Once upon a time I studied Literary Studies in which you study the world through literature. Novels are actually the microcosmos or glasses if you will with which you see the world. So it goes far beyond knowing for instance from which perspective a story has been written. A novel tells you something about the context in which it was written, it’s a historical document, a reflection of the Zeitgeist and answers questions about society, politics and identity. Especially this last topic fascinated me (and still does). Because what is identity? Wikipedia says: “Identity is the unity of being. The image that someone has of himself is being called selfimage of selfconcept. There are moreover several kinds of the understanding of identity, like personal, genetic, social, cultural and national identity.” This fascination for identity that knows so many faces ultimately resulted in my final thesis in which I studied the concept in the work of the South-African author J.M. Coetzee. To further analyze his novels I employed psychoanalysis that undertakes a remarkable attempt to comprehend ‘identity’.
After literature came culture. I started a research master Cultural Analysis that took me further from literature to film, theatre, photography etc. In other words everything you could define as ‘culture’. So it’s not really strange that I’m back at my roots to analyse culture in all it’s broadness as trendwatcher. Moreover it’s interesting that the concept of ‘identity’ seems more important than ever. We’re connected as never before, but at the same time we’re searching for our uniqueness more than ever. Who are we? This ultimate search for identity could also be traced back to UNSEEN in the work of different young photographers. Especially the cultural and social identity was questioned. In what way are ethnicity and heritage ‘liquid’ in this strongly connected world? How do we relate to old cultural ways and rituals? How can we reshape our identity without negating our heritage? There seems to be a ‘tribe’ trend that holds us tight in this storm of options. Photographers like Delphine Diallo, Zanele Muholi, Namsa Leuba and Atong Atem formulate a new answer to questions of identity. This means we get a completely new view on the foreigner (or stranger). Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva wrote about the foreigner in her book Strangers to Ourselves the following:
The image of hatred and of the other, a foreigner is neither the romantic victim of our clannish indolence nor the intruder responsible for all the ills of the polis. Neither the apocalypse on the move nor the instant adversary to be eliminated for the sake of appeasing the group. Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. (…) The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities.
Her book (first published in 1991) seems more topical than ever. It’s interesting how we always approach the ‘strange’ as if it’s a ‘thing’ so we can pass one single judgment. Kristeva pleads to experience the strange differently and says:
Let us not seek to solidify, to turn the otherness of the foreigner into a thing. Let us merely touch it, brush by it, without giving it a permanent structure. Simply sketching out its perpetual motion through some of its variegated aspects spread before our eyes today, through some of its former, changing representations through history. Let us also lighten that otherness by constantly coming back to it – but more and more swiftly. Let us escape its hatred, its burden, fleeing them not through leveling and forgetting, but through the harmonious repetition of the differences it implies and spreads. (…) An otherness barely touched upon and that already moves away.
The work of Diallo, Munoli, Leuba and Atem do just this: they show and repeat in a harmonious way the differences that accompany the strange and make a gesture towards the viewer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and with the strange it is exactly so: it’s within us. Only when we embrace it can we really appreciate the exotic in all its entirety. Then nothing stands in our way of new interpretations and definitions like these photographers play with the conventions of ‘identity’. In the words of Julia Kristeva: we are all liquid, we are in perpetual motion. And in this perpetual motion we live out our own definition of one big family, our own ‘tribe’ if you will.
1} A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry andculture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.
2} A large family.