Illustration: Regina Rivas ©
Through the looking glass
Selfies and self-portraits, in the context of digital cultures, can be read at different levels of signification. Here, self-representation is understood as a creative expression of looking into the mirror, which enables young women to negotiate agency and power through social media.
The relationship of women with the mirror has been, from the beginning, problematic. Simone the Beauvoir uses the metaphor of the looking-glass to explain the feminine condition: ‘Women concern themselves with their own images [..], men with an enlarged self-image provided by their reflection in a woman’ (Chadwick, 2002, p.314). Years later, the art critic John Berger argued that in European oil painting -where women were the principal subject- the mirror is used in a hypocritical way to symbolise female frivolity through the male gaze:
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure. (Berger, 1972, p. 51)
Following the statement of Berger, it could be contended that the self-portrait is the expression through which female artist appropriate the mirror to resignify it. Art historian Whitney Chadwick (2002, pp. 219-315) has found in the work of artists such as Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and others close to the Surrealism, a usage of the mirror that reinforces the duality of being: the woman as a subject who observes and is observed at the same time. On the other hand, when the first photographers began to play with the self-portrait, the camera is introduced as part of the image that appears in front of the mirror. According to digital culture expert Jill Walker Rettberg (2014, p. 8), the acknowledgement of the camera is used with different symbolic value. It can be an extension of the photographer's body, as in the case of Kate Matthews' Self-portrait (c.1900). It may work as a barrier between the photographer and the audience, as in the Self-portrait with cigarette and camera (1925) of Germaine Krull. Or appearing just as a way of playing with the reflection of the camera in the mirror, as in the Self-portrait with Leica (1931) of Ilse Being.
These expressions will give birth to the selfie, which Rettberg (2014, p. 9) considers a 'true vernacular genre' that is rarely exhibited in galleries. Nonetheless, according to this author, the selfie has two main functions from the perspective of digital culture: On the one hand, it is a form of self-representation; with the selfie we choose how we want to show ourselves to others. On the other, it is a way of documentation; of deciding how we want to be remembered in the future. Researchers specialised in gender and digital culture, such as Conrad Murray (2015) and Shields-Dobson (2015), understand the selfie as an aesthetic form of cultural production and political resistance. In this section, self-representation in its different forms -including the selfie- has been taken into account, interpreted as agentic ways of expressions.
This online exhibition starts looking 'through the mirror' because we are still surrounded by images that are mainly created from a male perspective. We need to change that, and one way to do so is by empowering self-representation as a meaningful practice. Through different expressions, these six women choose how to present themselves, what to show and what to hide. This symbolic act is a way of saying: ‘Here I am. Look at me. I have something to say’.
Paraguay is going through a similar process. A country crossed by wars, revolutions and dictatorships -the last, of 35 years- still finds it difficult to face its image in the mirror. Due to these circumstances, it has been ‘an island surrounded by land in the heart of the continent’ for many years, as the novelist Augusto Roa Bastos (1977, p. 56) has pointed out. Like a young woman searching for answers about herself in her reflection, this terra incognita for the rest of the world is undergoing a process of looking for ways of expression that synthesise all its contradictions. In that process, the female gaze has a lot to contribute, even through everyday expressions such as the selfie, that can go unnoticed if we do not pay enough attention.
Berger, J., 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books.
Chadwick, W., 2002. Women, Art, and Society. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
Conrad Murray, D., 2015. Notes to self: the visual culture of selfies in the age of social media, Consumption Markets & Culture, vol. 18, no. 6, pp. 490-516.
De Beauvoir, S., 2010. The Second Sex. London: Vintage.
Rettberg, Jill Walker, 2014. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shields Dobson, A., 2015. Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Roa Bastos, A., 1977. Paraguay, una isla rodeada de tierra (Paraguay, an island surrounded by land), El correo de la UNESCO, pp. 56-59.