cahun, 1928.
Happy full moon in Cancer!! The last full moon of the decade. Here’s to our New Year in 2021 (and a vaccine for all) and to times when we can all be together safely.