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Original exhibition examines the representation of fluid identity
Toyin Ojih Odutola, My Country Has No Name, 2013. Pen ink and marker on board. © TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s newest original exhibition, Show Me as I Want to Be Seen, presents the work of groundbreaking French Jewish artist, Surrealist, and activist Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and her lifelong lover and collaborator Marcel Moore (1892–1972) in dialogue with ten contemporary artists to examine the complex and empowered representation of fluid identity.

Cahun and Moore are recognized as pioneers in their bold depictions of unfixed selfhood. The pair is best known for their striking, collaboratively produced photographic portraits of Cahun, who would perform wildly varying iterations of the self by assuming various guises, gender presentations, and modes of affect. Together, Cahun and Moore declared a definition of selfhood that was almost entirely unprecedented at the time—avowing the self by disavowing its constancy—and that remains uncannily relevant today.

Show Me as I Want to Be Seen positions their work in conversation with a diverse group of emerging and established contemporary artists whose 88 artworks on view—in a wide variety of mediums ranging from painting and sculpture to video and 3-D animation—also address opaque, constructed, and shifting selves: Nicole Eisenman, Rhonda Holberton, Hiwa K, Young Joon Kwak, Zanele Muholi, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Gabby Rosenberg, Tschabalala Self, Davina Semo, and Isabel Yellin.

“The issue of representation, no stranger to art history, has recently catapulted into the cultural zeitgeist,” says Lori Starr, Executive Director, The CJM. “From #OscarsSoWhite to the #MeToo movement, the question of whose story gets told and by whom is dominating cultural conversations the world over. The artists in this exhibition—all of whom are people of color, women, LGBTQ, gender non-binary, or defy classification altogether—are intent on reclaiming their own narratives.”

Show Me as I Want to Be Seen includes over twenty of Cahun and Moore’s collaborative photographs, as well as examples of their photomontages created for Aveux non avenus, Cahun’s pseudo-autobiography. Often referred to as an anti-realistic, surreal autobiography, the work’s title can be translated as both Cancelled Confessions and as Disavowals, and contains within it Cahun’s famous declaration of her position on gender fluidity: “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” The photomontages incorporate portraits of Cahun and drawings by Moore, which present multiplying and various selves.

Fascinating parallels also exist in Jewish texts, notes Natasha Matteson, Assistant Curator, The CJM, and curator of the exhibition. “The Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible is an archetypal story of an empowered declaration of Jewish identity, while the Talmudic notion of svara is a potent entry-point to Jewish practices of self-determination,” affirms Matteson.

The ten contemporary artists in the exhibition conjure, validate, and update Cahun and Moore’s earlier tactics. Several create overt self-portraits in which self-perception and self-determination take precedence over the pleasure or comprehension of the viewer. Like Cahun, South African artist Zanele Muholi employs powerful postures and varying adornments in their photographic self-portraits. Staring blisteringly into the camera, Muholi styles themself to emphasize the darkness of their skin, proudly upending both gender-normative and white supremacist standards of beauty.

A self-portrait drawn by Toyin Ojih Odutola, My Country Has No Name (2013), depicts the artist from four angles, multiplying her figure. Ribbon-like skin, rendered in many lines of pen ink, looks almost fluid as it gleams with multi-colored flecks of light. Surface, self, and blackness itself are all destabilized through Ojih Odutola’s treatment.

To create the fragrance line Foil (2014), Rhonda Holberton has used methods developed by the CIA to distill human scent from the t-shirts of anonymous volunteers. Scent detection is more accurate than facial recognition or fingerprinting—and these fragrances can mask an individual’s scent to conceal their identity.

Hiwa K’s video Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017) depicts the artist balancing a sculpture made of mirrors on his nose while retracing the path he took to flee Iraqi Kurdistan for Europe on foot. Seen in this way, Hiwa K’s self-understanding is refracted through the geographies he moves within, and the histories they recall.

Nicole Eisenman’s Guy Artist (2011) is a playful send-up of the archetypal Western male painter haphazardly borrowing from other cultures while monopolizing authorship of the fine art canon. The guy’s massive yellow face eyes the viewer, his subject, and the portrait is complete with jaunty beret.

Other artists in the exhibition approach the conundrum of representation by rendering their figures intentionally illegible. In painter Gabby Rosenberg’s Losing Body (2018), a gender-ambiguous figure watches a specter-like cloud (irreverently rendered in spray paint) escape their torso, body-parts suspended in mid-air in an unmoored fragmentation of the body. The scene exposes the flimsiness of the “body-as-identity” construction while, paradoxically, the inner self appears to diffuse into thin air.

The soft corporeal sculptures by Isabel Yellin evoke fleshy alien infants, desiring and exploring, but indignant, it seems, at being constrained to a body. Yellin’s works, though somewhat abstract, maintain an expressive specificity of gesture that communicates the all-too-familiar discomforts and pleasures of physicality.

Like Cahun’s masks, Young Joon Kwak’s Hermaphroditus’s Reveal I (2017) plays on inconclusive discovery. The sculpture’s swooping arc of resin, an abstract stand-in for a body, meets the ground with its two attached hands. A third hand, uncannily realistic and perfectly manicured, lightly holds the back flap between two fingers, as if preparing to uncover the truth hidden by this ambiguous form — but we know that such a revelation would only ever produce another opacity.

In Tschabalala Self’s sizable fabric-collaged painting, Perched (2016), a voluptuous poised figure turns her back on a mirror to squint pointedly at the viewer. Multiplying her view is an army of graphic eyes that fill the painting’s background. The central figure’s cool gaze seems to tell us that the mirror exists for the sole purpose of her own self-appreciation, not to satisfy the viewer.

Davina Semo’s A GREAT THING IN HER LIFE IS THAT SHE HAS A SECRET (2018) is a small, wall-mounted slab of concrete studded with broken auto glass. The shiny portal withholds the viewer’s reflection from them, while in contrast the title conveys a surprisingly specific interior experience.

Show Me as I Want to Be Seen is accompanied by a 112-page fully illustrated hardcover catalog that includes an essay by Matteson; an interview with Rabbi Benay Lappe, an award-winning educator specializing in the application of queer theory to Talmud study; and a newly-commissioned piece of fiction by Porpentine Charity Heartscape.

In an effort to address questions of representation across demographics, The CJM will also install a Resource Area created with the Disability Visibility Project in its Yud Gallery, which will be available to visitors throughout the run of the show. Developed in conjunction with Alice Wong, Founder and Director of the Disability Visibility Project, the Resource Area will feature podcasts that challenge perceptions around disability, normalcy, and the body, as well as provide access to Wong’s Resistance and Hope Anthology: Essays by Disabled People. The Resource Area is part of The CJM’s ongoing Access Programs in support of the telling, sharing, and witnessing of narratives that all too often remain unheard and unseen.

Show Me as I Want to Be Seen is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Leadership support for this exhibition is generously provided by the Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund, Dorothy R. Saxe, Judith and Robert Aptekar, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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