What is your identity? How do you see yourself? How do you appear to others?
People can change their identity through the clothes they wear. They can disguise or mask who they are, or take on a different look or character. Trans people often reassign the gender they were assigned at birth in order that their bodies identify with the gender they identify with. They are becoming the person they have always felt they were inside. Moving to another country and having to take on and adapt to a different culture and lifestyle can also impact on personal identity.
National identity is another aspect of identity that changes through history or in response to political events.
As well as people, objects have an identity. This can change depending on how the object is seen and used.
It's important to remember that some artists explore and adopt new identities from a position of privilege, freely exploring new ways of expressing themselves. Others make art because of their often marginalised and unconventional identities.
Looks and characters
Do you have what you think of as ‘your look’? Have you ever changed your look? Sometimes just having a different hairstyle, or wearing clothes you do not normally wear can make you feel like a different person.
In You Stole My Look artist Georgina Starr playfully explores the idea that people have a personal look and attach a significance to this look. The print was originally made as a mock advertisement that appears in Starvision, a comic book produced by the artist in 1997. It depicts the Starr in the different outfits she wore when making the comic. The uneven arrangement of images along with its handwritten labels and bright colours, recall teen magazines or perhaps homemade publications or zines.
Artists Gillian Wearing and Cindy Sherman also use portraits and self-portraits to explore identity. But instead of documenting their own look, they take on other people’s looks. By dressing up and posing as other people, they create a changed identity.
Wearing’s photographs explore how the public and private identities of ordinary people are self-made and documented. For her series Album 2003, Wearing reconstructed old family snapshots. In this photograph she wears a dress and hairstyle her sister wore in the 1980s. With the help of experts at Madame Tussauds she also fabricated a silicone masks of her sister’s face. By putting a version of someone else’s face on hers she is metaphorically ‘seizing’ their identity. The only bits of Wearing that can be seen are her eyes and teeth.
Transforming herself into other people is central to Cindy Sherman’s work.
In college I began to collect a lot of discarded accoutrements from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, more for my own personal wardrobe as well as for the sheer fascination with what those garments stood for. It was easy and cheap to collect all kinds of things in those days. I’ve always played with make-up to transform myself …
Untitled D is from a series of photographs where Sherman radically alters her appearance using make-up, hairstyles, hats and different facial expressions. She has explained, ‘I made [them] to show the process of turning one character into another'.
Cindy Sherman's Bus Riders 1976/2000 are a series of photographs that feature the artist as a variety of closely observed characters. Sherman uses elaborate costumes and make up to transform her identity for each image.
By changing their appearance, artists Gillian wearing and Cindy Sherman put on a type of mask. Their hair, makeup and clothes masked their appearance.
Masks have been used for thousands of years to hide or transform a person’s appearance. In Ancient Greek theatre masks were worn to effectively change the character of the actor. In African ritual, masks are worn to replace the identity of the wearer with a spiritual being. Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi includes African masks alongside Arabic calligraphy in his painting such as They Always Appear 1964. In combining these motifs he suggest the dual cultural influences within his country.
Roles and stereotypes
Cindy Sherman, along with other artists, has also used her changed appearance to comment on wider issues in society.
In Untitled Film Stills Sherman photographs herself as fictitious female characters in scenes that look like moments in a film. She masquerades in conventional female cinema roles such as the lover or the young housewife. By doing this she draws attention to the way that Hollywood cinema has contributed to stereotypes about women.
Nigerian photographer Samuel Fosso also documents himself adopting a range of different personas to explore stereotypes. Transforming his identity using clothing, props and posture he presents himself as a range of ‘male types’ from macho to sensitive and vulnerable.
Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT explores the limits imposed on the individual based on their gender. For her Identity Transfer photographs she stands with her legs slightly apart and her hands on her hips looking confidently at the camera. The pose is very different from the way women are normally photographed in the media and contrasts with her hairstyle and make-up. In these works she is playing with the codes through which gender identity is traditionally conveyed.
Scottish artist Rachel Maclean also changed her identity to comment on society. In her video works she parodies social media, beauty-product advertising, children’s television and pop culture. At once seductive and nightmarish, glossy and grotesque, her films criticise our dependence on technology and obsession with shopping. Maclean plays all the parts herself, changing her identity by wearing extravagant costumes and make-up.
Watch a clip from Rachel Maclean’s film Its What’s Inside that Counts and see society like you’ve never seen it before!
Gender and sexuality
VALIE EXPORT, Cindy Sherman and Samuel Fosso transformed their identities in self-portraits to investigate gender roles and stereotypes. Other artists have used portraiture and self-portraiture to explore more personal aspects of gender.
Grayson Perry decorates his ceramic vases and pots with illustrations that address issues of identity, class, sexuality and gender. Perry often dresses as a woman, changing his identity from Grayson Perry into ‘Claire’ his female alter ego. In Aspects of Myself he depicts himself as Claire.
Nan Goldin’s powerful photographs document the lives of her friends. She created a series of intimate portraits of her drag-queen and friends working in drag-performance .
In her photographs Zanele Muholi focuses on the difficulties lesbians and transgender people face in Africa. She also sees her work as challenging the way the black female body has been presented historically in art. ID Crisis 2003 shows a young woman standing in a gloomy room carefully wrapping bandages around her breasts in an attempt to disguise her anatomy, as light streams in from an adjacent window.
Your personal identity – who you are – is affected by lots of things. Where you were born and grew up and the culture of that place has a huge impact on your identity. What happens if you move to a different place and culture? As well as exploring identity in relation to gender, art can be a powerful tool for exploring how identity changes when you move from one culture to another.
Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby was born in Nigeria and lived there until she was sixteen. In 1999 she moved to the United States. Her cultural identity combines strong attachments to the country of her birth and to her adopted home. In her layered compositions she explores this changed hybrid identity.
Like Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Sonia Boyce uses layers of imagery and ideas to explore her sense of self. Boyce is a black British artist. In From Tarzan to Rambo … she looks at the images and roles of black people as presented in predominantly white-controlled film and media. These impose a whole other identity on her sense of self. The work explores the complex interweaving of black history with classic Hollywood narratives and other mass cultural forms.
Zineb Sedira lives in London but was born in Paris. Her parents are Algerian. Mother Tongue 2002 explores migration and her family's cultural identity. In the video her daughter, born in Britain and speaking English, tries to communicate with her Algerian grandmother, who speaks Arabic. Grandmother and daughter are reliant on Sedira, who speaks Arabic, French and English, to communicate.
Artist Yinka Shonibare describes himself as ‘a postcolonial hybrid’. He was born in London and grew up in the UK and Nigeria.
The African fabrics he uses have a complex history. The batik printing technique used to make them was originally Indonesian. It was then appropriated by the Dutch during the colonial period. English manufacturers later copied the Dutch production model using designs derived from traditional African textiles. The fabrics were manufactured in Manchester using a predominantly Asian workforce. They were then exported to West Africa. The fabrics became popular during the African independence movement. Their bright colours and geometric patterns were associated with the struggle for political and cultural independence.
So far in this exam help resource we have explored various aspects of personal identity and how these can change. National identity is another type of identity. This is how a nation sees itself and how it is seen by others. History, culture, characteristics and values can all affect national identity.
Jason Evans used the idea of different identities to explore national identity. Strictly is a series of portrait photographs showing young black men dressed in the clothing generally associated with English country gentlemen. The photographs were made in collaboration with fashion stylist Simon Foxton. Evans and Foxton were inspired by the diverse street style worn by people of colour in Britain and decided to turn the traditional idea of British identity on its head.
Strictly was a weird mixture of macho clothes and quite effeminate clothes. Sportswear-based but classical English things, turned around. The syntax of clothes was completely upside down, and then, worn by black people, it was a new vision of Britain. We were trying to break down stereotypes.
Palm Sign is a large painted metal sculpture of a palm tree, illuminated with coloured light bulbs. It has the run-down look of a decaying beach sign in a tired holiday resort.
The work symbolises Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s concerns about the changing identity of her country. Palm trees are often used in marketing campaigns to promote Morocco as a holiday destination. Yto Barrada uses this decaying palm tree to represent her fears about the rapid development of Morocco as a tourist destination. She worries about what huge hotel complexes and golfing resorts will do the fragile eco-system of the country.
Antonio Caro changes the Colombian national flag to comment on what he saw as the altered identity of his country. He has added the name of the country to the flag using the calligraphy of the Coca-Cola logo. With this graphic play, he criticises the intrusion of American commercialism and how this has affected his country.