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SELFIE: A photo exhibition on crossed identities at Karsh-Masson

By Raymond Aubin on March 25, 2015



Raymond Aubin is an artist in contemporary photography who also writes critiques and reviews in visual and media arts.

Through their photographic self-stories, artists Magida El-Kassis, Olivia Johnston, and Jennifer Stewart invite us to reflect upon the contemporary fragmentation of the identity.

Walking into the SELFIE exhibition at the Karsh-Masson Gallery is an overwhelming experience. Right in front of the entrance, one is greeted with a diptych by El-Kassis bearing a prophetic title: “it’s what you do to me”. The visitor is forced to branch left or right where a disparate hanging opens up. Some photos are in black and white while other are in colour. Some prints come in classic frames while others are held on the wall by magnets or even simply stuck directly onto it. Their dimensions vary from postcard size to life size. Some images stand on their own while many others come in polyptychs. Some are presented in series. One proposal moves away from the wall as a bas-relief. Another comes as a photo wallet. At the back of the gallery, we also find a slide projection as well as sound tracks associated with pictures.

Olivia Johnston.

Olivia Johnston, i think you need a new pair, 2012, inkjet print, 43 x 56 cm. Courtesy of the artist


As one approaches individual images, these tend to become elusive. Blurred characters abound. Framing is often strange and unconventional. Superposition is not rare, bringing two worlds into one. The modernist canons of photography are bypassed.

This destabilizing experience is not to be shunned. SELFIE is one of too few examples where strong meaning is embedded into the hanging itself. In today’s world, reality appears equivocal, shattering the stability we think we need in order to develop strong identity. Identity has become mixed and changing, largely due to our immersion in so many diverse networks. This loss of bearing is what one experiences in the middle of the gallery.

Magida El-Kassis-1

Magida El-Kassis, how did the feeling feel to you, 2014, silver gelatin print, 51 x 41 cm. Courtesy of the artist

The artists have opted for mingling their works rather than presenting them grouped. This is indicative of the network they have woven among themselves. All three share a common sociological and generational background. All three are graduates of the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO) where they developed related aesthetics. Yet, on closer inspection, some individual profiles emerge. El-Kassis’ work tends to be symbolic and conceptual, with many scenes being staged. Most of Johnston’s pictures are closely tied to her own body and overflow with emotion. Stewart’s work emphasizes fantasy, memory, and the passage of time – she is the only one showing time-based works such as sound tracks and the slide projection.

The works presented in SELFIE are not really selfies, this genre of superficial and spectacular representations of the self. They are not portraits for self-promotion either, as were so many self-portraits in Art History. They are rather symbolic narratives of ordinary events in the artists’ lives.

SELFIE can’t be seen at a glance. It deserves its good share of time. This is the price to pay to be able to appreciate both its intelligence and its emotional contents.

The Karsh-Masson Gallery is located on the ground floor of Ottawa City Hall. It is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The exhibition is running until April 19, 2015.