Propositions for Alternative Narratives from Photoworks is a stunning selection of contemporary photography packaged in an appealing and thought-provoking way. Although every piece is of high quality, the work of three women artists in particular stand out: Pixy Liao, Ronan Mckenzie, and Alberta Whittle.
Taking inspiration from Dayanita Singh’s portable exhibitions, the show comes in a small, black and white cardboard box that can be ordered directly from the photography organisation’s website. Partly a response to the pandemic, the format allows the owner or recipient of the box to hang the work in their own way. This attempt to break the ever-increasing hold of the curator is noble, but with the artists and artworks chosen already and even the formatting and size pre-determined there’s less freedom than one might hope; for instance, Alberta Whittle’s posters are small and double-sided, meaning that unless two boxes were used (or perhaps a pane of glass) the full scope of her contribution cannot be seen at any one time. This is a problem for many of the pieces. Of course, all the pages of a book can’t be seen at once and any criticism seems unfair given the quality of the work on display.
My eyes immediately fell in love with Pixy Liao’s ‘Experimental Relationship’ series, which features the artist and her boyfriend Moro – an exploration of the relationship between an older woman and a younger man. Moro is captured in his underwear, draped over Liao’s shoulders as she sits clothed or doing domestic chores. There’s lots of direct eye contact; in one picture Liao’s finger is on Moro’s open mouth as she literally silences him, in another he lounges on a long reclining chair with one leg up and a hand lightly touching the floor in a sensual, languid pose reminiscent of Manet’s ‘Olympia’ or Goya’s ‘La Maja desnuda’. The colours are pastel, feminine, and the scenes so clean they’re almost clinical. It’s a study in objectification, in ownership rather than companionship. Liao pinches Moro’s nipples, blocks his eyes with her hair, and confines him within her own clothes. In the wall text provided she writes, “My photos explore the alternative possibilities of heterosexual relationships… what will happen if man & woman exchange their roles of sex & roles of power?”
Questions of gaze are also present in Ronan Mckenzie’s ‘Explorations of Brown’. Two Black women lie on a decorative rug, staring directly into the camera. Their clothes, hairstyles and the rug itself all have echoes of the 1970s, not least due to the shiny leather (or pleather) jackets and their carefully shaped afros. The whole image is brown, with elements of gold, treacle, and butterscotch. A good portrait photograph can feel like a person is right there in the room with you, and ‘Explorations of Brown’ succeeds in this, helped by the size of the poster (around a meter in length) and way the woman on the right seems to be in the process of either lying down or raising herself up from the ground. The models’ double gaze catches the viewer in a quandary, never able to fully look into either woman’s eyes without being conscious of the other. A Black woman herself, Mckenzie has spoken about needing to study the colour and concept of ‘brown’ in her work. In her wall text card she is quoted saying that brown “encompasses visual attributes, the richness of natural texture and the complexity of emotion, but also trapped within are hundreds of years of connotations and history, including much trauma.” This richness and complexity is very clear within the work and serves to make it a highlight of the collection.
Alberta Whittle’s contributions ‘Business As Usual’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ combine photography with digital manipulations – using colour inversion, text, and brushes and paint effects – to create astonishing otherworldly images. There’s so much movement in the pieces they almost seem like stills from an unmade (or yet to come) film. In ‘Business As Usual’ Whittle appears mid-ritual, crouched on a beach or riverbank placing two pineapples on a rock, or in a rising squat position as blue lines radiate out of her. The wall text references the influence of Tidalectics – the idea that history can be interpreted around the rhythms of the ocean. Whittle often explores the ocean as a site of trauma – as seen in last year’s show at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), How Flexible Can We Make The Mouth, where she used video, installation, poetry, and sculpture to reflect on the journey her enslaved ancestors made towards the Caribbean plantations and the climate-change caused hurricanes that submerge the homes of their descendants. Whittle’s DCA show led to her receiving the Turner Prize bursary last year, and she’s set to represent Scotland at next year’s Venice Biennale. In ‘Business As Usual’, made a few years previously, floating eyes and disembodied hands direct us to the hidden underside of icebergs or snapshots of waves, as if the movements being made by Whittle are in some way an attempt to appease this elemental force. The ocean is still present in ‘Amazing Grace’, shown in Propositions for Alternative Narratives for the first time. Whittle again appears to be casting some sort of spell as she is shown under the high, ornate ceilings of the Tobacco Merchant’s House in Glasgow – her presence forcing the viewer to confront the building’s colonial past.
While Propositions for Alternative Narratives contains so much more than the contributions of these three artists, it’ll be their posters that I’ll treasure going forward. It’s a joy to be able to have large-scale contemporary art in one’s home and I am grateful to be confronted by the work of these photographers every morning. Visit Photoworks now to order your own Festival in a Box, and see which posters speak to you.
Words: Ana Hine