British artist Yinka Shonibare (b.1962) is known for his exploration of the roles that can arise out of collective identity. In his Effnik series, created with collaborating artist Joy Gregory (b.i959) he wittily plays with traditional Western portraiture to great effect.
One work from the series depicts a colonial portrait scene that is reminiscent of the painted portraits of Reynolds. The composition features the familiar signifiers of wealth and power: a writing desk complete with quills, a backdrop of luxurious red fabric and a grand white column.
However, Shonibare subverts the tradition of the genre by inserting himself, a Nigerian-born black man, to play the part of the 18th-century grandee. In this role, he looks out at the viewer with a haughty expression, unsettling the racial dynamics of Britain’s past and encouraging viewers to consider their own position.
The Complex, shifting nature of identity resonates not only for those Recast as a result of their race or nationality. It is also of considerable significance to any group that finds itself marginalized by the establishment or represented in mainstream society.
US photographer Catherine Opie initially gained attention in the early 1990s with her assertive portraits of the gay community in San Francisco, many members of which were also Involved in a sadomasochistic subculture. Showing their often semi-naked, pierced, tattooed bodies against brightly coloured studio backdrops, she represents the shocking and the “abnormal”.
It is at times hard to tell the gender of her subjects, thus determining the significance of gender types at the same time as challenging societal expectations of who and what we ‘should be’. For her Being and Having series in 1991, she had her lesbian sitters wear fake moustaches to further blur the boundaries of identity.
The work of Chinese artist Yang Fudong (b. 1971) similarly interrogates the constantly shifting nature of identity. In 2000, he made a powerful triptych of photographs titled The First Intellectual (below right), in which a young professional Chinese man stands, in his suit and tie, in the middle of a major road, with the Shanghai skyline in the background. With a brick in his hand and blood on his shirt and face, it appears as though he has been attacked by an unseen assailant and is at a loss as to how to react.
Why has he been attacked and by whom? And where does he go from here? His bewilderment and frustration at being assaulted by an unknown figure, and his solitary position in the middle of the road, symbolize how difficult it is to retain a sense of integrated self and stable values in a society undergoing rapid social, political and economic change. Instead, the individual is in danger of feeling a sense of isolation, fragmentation and being torn between two worlds—the traditional one of his parents’ generation and the modern one in which “the first intellectual” now lives.
Although photographers often comment on cultural differences and change, much of their work concerning issues of identity ultimately encapsulates common psychological needs—to have a strong sense of Individual self and to belong to a group. Fudong comments: “Like all of us, I’m a bit like that “first intellectual”: one wants to accomplish big things, but there are obstacles owning either from society or from inside oneself.“