I have been home for a little over a week now—settling in and beginning to look at the many images I made in Portugal at the OBRAS Artist Residencies with my collaborator, photographer Luís Branco. It was the best residency yet at OBRAS Portugal, this was my seventh residency at OBRAS Portugal (lucky 7) and I have been collaborating with Luís in Portugal and in the Netherlands since 2015. I arrived at Herdade da Marmeleira (the site of OBRAS Portugal) and I was greeted by my dear friends Carolien and Ludger, the founders of Foundation OBRAS and my hosts and major supporters of Luís and my work.
My intent was to shoot (with Luís) my embodiments and reinterpretations of the heroines Eve and of Salome with some reference to their historic representations in painting and literature. The characters / heroines I am choosing are all based on the ultimate inspiration for this project Claude Cahun— both their 1925 text Heroines as well as Cahun’s more theatrical self- portraits and performative images. There are 15 heroines in Cahun’s text (Eve, Judith, Penelope, Helen, Sappho, The Virgin Mary, Cinderella, Marguerite, Salome, Beauty, THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess (whom I have already represented in THE UNKNOWN HEROINE book and exhibition), Sophie, Salamacis, and THE ANDROGYNE. Of course there is tongue and cheek involved with Cahun’s re-presentations of these heroines, and also my own – after all I am a 66 year old feminist artist embodying these fabled women and Cahun was a radical feminist, gender fluid, artist in the early 20th century rewriting the allegories and stories of their lives.
I was a little intimidated at the beginning, embodying these illustrious heroines seemed a daunting task. Luís and I began shooting Eve / the Serpent in the beautiful studio at OBRAS under more controlled conditions. This way I could slowly take on this “original woman,” mother of us all, and apparently the reason we are not all still in paradise. Working in the studio situation I began to get my dangerous woman Eve / Serpent ju ju going and Luis captured some great images. Here are a few:
There are lots of representations of Eve but this watercolor by William Blake “The Temptation of Eve” (created for Milton’s Paradise Lost) spoke to me. I love the organic quality of the tree and the fruit, the serpent wrapping around Eve’s body, and Adam seemingly unaware of the circumstances. I also like the conflation of Eve and the Serpent, they are one body. I am a Buddhist and not a biblical scholar, but I do sincerely question this idea that “they” (Eve and the Serpent) are responsible for the expulsion from Paradise. I had found this super cool holographic snake fabric and special gloves (during my preparations in the US) and I brought this new costume to use for this embodiment.
Then we started shooting Eve / Serpent Woman by the Marmeleira tree in the courtyard at OBRAS. As I have written before, I chose the Marmeleira tree at OBRAS because it is so beautiful and also because there is some research and speculation about the original “forbidden fruit” in Paradise. If our biblical paradise was located on this earth, it was most likely in some more southern habitat. Apples are a more northern fruit. Some say that the Marmelo fruit / the Quince fruit could have been the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The fig, the persimmon, the pomegranate, are also possible suspects. We did our first shoot with the Marmeleira tree at dusk. Here are a few of those images:
Luis came back a week later and we did two more photo shoots (one in the morning and one in the evening) with the Marmeleira tree, this time with lights. Here are a few images from these last two photoshoots.
Cydney Payton has been helping me go through the many images of Eve and the Marmeleira tree. I am really excited about this new heroine of mine. I have many other images to sort through including my Salome embodiments. Lots of really good work! Other friends have been helping me sort the images, thank you! I am also sure that this project will go on with many more of Claude Cahun and my heroines. Va va voom!!
My friend Karla Dakin found this excellent article which confirms my belief in the marmelo / quince – It wasn’t an apple:
I am settling into the paradise, spaciousness and good company of other artists here at the OBRAS Artist Residency in the Alentejo region of Portugal. I have been lucky enough to be a guest here many times, so it feels wonderfully comfortable to me here and the hospitality and gracious care of Carolien and Ludger (my hosts) is such a gift. I have been shooting “self-portraits” early in the mornings with my relatively new Sony camera. This morning I found a rhythm with the light, the autofocus and the composition. One of Graciela Iturbide’s self-portraits, the remarkable Mexican photographer, was the inspiration for beginning—but no dead birds for me. I am showing her portrait below.
The landscape of earth, ancient stone, cork oak (and many sheep) surrounds me and from my little casa I look up at the mountain of Evoramonte. The building are all made of stone and earth. I found these stones that Ludger lovingly excavated from an ancient stone wall. They look like eyes to me.
Just beginning, so happy to be here and to have the space and stillness.
I am getting ready to embody more of Claude Cahun’s “Heroines” and make them my own. As I have written before, remarkable French artist Claude Cahun published the text “Heroines” in 1925 as a series of fifteen short stories and monologues. “Heroines” remains a radical text that deconstructs gender roles and stereotypes in Western literature with such figures as Cinderella, Salome, Eve, Sappho and Androgyne. Norman MacAfee translated Cahun’s text into English and the “Heroines” text was published in the book/ catalogue Inverted Odysseys in 1999. I acted out one of the essays, “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess,” in performative photographs that I made with Luis Branco for the project and book THE UNKNOWN HEROINE which I just published this year. Norman MacAfee allowed me to use the translated Cahun text in my book. Now I intend to embody the rest of Cahun’s Heroines. I have been looking at representations of these heroines in western art history. I will be reacting to these representations and asserting my own flavor and ideas (as well as Cahun’s more feminist interpretations of these women). I hope to start shooting this project in Portugal in a few weeks with Luis Branco. I am going to start with Eve ….
Following are some of these historic visual representations (albeit mostly by Western European white male painters). Maybe we can change these stories.
These are the heroines Cahun writes of in her text: Eve; Delilah; Judith; Penelope; Helen; Sappho; Virgin Mary; Cinderella; Marguerite; Salome; Beauty; THE WIFE or the Unknown Princess; Sophie; Salmacis; and The Androgyne. I hope to explore and embody all these heroines.
Me / Sherry Wiggins, On Their Shoulders (in my studio), 2021
I am beginning a new practice in the studio (and other places too)—I am learning to photograph myself with my new Sony camera. I have initiated this self-imaging practice with a conceptual and physical ritual—I have chosen 17 women artists: all are conceptual artists and or photographers and or performance artists using photography and film as a medium. I would consider all of them feminists, several are or were writers and theorists as well, all born before 1960. I stand on their shoulders; both figuratively and literally. I have been researching and looking at their work and also collecting books about all of them. I intend to choose a few of each of their works in photography and/or film and simulate or extrapolate on their works with myself as the subject. This is a long-term project that lies adjacent to my on-going project with remarkable women artists of the 20th century “Searching Selves.” This is both an exercise in self-representation and a homage to these amazing women’s work and contributions.
I have repurposed a space in my studio that is evenly lit in the daytime. I hung a black cloth on the wall and over a table. I then set the books of my 17 women artists (18 including myself, notice THE UNKNOWN HEROINE on the top) on the black table. I settled my naked shoulders atop the stack of books and shot multiple images of myself resting / posing on their / our books.
Following are short descriptions of the 17 women’s art practices with an image that exemplifies their work (for me). There is a spectrum of representation (of women and of self) that all these artists cast in their work and on whose shoulders I hope to follow and embody. These artists spur me on and inspire me / conspire with me.
Madame Yevonde was born Yevonde Philone Cumbers in London, U.K. (1893-!975). I have just discovered the work of Madame Yevonde. She was known for her use of color and her commercial and portrait photography. She was also a feminist and a suffragette in the early part of the 20th century. I am particularly interested in the series of portraits she made of British aristocratic ladies in the guise of various goddesses and mythical figures; now known as the “Goddess” series. These images appear to me as both beautiful and “camp” representations of the historical and archetypal feminine.
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, France (1894-1954). My adoration, fascination and study of writer, photographer, performance artist Claude Cahun continues with a more intensive study of their “self” presentations. Cahun’s life-long representation of their multiple selves in photographs displays their continual questioning and performance of identity, gender and self. You can read more about Claude Cahun on my previous blog posts. https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2018/12/16/my-heroine-claude-cahun-posted-in-boulder-co-december-16-2018/
Maya Deren was born Eleonora Derenkowska in Kiev, Russia (1917-1961). Maya was born to a Jewish family; her father was a psychologist. They fled Russia for the US in 1922. Maya was brilliant and well educated; she received her master’s degree in English literature from Smith College. She was alsobeautiful and multi-talented —Maya Deren worked as: an avant-garde filmmaker; choreographer; dancer; anthropologist; film theorist and photographer. I love Deren’s self-presentation in her films. I have studied and mimicked her 1943 film “Meshes of the Afternoon” with my 2013 project “Me and Maya.” I would like to again look at her self- representation particularly in the 1944 film “At Land.” Deren projects a meditative and dream-like spell in her work—I am interested in exploring various states of mind and of the subconscious in my own work.
Anne Noggle was born in Evanston, Illinois USA (1922-2005). Noggle was an amazing artist/photographer whom I have only recently discovered. Noggle was an aviator in her early life and a WASP pilot during WWII. She then studied art and photography at the University of New Mexico in her forties and later taught photography at UNM. Noggle is known for her frank black and white photographic portrayals of older women and particularly of herself. As I question why I (a 66-year-old woman) am compelled to be photographed by others and now by myself, I look to Anne Noggle as a mentor and guide. I realize that the representation of older women continues to be taboo in our society—our physical, sexual, spiritual and even intellectual selves remain relatively invisible.
Helena Almeida was born in Lisbon, Portugal (1934-2018). I am forever influenced by the work of Portuguese conceptualist Helena Almeida whom, I have studied in depth. Almeida trained early as a painter and in her life-long art practice she used her body as the subject (her entire body, her feet, her face, her hands) in simple black and white photographs that she sometimes painted with blue or red paint. Almeida’s work crosses the boundaries of painting, performance and photography and film. I heart Helena Almeida; she was the original impetus for my work in Portugal with photographer Luis Branco. I have written about Almeida extensively on my blog: https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2015/08/24/i-have-started-my-research-on-helena-almeida/
Lorraine O’Grady was born in Boston, Massachusetts USA (1934). O’Grady is a conceptual artist, performance artist, writer, curator and critic. I am very sorry that I just missed her retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum “Both/And”. O’Grady came to her art practice in her fourties, after a career as a translator, intelligence analyst and even rock critic. O’Grady’s performative, video and installation work explores the cultural construction of identity and particularly that of black female subjectivity. She is also an art critic and writer. Her 1992 paper/essay “Olympia’s Maid-Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” was one of the first pieces of critical writing to focus on the black female body. I am excited to dive into her work and in particular her recently published collections of writings “Drawing in Space,” which also documents her amazing body of visual work. I love her early performance of the black beauty queen Mlle Bourgeoise decked out in a gown made of 180 pairs of white gloves.
VALIE EXPORT was born Waltraud Lehner in Linz, Austria (1940). VALIE EXPORT’s work is fabulous and brazenly feminist—even her name is a performance, she refused to stick with her father’s name and rebranded herself VALIE EXPORT (like the cigarette). I am especially influenced by her performative photography and body works. Her public performances of the late 60s and early 70s are brave, sometimes confrontational, serious but also kind of tongue and cheek – like EXPORT’s 1969 documentation of her performance “Action Pants-Genital Panic” shown below. For the performance, Export cut out the crotch of her pants and walked throughout a cinema/ theatre offering her crotch while pointing a gun at various people’s heads. I have written about Export on my blog: https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2017/03/13/why-the-body-why-valie-export-posted-in-boulder-march-12-2017/
)Anna Maria Maiolino was born in Scalia, Calabria, Italy (1942). Maiolino moved to Brazil with her family in 1960 (transplanted from Italy and Venezuela) and was involved in the Brazilian art movements of the 60s and 70s and has continued throughout her life as a significant and prolific artist. Maiolino works across a wide variety of mediums including; works on paper, poetry, installation, performance and sculpture. I admire her work tremendously. I love this relatively simple image below “Por um Fio / By a Thread.” Anna Maria is in the center, her mother to the left and her daughter then ten years old on the right.. It is a masterpiece depicting the continuity of the feminine (for those of us who are lucky enough to have a mother and a daugher alive at the same time). We are both tied by a thread and hanging on “By a Thread.”
Graciela Iturbide was born in Mexico City, Mexico (1942). Iturbide is a very well-known photographer whom I have only recently come to know about. Iturbide studied film in the early 70s with the intention of becoming a film director. She studied with Manuel Alvarez Brava, considered one of the most significant Latin American photographers of the 20th century, and realized that photography was her medium. Iturbide is known for her stunning black and white images—often her subjects are people of Mexico’s indigenous cultures. She focuses on identity, daily life, rituals and the roles of women. There are often dead animals involved. Iturbide’s work has been termed “anthropoetic” by critic Oscar C. Nates. Her work is magnificent. Below is one of her “self-portraits
Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba (1948-1985). Ana Mendieta is a mythic and influential figure in contemporary women’s art. Controversy still surrounds Mendieta’s tragic death at 36 years old as she fell 34 stories out of her NYC apartment window with her husband sculptor Carl Andre nearby. Mendieta grew up in Cuba in a wealthy family and after the revolution in 1960 her family sent Ana (aged 12) and her older sister (age 15) to the US—a traumatic dislocation that Mendieta suffered early on. Mendieta’s “earth-body” works from the 70s and early 80s have influenced countless artists. Mendieta stated in 1981: “I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source.”
Carrie Mae Weems was born in Portland, Oregon USA (1953). Carrie Mae Weems is a profoundly influential artist—working as a photographer, as a performance artist with text and spoken word and with video since the early 80s. Weems is often the subject of her photographic works especially in her earlier works. No matter whom is the subject of the work; Weems draws us into the picture, always questioning. Here is a quote from Weems as spoken to Dawoud Bey: “… from the very beginning, I’ve been interested in the idea of power and the consequences of power; relationships are made and articulated through power. Another thing that’s interesting about the early work is that even though I’ve been engaged in the idea of autobiography, other ideas have been more important: the role of narrative, the social levels of humor, the deconstruction of documentary, the construction of history, the use of text, storytelling, performance, and the role of memory have all been more central to my thinking than autobiography.” I love her work and this work below particularly.
Nan Goldin was born in Washington D.C. USA (1953). Everybody knows something about the work of remarkable photographer Nan Goldin . . . I continue to love her portraiture work, from the beginnings to the present day—Goldin has photographed friends and lovers, herself, LGBT bodies, sexual and intimate encounters, battered bodies (including her own), beautiful sad and transitory moments. Her late 70s early 80s project “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is still heralded today. In her seemingly effortless images, Goldin manages to capture the supernal qualities of her subjects. And now Goldin (a recovering opioid addict herself) battles the opioid epidemic with her organization P.A.I.N.
Sophie Calle was born in Paris, France (1953). Calle is an ultimately cool and smart conceptual artist; photographer, installation artist, writer and prolific book artist. Calle constructs seductive narratives (mysteries, diaries, love letters) with text and image. Though we never quite believe the story, we are always draw into her fictive spell. Here is the text/story that goes with the image “Room with a View” which I am showing below:
“Some nights you can’t put into words. I spent the night of October 5, 2002 in a room set up for me at the top of the Eiffel Tower. In bed. Between white sheets, listening to the strangers who took turns at my bedside. Tell me a story so that I don’t fall asleep. Maximum length: 5 minutes. Longer if thrilling. No story, no visit. If your story sends me to sleep, please leave quickly and ask the guard to wake me… Hundreds turned up. Some nights you can’t describe. I came back down in the early morning. A message was flashing on each pillar: Sophie Calle, end of sleepless night, 7 :00 a.m. As if to confirm that I hadn’t dreamt it all. I asked for the moon and I got it: I SLEPT AT THE TOP OF THE EIFFEL TOWER. Since then, I keep an eye out for it, and if I glimpse it along some street, I say hello. Give it a fond look. Up there, 1,014 feet above ground, it’s a bit like home.”
Cindy Sherman was born in Glenridge, New Jersey USA (1954). Who doesn’t know about Cindy Sherman? —her photographic self-portraits (late 1970s to 2020s) where she transforms herself into myriad guises are amazing. Though she is my age contemporary and a kind of conceptual colleague, I have always steered clear of Cindy Sherman, I am not quite sure why. Of course, her skills in identity camouflage, masquerade and performative “self-portraiture” and her conceptual references to art history, feminine identity, not to mention her photographic skills are astounding. Still, I am not quite a fan girl. However, her early “Untitled Film Stills” from the 70s and early 80s where she recreates herself into various anonymous women of film are my favorites in the Cindy Sherman genre. And I think it is time for me to re-examine Sherman, after all.
Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran (1957). Shirin Neshat is known for her remarkable work in film, video and photography. Neshat was raised in Iran in a wealthy Muslim family, her father a doctor and her mother a homemaker. She learned traditional Muslim religious values through her maternal grandparents. She also attended Catholic boarding school in Tehran. Her family encouraged her education and worldliness—Neshat left Iran in 1975 to study at U.C. Berkeley where she received her BA, MA and MFA. She remained in the US and her serious and multi-faceted art practice began in the 90s with “The Women of Allah” series. In this work she overlays portraits of Muslim women with handwritten Persian calligraphy, (sometimes inserting a gun in the picture as well). “The Women of Allah” and other work from this period examines notions of femininity in relationship to the Islamic fundamentalism that came to the fore with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Neshat is also a prolific and award-winning filmmaker; “Turbulent” (1998), “Rapture” (1999) and “Women Without Men” (2004) have won her multiple awards. Neshat is also a critic in the photography department at Yale University. I have always admired her work and I want to learn more!
Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado USA (1958 – 1981). Woodman is another heralded figure in the history of women artists. Tragedy and mythos surround her work—she was a prolific young artist who committed suicide at age 22. She is my contemporary, born three years after me and we were both living in Boulder, Colorado in our teenage years. She went on to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. I knew her parents, artists Betty and George Woodman, who both taught at the University of Colorado where I went to art school when I was older and had children of my own. Anyway, in her short life Francesca was a remarkably productive and talented soul— her black and white self-portraits are dreamlike, stunning, melancholic and evocative. The work has influenced generations of young women photographers. Perhaps because I have entered this arena of “self-imaging” at this late stage in my art life, I have come to look at Francesca’s work with fresh (but older) eyes—there is much to be seen in her remarkable body of works. I wrote about Francesca’s work on my blog post: https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2019/03/29/another-heroine-francesca-woodman-posted-in-boulder-co-march-28-2019/
Laura Aguilar was born in San Gabriel, California USA (1959 – 2018). I have only recently learned about Laura Aguilar’s remarkable body of photographic work. Aguilar was the daughter of a first generation Mexican-American father and her mother is of mixed Mexican and Irish heritage, she was also born with auditory dyslexia and was a lesbian. Her self-portraiture focuses on her own identity as a differently abled Chicana lesbian who was obese as well. She also created a large body of works/portraits within the gay and lesbian and black and brown communities that she was a part of in California. Her self-portraiture work in the landscape is remarkable, subtle and beautiful. Charlene Villasenor Black, a professor at UCLA said: “[Aguilar] challenges the idea of the female nude—one of the most important genres in Western art—as the passive object of the male gaze. It’s very clear that she’s aware of the tradition, and she’s able to repeat certain elements from the canon in such a way that shows us how unstable that meaning is and to question these essentialized ideas about women.” Link: https://www.artnews.com/feature/laura-aguilar-who-is-she-1202684828/ Aguilar died in 2018 at the age of 58 from complications related to diabetes.
Looking at these remarkable women artists work is an important part of my art practice and I hope to continue to work “on their shoulders” in the coming months, possibly years in my own performative photographic work. Hugs . . .
The two color images above are a few of the images that I shot early in the morning last week near Maroon Lake in Aspen, Colorado. The black and white “Buddha” image of French artist Claude Cahun’s (1894-1954) is one of my favorite images and I would like to recreate this image sometime. I have been carrying this silver fabric around and last week I found this beautiful grey rock that called to me like a Buddha rock or enlightenment rock.
I was attending a photography workshop at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Colorado taught by the remarkable photographer and artist Jess Dugan. The course was titled “The Intimate Portrait.” I decided to take this class to push myself to learn to take pictures of myself / self images / self-portraits. I have very little training in photography, so this is a big challenge for me.
I had asked my dear friend and fabulous artist and photographer Sama Alshaibi for advice on equipment and I bought a camera and lens that I can use primarily to take images and portraits of myself. I purchased a Sony a7iii mirrorless camera and a Zeiss F1.8 lens. The technology of this camera is a bit overwhelming and last week I just plunged forward with lots of support from Jess and my classmates at Anderson Ranch.
One piece of advice that Jess repeated to all of us was to just slow down and work whatever situation you have set-up for yourself and your subject (my subject being me). On the first day I chose the horizontal wood wall under the porch on the back side of the main building at Anderson Ranch to shoot myself in front of.
These seem like very simple images, but learning to manage the tripod, the auto-focus, depth of field, self-timer, the remote and also just getting comfortable with my face, my gaze, gesture—this has been no easy task for me. I also shot myself over and over in my hotel room.
I modeled for one of the talented photographers/ artists in the workshop, Kevin Gochez. Kevin asked me if I would model nude in my hotel room for them. They are working on a series of portraits in hotel rooms with various people. The image below is one of the several beautiful images that Kevin took. I am in awe and I want to learn about light next . . . Kevin and I traded prints—they gave me this print below and I gave them the print of my face coming out of the Buddha/enlightenment rock.
I have recently become aware of American photographer Anne Noggle’s work (1922 – 2005). Her frank, funny, sad, joyful black and white portraits and portrayals of herself and her own aging process, as well as her portraits of other older women, are remarkable. I decided to try to reproduce one of Noggle’s self-portraits “A Rose is A Rose is A Rose.” It was a humbling exercise for me that I consciously chose. The technicalities of this kind of close up image were difficult for me. It was also an exploration of vanity and beauty —exposing my skin, my wrinkles . . . Obviously this is part of the process of self-imaging a 65-year-old woman. What am I willing to reveal, what am I not willing to reveal? Noggle was 63 when she took this image.
This was a life and art altering week for me. I have been in a bit of a creative lull since the completion of the book and the exhibition THE UNKNOWN HEROINE. Jess Dugan is an amazing teacher as well as artist and human being. They create a learning atmosphere that brings out the best in everyone. I have been trying to get going on to the next major body of work. I want to research and embody all of Claude Cahun’s Heroines (there are 14 in Cahun’s text including: Eve, Judith, Salome, Sappho, Cinderella . . . ). This will be a continuation of my research into feminist history, representation and identity. My collaborator for the last several years, photographer Luis Branco, is in Portugal and we do plan on working together this fall at the OBRAS Artist Residency on multiple projects. We have a large show of our collaborative work “The Mirror Between Us” rescheduled because of the pandemic for the spring of 2022 in Evora, Portugal. I love working with Luis and I want to continue to work in Europe. Jess suggested that a personal practice of self-portraiture could run parallel to my more long-term conceptual and collaborative projects. I am really excited, I love my new camera and I want to get more proficient with it. And I can learn to take pictures of my selves in whatever forms / identities / personas I wish to try in my studio in my home in the yard – wherever.
This last image of Anne Noggle’s is titled “Stellar by Starlight No. 2” and it expresses something that I feel; a sense of joy, of humour, a freedom, a challenge to image and imagine my/our many selves and indentities… and I must get a tiara soon!! Happy Summer Solstice!!
THE UNKNOWN HEROINE is a 64-page limited edition artists’ book made by conceptual artist Sherry Wiggins in collaboration with photographer Luís Filipe Branco and curator and writer Cydney Payton. The book is comprised of text and images that are based on Wiggins’ interaction with French photographer and writer Claude Cahun’s essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess.” The book includes this essay by Claude Cahun as well as an essay by Cydney Payton. You can download Payton’s essay below. The book was designed by Joseph Logan.
PROLOGUE FOR C.C. – Sherry Wiggins
I am writing to you, C.C., about what happened in The House.
The House, named Grunfoort after a castle that disappeared long ago, was strange at first. It was beautiful, old-fashioned. White tulips grew in the garden. Aren’t they a symbol of loss? I saw them for their other meaning—regeneration.
Persephone called to me. Or was it Demeter? Daughter or mother? This always confuses me.
I brought your Heroines* with me. The stories (allegories, parables) are so good, so complicated, filled with references to history, to the Bible, to literature, mythology, fairytales, and they are so wickedly feminist and modern: EVE THE TOO CREDULOUS, Penelope the Irresolute, HELEN THE REBEL, SAPPHO THE MISUNDERSTOOD, SALOME THE SKEPTIC, BEAUTY (OR THE TASTE FOR THE BEAST), THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess, THE ANDROGYNE and the rest. I want to make all of your Heroines my own.
As I delved into the tale of “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess,” allusion by allusion, I understood that, though the story is yours, this is really my story. And though you tell the story well, I have lived this story. I also realized that The House was the perfect setting for the tale, a perfect abode for both THE WIFE and the the Princess.
That’s how it all began—the embodiment, this practice, this theatre—with me enacting the story—your version, my version, our version, in The House.
I took my role as THE ESSENTIAL WIFE quite seriously, and the the Unknown Princess emerged as well. I dressed in black. I pulled my hair back severely. Lots of makeup—Chanel and more. Was it a parody, a performance or truth? The truth, is an older woman looks better with makeup, not too much.
I am no actress. I have become a performance artist. Who knew? Maybe you knew, C.C.; you did all that theatre in Paris in the twenties. I love those images of you as The Devil, The Buddha, The Dandy, The Maiden. Identity is a fluid subject, but you already know that.
Day after day I performed quite well—almost not a performance— as THE ESSENTIAL (House) WIFE. What drudgery! What fun! Well, the the Unknown Princess certainly appeared too. It was all somewhat exhausting: the cooking, the cleaning, the play acting. I needed lots of cigarettes in the garden.
That last morning, while putting on makeup, eyeliner, red lipstick in the upstairs bathroom, standing there in my tights and Spanish socks, I thought, Why not? I went to the banister and posed. What do you think, C.C? Am I THE ANDROGYNE?
Still performing, I put on my robe and went into The Study, the most beautiful room in The House. The windows, the light . . .
What do you think, C.C.? What is a Masterpiece anyway? Masterpiece or not—who decides?
* Claude Cahun, “Heroines,” translated Norman MacAfee, in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, ed. Shelley Rice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), 43 – 94.
You can download the pdf of Cydney Payton’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” below:
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Untitled ( I am in training don’t kiss me), 1927, gelatin silver print ,4 5/8 x 3 ½ inches, Jersey Heritage Collection.
For many of us, French artist Claude Cahun has materialized as a kind of queer superheroine. Cahun first appeared on the world art stage in the early 1990s, nearly forty years after their death, when French scholar François Leperlier introduced Claude Cahun’s written and photographic work in the monograph Claude Cahun: l’écart et la métamorphose. Since this introduction, Cahun has been well examined, republished and widely exhibited. Today, the artist Claude Cahun is lauded as a feminist, performance artist, photographer and Surrealist writer.
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, France in 1894. Early in life Schwob identified as androgynous, resisting a gendered life. As a teenager, Lucy met Suzanne Malherbe; they became best friends and would later become life partners. Lucy’s father married Suzanne’s mother, making them stepsiblings as well. By the end of World War I, Schowb identified as Claude Cahun and Malherbe as Marcel Moore. The pair moved to Paris in the early 1920s. Cahun came to be well regarded as a writer, performer and artist even within male-dominated Surrealist circles; Moore was equally acknowledged for their original drawings and illustrations.
Cahun was a prolific writer. Two of their most significant literary works are Héroïnes and Aveux Non Avenus. Héroïnes (Heroines) was first published in 1925 as a series of fifteen short stories and monologues. It remains a radical text that deconstructs gender roles and stereotypes in Western literature with such figures as Cinderella, Salome, Eve, Sappho and Androgyne. Aveux Non Avenus (DISAVOWALS), first published in 1930 as a limited edition artists’ book, takes the form of a literary montage: a compilation of dreams, stories, poems and philosophical musings. In this complex work, Cahun approaches some of their favorite subjects, including love, narcissism, gender and androgyny. Each of the nine chapters begins with a unique photomontage made by Cahun and Moore.
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, photomontage for the book Aveux non Avenus, 1930, original size for publication,8 7/16 x 6 ½ inches, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Library.
Throughout the many years Cahun and Moore spent together, it is almost certain that Moore was behind the lens— shooting most of the exceptional black and white portraits that Cahun inhabited. These images appear to us as intimate explorations of identity, gender and selfhood. Until the late twentieth century, these groundbreaking photographs remained in relative obscurity, with the exception of their use by Moore and Cahun in the elaborate photomontages produced for the book Aveux Non Avenus.
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Untitled (reflected in the mirror), c.1928, Jersey Heritage Collection.
THE UNKNOWN HEROINE project is a modern retelling or interpretation of Cahun’s essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess” (one of the fifteen essays in Heroines). The resulting performative photographs can be viewed as a tribute to the work of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore and to their collaboration.
Please read my blog post about “the limited edition artists’ book-THE UNKNOWN HEROINE, posted April 22, 2021
I am thrilled that THE UNKNOWN HEROINE project, initiated in Holland in the spring of 2019 with photographer Luís Filipe Branco, will be exhibiting at Michael Warren Contemporary in Denver in March and April and will also be available as a limited edition artists’ book—all during Month of Photography in Denver.
This project began with my investigation of French, feminist, surrealist writer and artist extraordinaire Claude Cahun (1894-1954). My research into Cahun led me to their groundbreaking feminist text, Heroines, first published in 1925. Here, Cahun traces the stories of fifteen heroines‑Eve, Sappho, Delilah, Cinderella, Helen and Judith among them. Cahun updates these well-known (and some lesser known) heroines with panache and humor and points out the gender oppressive characterizations that these heroines have endured over the last few centuries and millennia.
One of the essays in Cahun’s Heroines is titled “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess” (the the is not a typo). This heroine of Cahun’s is written as an archetype of a more ordinary woman. I chose this specific essay and character to enact and embody because I have lived out these roles of “The Wife” and “the the Princess” (albeit a self-proclaimed princess). The OBRAS Artist Residency in Holland was the perfect setting for my performance of this character; located in a beautiful Victorian house in the small village of Renkum. My long-term collaborator, photographer Luís Branco, joined me there. The house presented a variety of mise-en-scène for my performance. We shot thousands of images of me in the rooms and gardens of this house. This was an intense experience for me, perhaps more cinéma-vérité than performance art. Luís captured these charged and sometimes unsettled moments in rapid fire. These images appear as revealing and personal portraits of an older woman‑the unknown heroine. I started writing a text in Holland as well. The text is stream of consciousness in form and mirrors Cahun’s style.
Early on, I enlisted curator and writer (and dear friend) Cydney Payton to help me with the project. She has been an invaluable and trusted contributor: working with me on the text; helping with the selection of images and just recently she has written an incisive essay for the book. Joseph Logan, my step son and talented book designer, has skillfully and graciously designed the book that documents this project. The small but beautiful 64-page book includes: 19 of the color and black and white images that Luís Branco and I made together; my own experimental text; the essay ”THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess” by Claude Cahun; and Cydney’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.” The book is going to print and will be available in the middle of March. The exhibit will be at Michael Warren Contemporary in Denver March 9th to April 17th 2021.
Following are some of the images and text from the project.
The house was beautiful in an old-fashioned way.
There were white tulips in the garden.
Her hair was like a snare. She found some truth in being there.
She saw herself in “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess.” This was her story and that of countless others.
That’s when Talking Heads played. Stop Making Sense.
She thought, “Why not please him?”
There were the small things, . . . the pearls he shot on her eyes.
. . . the the Unknown Princess dreaming with a cigarette in the garden.
It was all about the gaze. That history being everywhere.
As the Dutch Study filled with light . . .
The question became: What is a Masterpiece?
Many thanks are due to friends and family near and far who have given time, support and their responses to this project. I owe tremendous gratitude to Carolien van der Laan, Ludger van der Eerden and and Josien Jongejan of The OBRAS Foundation. I am very grateful to Mike McClung and Warren Campbell of Michael Warren Contemporary for their support of this exhibition and book. A big thank you ALL AROUND!
Mike and Warren create a safe environment in their spacious gallery during these times. Of course masks are required. We have scheduled a timed opening event and a book signing event that you must sign up for on-line to maintain social distancing. For my friends in Denver and Boulder I am more than happy to schedule a time when I can meet you in the gallery and discuss the exhibit and the book more privately.
THE UNKNOWN HEROINE – March 9-April 17, 2021
Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO
Gallery Reception: Friday, March 12 (4-8PM) must register on-line
Book Signing: Saturday April 10 (12-5 pm) must register on-line
Spring is on the horizon and I am looking forward to Month of Photography in Denver in March. I will be showing my performative works produced with Portuguese photographer Luís Filipe Branco in several shows in Denver. We will be exhibiting THE UNKNOWN HEROINE at Michael Warren Contemporary March 9th to April 17th. THE UNKNOWN HEROINE is a photographic and book project that I initiated with Luís in Holland in 2019 while at the Obras Artist Residency in Renkum. We will exhibit this project as an installation of photographs and text at Michael Warren Contemporary. I am also producing a beautiful book of text and images with the help of Cydney Payton and my step – son and brilliant book designer Joseph Logan, with accompanying essays by French artist Claude Cahun and Cydney Payton. The book will be available during the exhibition. I will be posting more about this project, the book and the exhibit, as Month of Photography draws nearer.
I will also be exhibiting several of the works I have made with Luís in Portugal in three different Month of Photography group exhibitions in Denver. Following is a selection of works made at OBRAS – Portugal in the spring of 2019 with Luís Branco. Looking at this group of images I think – who is that scantily clothed woman? She is so free and unconstrained in the landscape. It is as if I become someone else in Portugal, I seemingly transform, I am reborn into many different women – Incarnations / Encarnações. This body of work is particularly poignant to me this spring, as I view this older woman (me) in the verdant spring landscape. This rural region in Portugal, the Alentejo, is close to my heart. Portugal is now undergoing a very difficult time with the pandemic. We will be exhibiting these works in 2022 in Portugal in a large exhibit of Luís Branco and my work made in the Alentejo over the last 6 years – “The Mirror Between Us” in the beautiful Igreja de Sao Vicente in Evora. This exhibit has been rescheduled with the Municipality of Evora for spring of 2022 because of the covid pandemic.
The woman is ghostly/ mysterious in the b&w image Outside Woman I. There is a kind of reverse voyeurism going on when Luís shot from the inside out. This work will be shown in the exhibit “Eye of the Camera – Myths and Legends” at the Littleton Museum March 19th to April 26th juried by John Barnabas Lake.
Nude Chair was selected for the fabulous ongoing Mark Sink project THE BIG PICTURE 2021. THE BIG PICTURE is a massive undertaking which Mark leads – grand scale contemporary photography is gathered from artists around the world and expanded as Xerox prints that are displayed in galleries and in outdoor locations throughout Denver and around the globe.
Luís and I made this image on the 25th of April, 2019. This is the date celebrated in Portugal as the date in 1974 of the “Carnation Revolution.” This is when the military and civil resistance in Portugal overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo regime and thus began the Portuguese democracy. Carnations were offered to the soldiers and placed in their gun muzzles and on the lapels of their uniforms.
This work Shepherd’s Umbrella, will be exhibiting at Redline Contemporary Art Center in the large group exhibit “Shame Radiant,” conceived and curated by Todd Herman. The Alentejo region of Portugal is known for it’s cork trees, vineyards and the sheep and pigs and cows that inhabit the region. This really is a shepherd’s umbrella.
This work Seat at Evoramonte will be exhibiting at the Littleton Museum in the “Myths and Legends” exhibit. This image was taken on the mountaintop at Evoramonte in Portugal. This is a magical mountain with a castle on the top and one of my favorite places in Portugal. I have incarnated in several forms on this mountain . . .
I am excited to be exhibiting in Colorado this spring. Month of Photography programmers, Michael Warren Contemporary and all the galleries and museums are doing extraordinary jobs at keeping culture going safely; timed openings, zoom artist talks, instagram everything … We owe much to these tireless cultural workers for all their efforts over the last year. Big air hugs to all!
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.