The Exotic and the Universal
The Past is Another Country, Jackie Nickerson — Millennium Court 6th May – 25th June 2011
Review by Colin Darke
Jackie Nickerson quit her career as a magazine photographer to travel the world, applying the aesthetic of the fashion industry in her exploration of the uncomfortable dialogue between individual and national identity and global homogeneity. Based in her native USA, she has worked in the Gulf and sub-Saharan Africa, the Far East and even the exotic world of Ireland.
The Past is Another Country is made up of a selection from a number of series of works, the majority from Oman and Qatar. The images contain manifestations of the unequal negotiation between western and eastern cultural phenomena. This is particularly evident in her portraits, as in a series (not included in this show) titled Farm, consisting of portraits of Zimbabwean rural workers. While the poverty and its physical results are striking, the individuality and defiant confidence of the farmers reveals itself through the strength of their gaze, avoiding, or at least reducing, the fetishisation of poverty which so often results from such projects.
In Nickerson’s portraits of Middle Eastern women, their own individuality is exposed, despite the hijabs and batulas which partly conceal their faces. Their eyes reveal their confidence and even differing levels of indifference to our examination. In Bride, the subject sits facing us, her face concealed by the white veil, not dissimilar to that in western nuptial tradition, raising the question of its origin, but more importantly of the relationship between differing cultural traditions and between photographer and subject. ‘The whiteness of the veil,’ according to Malek Alloula, ‘becomes the symbolic equivalent of blindness’ and is a significant element of the sitter’s ‘rejection’ of the photographer. In another image, a portrait of a woman with her mouth concealed by her niqab, the reflection of the photographer is clearly discernable in her eyes. Alloula again: ‘The photographer makes no mistake about it; he knows this gaze well; it resembles his own when it is extended by the dark chamber of the viewfinder. Thrust in the presence of a veiled woman, the photographer feels photographed; having himself become an object-to-be-seen, he loses initiative: he is dispossessed of his own gaze.’ (Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, 1986)
Placed adjacent to Bride is a mosque interior, specifically the area designated to women, disallowed from attendance of religious ceremony. The large, high walls are intricately decorated, but otherwise bare, save for a vulgar gold-framed clock and a monitor, via which women may watch the male-only celebration.
We, on the other hand, are allowed to view, through freely-given permission to the photographer, the prayer of women who have taken a break from a family holiday to the seaside. This series of twelve photographs, A Day at the Beach, is reminiscent of all our holiday snapshots and aims, I think, to assert the universality of human behaviour. The indications of cultural difference, however, when seen among the signs of same-as-usness, become caricatures and the images’ inherent exoticism becomes paradoxically heightened. This characterises many of the photographs in the show, including the landscapes. A Becheresque image of a water container is embellished with forms which reference local architectural decoration. A supermarket, embodying in its shelves and signage both the familiar and the strange, throws up an uncomfortable dialogue between empire and imperialised.
Two landscape photographs, of buildings in rocky landscapes, reveal how the construction of the towns were determined by the natural formation of the terrain. The white, flat roofed buildings are familiar to western eyes from schoolday religious education images of the ‘Holy Land’. This contributes to the perception of northern Africa and the Middle East as unchanging, ahistorical entities. Nickerson’s versions, however, disturb this familiarity; the towns are overlooked by radio/cellphone masts and the cityscapes are punctuated with satellite dishes.
The smaller Gallery 2 contains a quite distinct show, with smaller works shown in subdued lighting and thus a little more intimate. With the exception of four portrait heads of Omani women wearing various headgear, and with equally steady gazes, the work in this space is less confrontational than the spectacle of the larger gallery space. We are now allowed a distanced voyeurism, able to scan images of the east/west dichotomy in Chinese and Japanese quotidian activity.
Nickerson’s journey further to the east, and to urban centres, has produced a collection of photographs with considerably more colour than in the larger gallery (intensified by the black-and-white portraits among them). A young woman handing out food samples in a supermarket is dressed in white and fluorescent colours and surrounded by the gaudy colours targeted at the eye of the consumer. Chinese opera singers apply make-up so bright it still glows in shadow, wearing t-shirts decorated with silver studs bearing a skull-andcrossbones and ‘Miko-Mouse’.
Urban China’s and Japan’s ready adoption and adaptation of western cultural signifiers, as evinced in Nickerson’s photographs, makes the images easier to read than those from the Middle East, as the confrontation is there neither in form nor content. Paradoxically, though, the familiarity – like the seaside holiday photographs in Gallery 1 – heightens the historical national characteristics.
The work in this show, then, succeeds to a certain extent in its aim to reveal the universality of human experience, while simultaneously exposing the levels of indigenous societal autonomy. What’s missing, for me, is an examination of the historical conditions from which these contradictions arise.