Does facelessness mean lack of identity? It’s a question posed by writer Renée Mussai for the catalog essay for FACELESS: Transformational Identity, a new exhibition at Cairns Art Gallery (QLD).
The exhibition brings together 15 Indigenous artists from Queensland and 10 from Africa and the African diaspora worldwide, some of whom are represented with newly commissioned artworks. Together they interpret identity through a reworking of the face, using means such as beautification, obliteration and disguise.
The gallery explains that for the artists in this exhibition, the physicality of the face as an identity marker serves as a means to explore and redefine the self in different social, cultural and political settings and contexts, proposing new meanings and interpretations.
Gallery director Andrea Churcher told ArtsHub: “The premise is to be seen how you want to be seen, not how other people want to see you. Throughout history, the few portraits of indigenous peoples are as white people wished to see them. In this exhibition, artists use face masks to own their image and explore ideas around identity.
The exhibition, which has evolved over several years, continues the gallery’s program and advances ideas shared by Black artists from around the world, beginning with Continental Drift: black/black art from South Africa and Northern Australia (2018), then Country of the Queen: Blak Portraiture (2019) and RITUAL: the past in the present brought together Australian Indigenous and Asia Pacific artists (2021).
Churcher said the genesis of this exhibition dates back to that Blak portrait Exhibition. “I think the concept of portraiture in the Faceless Exhibit is really interesting in the way the face is used in different ways to express identity and engage in social, cultural and political conversations,” she told ArtsHub. “It subverts the traditional notion of portraiture — to push the boundaries and challenge what we understand it to be.”
This is a different approach to portraiture, rethinking the whole idea of facial representation and what it means. It’s not about the look; it’s about identity.
While many of the artworks in the exhibition use the medium of photography, there are also videos, sculptures, performance-based works, and many object-based works that explore the idea of facelessness.
For example Shirley Macnamara’s mourning hats – cultural objects worn on the head to protect the face from prying eyes – or Fiona Foley’s installation of bonnets Atonement Australia? (2022) or Janet Fieldhouse’s multimedia work by her I AM: Because Series (2022).
Churcher said: “Although we are regionally based, it’s important to engage with the local specifics of where we live, I believe it’s important to engage in collaborative international art conversations and share our stories globally. “
She concluded: “We like to feel that we are contributing to science. Research and science is important and it is important that regional galleries participate in it.”
FACELESS: Transformational Identity is showing at the Cairns Art Gallery until October 2nd.