Marginal Objects

National Geographic's CoverGurl, self-portrait as Sharbat Gula by Mario Elias

"The power to show real women, honest, present, complex and complete. Individuals, radiant in their own right. Not stripped of their personhood, or manipulated for a fantasy or metaphor. I like to think the power of lifting the veil from individuals helps to challenge societies darker fetishes and beliefs, perhaps shatter notions of bigotry and stereotypes." - artist, Victoria Selbach

My grandmother gave me a huge pile of photographs from National Geographic when I was a kid. Each one had a description on the back of the circumstances in which the portraits were taken, as well as information on the actual subjects.  I had two favorites that I kept separate from the rest and placed visible in my room.  
 

One was a photograph taken of The Little Rock Nine (1957), when integration in the school system was introduced in the US. My grandparents on my Mom's side started dating during the civil rights movement, and being a biracial couple was definitely no easy feat at that point in time. The stories they would tell me of life back then always made me so angry, but the woman's face in that photo was proud and completely unaffected by the hatred around her. That is how I always imagined my grandparents' faces when they told me about their experiences.  I felt so proud that the world as they knew it was able to change, if even just a little bit. 

The second photograph was "Afghan Girl" (1984) by Steve McCurry...

"Afghan Girl," Steve McCurry 1984

The write-up on the back talked generally about the turmoil in Afghanistan at the time and Steve McCurry's contributions to War Photography, but it did not mention what her everyday was like. It didn't say her name or where she came from. She was a refugee in a camp during a time of war. This featured cover for National Geographic is actually the magazine's best selling issue to date.

My dad's father is Syrian, with piercing, icy-green eyes, and this girl reminded me so much of my dad and his father and siblings. I was so upset that this beautiful little girl was not even given the respect of her name being asked. "Afghan Girl." Dassit.

In 2002, McCurry, with the help of National Geographic's resources was able to locate the subject of this now iconic portrait after a lengthy goose chase through the Middle East.  Nearly two decades and all the fame and glory later, they decided they should revisit this story.... I won't be shady, cuz I'm a lady, but they were trying to cash some more checks, babeh. 

This story is the modern day "Girl with the Pearl Earring" in my humble and honest opinion. Its beauty comes from the fragile feminity of the subjects features, yet it's power comes from the strong and intent gaze the subject is surveying the viewer with.  While Sharbat was not recognized as the individual she is, she became a face for the conflict in Afghanistan.  Her face humanized a war torn nation a world away for Americans and many others. THAT'S where the power of this photograph lies. Not with the bravery of the photographer, like the description on the back led a young me to believe. It is the power in one little girl's stare.  Innocence in a time of uncertainty.

Sharbat_Gula2.jpg

 Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she lives in Pakistan with her family. She had only had her photo taken once in her life until McCurry found her again


My eyes haven't seen everything hers have, and they most likely never will, but I am so happy to pay homage to Sharbat Gula with this post.


(Fabrics provided by Britex Fabrics here in San Francisco, backdrop created in Illustrator using the original image for reference, and photography/styling/MUaH all by yours truly as well. Shout out to my beautiful partner Mike for photo assisting!) 

The Ladyboy in Gold, Self Portrait as Adele Bloch-Bauer by Mario Elias

Where many of his paintings pit the subject against the sexual desires and fantasies of the viewer/men, this is a regal, decorative statement, rather than a dream-sequence of desire. Adele is almost surveying the viewer instead of being the object of inappropriate attention.

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Gurl with a Pearl Earring. by Mario Elias

"The first part of the body that a man wants, and which a woman must loyally protect, is the ear; no word or sound should enter it other than the sweet sound of chaste words, which are the oriental pearls of the gospel." St. Francis De Sales

Johannes Vermeer's The Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) is an essential standard for beautiful, delicate portraiture. We all know it. We have all seen it.  Scar Jo tried her best. The subject is often speculated to have been a servant, or a lover (or both) to Vermeer.  Her gaze is bashful and exaggerated. Her posture is meek. She is a picture of beautiful, Dutch realness, the house down. Ultimately, however, she is a nameless, pretty face that we do not know much about. Too real IMO... Am I right, ladies? 

Art is and has always been a vehicle for passion. Throughout nearly the entire expanse of Art History, the image of the Woman has been used to incite feelings of desire, to personify fertility and, oftentimes, to subjugate or objectify. The Venus of Willendorf (Austria, 28-25,000BCE) started the trend nearly 30,000 years ago, and it continues with any pop starlet on the cover of whatever magazine you kids are digitally inclined to indulge in these days. 

Venus of Willendorf, left. Reality TV Character, right.

Vermeer obviously did not paint with any malicious intent in this piece; she's beauty, she's grace, she's housed permanently in The Hague. While this Art History 101 classic is aesthetically and technically masterful, the story behind it is also a feminist rabbit hole; her disposition and absence of noted identity do speak volumes to the way women have been viewed historically, and it definitely deserved some exploration.  

Surprisingly enough, The Girl in question is most likely Vermeer's daughter, Maria, who also is possibly the model for several other paintings in his portfolio.  This, at least, takes away any sexualizing of the subject for us, praise the lord almighty.  By putting her in this portrait with the pearl earrings, Vermeer is most likely creating an allegory for decency and chastity. #ParentingWin. However, this story is not over! Maria was also a painter, most likely trained by Vermeer in secret, and it has been speculated that she was actually the creator of 20% of Vermeer's works! THE NERVE. "Girl with a Red Hat" is one notable example, where you can see it is most likely a self portrait by her posture and penetrating, intent stare.  

While this seems to be a case of plagiarism by Vermeer, the truth is unknown. It is definitely a possibility that Vermeer's family sold the paintings under this guise after his death to repay some debts. It is also likely that historians miscredited the works that seem like Vermeer misfits.  The complete story will most likely never come to light; unless Ol JoJo Vermeezy kept a cute diary, the world will never know.

Art has been dominated by men. Men making art for men to view. This is essentially what the "male gaze" is.   With this project, every week I will recreate women depicted throughout Art History in a series of self-portraits, giving background to the pieces and their relevance.  By doing so, I hope to not only revisit the original ideas and subjects behind these pieces, but also try to queer the male gaze, as it were. I will be a gay man of color, remaking art made for straight men.

Behold my Oriental Pearls of the Gospel, HENNY!!!!