Fragments of Truth: New Generation Photography Award 2019
What does a photograph know? Of a body, of a place? What can it tell us about the past or the future? Can it speak of things not visible, of events that have transpired outside its frame? Can it speak at all? Or is it mute, like a mirror — nothing more than a reflection of our own thoughts and feelings?
These are among the questions posed by the work of Luther Konadu, Zinnia Naqvi and Ethan Murphy, now on view in PhotoLab 6: The New Generation Photography Award Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, and they are left purposefully unanswered. Winners of this year’s New Generation Photography Award, these three artists treat the photographic image not as an end in itself, but as a means to probe, illuminate and throw into question their own personal stories and backgrounds.
“The fragmentary aspect of the medium is really important [to these artists] because it doesn’t give you a complete picture,” says curator Andrea Kunard. They reject the modernist notion that a photograph bears a single, unified truth and espouse a “fluid” attitude, in which multiple meanings and understandings coexist. In the works of Konadu, Naqvi and Murphy, “ideas and associations are placed into play without ever really resolving themselves.”
Konadu, especially, gives the impression of never truly being finished with a photograph. The Winnipeg-based artist, writer and community-builder of Ghanaian descent uses collage, re-photography and repetition in his practice “as a way of pronouncing the material characteristics of the image,” he says. The large-scale polyptych Gestures on Portrayal (2017), which shows three of his friends hanging out in his studio, groups together four distinct exposures of the same scene, to cinematic effect.
Even as the friends appear casual and unposed, a vital act of empowerment rests at the core of the image. Like Konadu’s other depictions of close friends, Gestures transmutes a strong historical charge. “I create images that contest the tired and prevailing dehumanizing narrative long associated with the black body,” Konadu writes in his artist statement. Indeed, the way these young women look straight at the lens — and by extension at us — there is no question that the image exists only on their terms.
Self-empowerment is also central to Naqvi’s project, in which the Pakistani-Canadian artist seeks a connection with her family history. The installation Dear Nani pivots around a set of informal snapshots her grandparents took on their honeymoon in Quetta, Pakistan, at the time of the violent aftermath of British India’s partition. Political upheaval is implied but not visible as Naqvi’s maternal grandmother smiles for the camera, playing dress-up in her new husband’s clothes.
Further complicating a historical reading, the artist has also restaged the keepsakes herself. In Self-Portrait as Nani (2017), Naqvi plays the part of her grandmother, in a loose emulation of Nani in Safari Hat (1948, printed 2017). She stands, like her grandmother, with her left hand in her pocket and her right hand cradling an ornate encyclopedia. The book, which appears identical in both images, serves as a photographic punctum — a portal that connects the old world with the new. But where Nani peers at the camera through her stylish sunglasses, Naqvi has cropped her own face out of the picture. Whatever she may know, she is not going to tell us.
The enigmatic relations between place, self and image play out across a different vector in Murphy’s vivid documents of his native Newfoundland. Here, too, the absence of a family member — in this case, the death of Murphy’s father — becomes the generative force of photographic inquiry. As the artist retraces his father’s footsteps across the remote Bell Island in an act of homage, geography, possibility and loss intermingle. A landscape of grieving becomes one of self-discovery. Murphy’s photographs each hum with an undertone of mourning, yet in their fragmentary nature and nonlinear presentation, they also speak of a renewed identification between artist and place.
Such identification is always provisional, says Kunard. “If we want photographs to give us something definite about ourselves and the past, well, maybe they do, maybe they don’t.” Despite the earnestness the artists bring to their respective inquiries (or, perhaps, because of it), the meanings of the work in PhotoLab 6 remain ultimately unsettled. “As much as you feel you’re gaining in terms of an understanding of who you are, it is always elusive,” Kunard says. Answers, after all, only lead to more questions.
PhotoLab 6: The New Generation Photography Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 11, 2019 to March 22, 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.