Cherine Fahd’s Impersonal Portraiture
Updated: Jul 23
Professor Annamarie Jagose, Provost & Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Sydney
Associate Professor Lee Wallace, Director of Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), University of Sydney
My mother’s rest-home room is much larger than the usual tight arrangement, selected by my sisters for that reason and for its second-floor view over the garden, one corner of its bank of windows crowded out each spring – there have been two, so far – with the dense blossom of a flowering cherry tree. As if in a historical reconstruction, her room captures the feel of the living room in her former house. The extra width of the hospital door opens, as her front door previously did, on to a lobby edged by a bookshelf crammed with the novels and poetry collections she loves to read. And behind the bookshelf in equally familiar arrangements are her couch and armchairs, the enormous low coffee table centred on the same rug, the hefty mahogany dresser we grew up with still displaying her collection of British and Indian silver, although its cutlery drawers now hold her lingerie and a Chinese lacquer cupboard, acquired from one of her favourite antique shops in her former town, kitted out now for her much reduced wardrobe, the whole effect nailed down by her transplanted paintings and photographs. The nursing staff – and even the odd visitor lured into my mother’s room by the surprising slash of its World of Interior style when glimpsed from the corridor – frequently compliment my mother on her taste, which she, preferring only to leave her room if she is leaving the property on an outing, seems to regard as her due.
There is something queenly about my mother in these moments that is very recognisably her social disposition but had not been much evident recently: welcoming, engaged by others but well pleased with herself, driven by a sense of the dramatic occasion and floating contentedly above the various details required to make everything work. The day before she moved from her two-storey, three-bedroom townhouse in the town where she had lived for nearly fifty years to the city some 500 kilometres distant where two of my sisters have made their homes, my mother and I lay together on her bed, chatting in the gaps between her naps. Lee and I had come over from Sydney to help her get ready for the flight to Wellington with my brother and to pack up the house once she had left.
‘How are you feeling about moving to Gavot House?’ I asked her. There was quite a pause.
'It’s a rest home, really’, she said in a measured way I couldn’t quite plumb.
‘And how do you feel about it?’ She had her eyes closed and lay so quietly I thought she had slipped into sleep again.
‘Sad’, she said, which made us both smile and cry at the same time.
Talking with my sister across this time as we planned, with the scale drawings her girlfriend had mocked up for this purpose, which pieces of furniture to ship to the city, we acknowledged that our mother would likely fall into a despondency after arrival in her new room. For the last couple of years, she had been subject to low spirits as her manageable world shrank in scope. Having managed geriatric hospitals and rest homes herself for the last decades of her nursing career, we figured she knew better than anyone what this kind of shift meant.
‘No matter how hard she finds it’, we would say to each other but really to ourselves, ‘we have to remember that it is the right choice’.
We needn’t have bothered. Our mother touched down in her new room well, referring to it as ‘home’ on her third day. Physically frail, shrunken perceptibly each time I see her, she is often still in bed when I call her on the weekends, reading her way through the Booker Prize shortlist.
Nothing diminishes her interest in the contemporary, most tangible now in her dress sense and modish haircuts. She still kits herself out as someone who is comfortable as the object of attention and so, when Sydney artist, Cherine Fahd, suggested including her as the oldest subject in her videographic series-in-progress, Lee and I recognised a germ of potential beneath the patent craziness. Shooting the three-minute video would require carrying a lot of kit to New Zealand and there was always the possibility that my mother might be indisposed at the time and not want to meet someone new, let alone struggle with them physically as the video required. Even with Cherine promising to be gentle, we were uncertain whether my mother would be able to hold herself upright on a backless stool for the three-minute duration of the shoot. In preparation I sent my sister a video clip of me in Cherine’s work to show our mother. Like every other of the dark-haired, dark-eyed women in the work, many of them recruited, like me, by open call on Instagram, my stricken face looms out against a black dropcloth, while Cherine, hidden from view behind me, attempts to strip me of a blue jacket, only her arms visible and indistinguishable from mine except for their tattooed markings. My mother was reported to have watched the clip several times through with interest, recognising it as art.
Several weeks later, the three of us turned up in my mother’s room direct from the international airport. She was expecting Lee and me but I hadn’t told her anything else, since we thought that she might be anxious that something was expected beyond her usual deft performance of self.
‘Mum, this is our friend, Cherine.’
My mother rose to her feet and the occasion, looking around brightly, taking Cherine’s hands in her own to ask almost coyly: ‘Are you from Bombay?’ My father was from Bombay and my mother had lived there for several years after their marriage in the late 1950s. Spelled differently but pronounced the same, Shireen was a common Parsi name and my mother was tentatively making the connection.
We explained that Cherine was hoping to video her the following day and my mother seemed unfazed.
‘All you have to do is dress in black.’
‘Yes’, said my mother, looking pleased with herself, as if this was all coming out as she had intended.
The next day I rang ahead to check in.
‘Are you still OK about being videoed?’ I asked. ‘Did you remember to wear black?’
‘Yes’, said my mother. ‘Yes.’ But when we turned up, it was clear that she had bent that requirement to the more familiar strictures of her own style and was wearing an ensemble the blackness of which was in the service of a dizzying array of white polka-dots coordinated from her scarf to her shoes to create the vertiginous optical effects of a Bridget Riley painting. It is not necessary here to describe how she sat for Cherine’s camera because that weird mix of composure and exhilaration was captured in one take and is evident even in the single photograph taken to check light levels. Always beautiful, my mother engages a stranger’s camera at close distance with ease, her suddenly art historical frontality standing in for her more usual social front.
It is one thing to know my mother, another to encounter her in the Fahd video portrait. Even for me. One of the unexpected effects of being drawn into Fahd’s photographic orbit, as we were in November and December 2019, is to be confronted anew by the impersonality at the heart of human relationality, even relations with those we most love. Perhaps those of us who grow up outside the normative structures of sexuality and their easy claim to future human belonging have more reason to know this truth than others. After all, LGBTQ+ folk have long had a vexed relation to the field of social visibility. The historical experience of social invisibility or the mandatory closeting once required of gay and lesbian life has sometimes led to a conflation of LGBTQ+ visibility with actualisation, agency, and self-determination, as if being seen could in itself secure political presence or validity. Fahd’s work, however, or at least our experience of it, focuses on the field of representation not because of its emancipatory potential but rather because photography’s complex practices and counter-practices are a rich resource for understanding the pervasive operations and impacts of social power in liberal regimes that promise to recognise all equivalently.
Responding to the ubiquity of visual media in contemporary social worlds, Fahd’s work investigates both the elective and the constrained aspects of visual self-fashionings, particularly for those subjects more commonly consigned to culture’s peripheral vision. Women, minorities and LBGTQ+ folk all know what it is to fall in and out of visibility across the life course, being sometimes the fetishised focus of attention, while other times ignored.
Using the relational methodology built into portrait photography, which connects photographer and subject, Fahd’s experimental practice simultaneously amplifies the personal and impersonal dimensions of social subjecthood. So common across her body of work that it stands as something of a signature gesture, Fahd often relinquishes her position behind the camera as photographer to appear before it as its vital but obscured subject. From the 100 portraits of Hiding—Self Portraits (2009-10) where Fahd appears in a series of domestic scenes with her face concealed by everyday but out of place objects through Plinth Piece (2014) where she strikes eight statuesque poses, the hero-artist rendered cartoonish by being almost completely covered in blobs of coloured modelling clay, to You Look Like A… (2016-17) where she ghosts each portrait in a series of young men by digitally sporting their beards, Fahd puts herself in the frame of vision in order to draw our attention surreptitiously to the machinic quality of the unattended camera. Although as modern citizens we are primed to value individuals over institutional systems, agency over structure, voluntarism over determinism, in Ecdysis it is the automatism of Fahd’s camera that continues to capture the more impersonal, less individualising, representational capacity of photography to build social trust.
Taking as its title the zoological term for shedding an old skin or outer cuticle, Ecdysis—like much of Fahd’s earlier work—mitigates the power differential classically posited between the subject and agent of photography. Again, Fahd partially includes herself in the field of vision, this time as a pair of distinctively tattooed arms attempting to wrest a blue car-coat from each of her subjects. Not drawn from any recognisable archive of everyday bodily techniques, the prospect of the artist strenuously working to separate each subject from the same coat resists interpretation. While it could be turned to the service of arguments about gendered self-presentation and social camouflage, more importantly, the coat stands for nothing. Distracted from the business of being photographed by the MacGuffin of the struggle for the coat, each subject is transformed in those three minutes into a richly interpretable fluid portrait, the camera capturing a succession of facial expressions that seemingly speak to the determination/disappointment/grief end of the affective register.
Sustained for the duration of a pop song, each of Fahd’s video portraits captures sequentially facialised expressions that seem emotionally recognisable but not narratively coherent beyond the familiar transitional verse—chorus—bridge patterns that we associate more with music than visual art.
The personalising familial likenesses that initially seem central to Fahd’s practice are less significant or representationally impactful than the established rules of portraiture aesthetics via which Fahd’s subjects lay a collective claim on visibility. The opposite of social media selfies that work in the service of microcelebrity, Fahd’s portraits profile the social field itself, the temporal ground against which we come in and out of figuration as agents of feeling and subjects of change.
Although they invite unbidden empathetic response in the viewer, the video portraits do not point to a singular story or identity. Experienced as a series, they suggest instead the commonality of gendered personhood as a conduit for experiences that feel personal but are most meaningful to the degree that they are shared by others who remain unknown to us. This principle of impersonality is the basis for sociality beyond the family. After all, it is what keeps us open to others in the first place.
Acknowledgements The first six paragraphs of this piece are taken from “Mother Courage,” a longer essay about our mothers moving to aged care that first appeared in the Sydney Review of Books. Thanks to Cherine Fahd for inviting us to revisit our initial observations of her photographic practice in the context of the completed series of video-portraits.