In Erica Deeman’s new body of work, “Familiar Stranger,” the familiar stranger is herself. The photographer is exhibiting 15 new works — all self-portraits — for her second solo show with San Francisco gallery Anthony Meier Fine Arts. But while she’s shown her previous portraiture using a more traditional format for photography — prints — Deeman has transformed her self-portraits into sculptures, rendered in Cassius Obsidian clay through 3-D-printed molds.
The San Francisco-based, British artist took the self-portraits for “Familiar Stranger” while in residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, Calif., last summer. The physical landscape had a lasting impact. “That proximity to the land inspired me and grounded me, and provided this source of reflection,” she says of her starting place for “Familiar Stranger.”
Her previous bodies of work, created after she moved to the Bay Area from the U.K., have been collaborative and rooted in community and a sense of belonging. Her first show with Anthony Meier, “Brown,” featured portraits of Black men set against a backdrop of Deeman’s own skin tone. “A lot of my work is about seeing and being seen, whether that’s a collective or individuals. I’ve been tracing myself through the work during that whole process. Thinking about this new body of work, I really wanted to turn the camera on myself,” she says. “I felt it was the right time to see myself and see who I’ve become — and in many ways, who I’ve always been.”
The show’s title, “Familiar Stranger,” was inspired by Jamaican-British sociologist Stuart Hall’s autobiography “Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands.” In his work, Hall presents a non-fixed and fluid approach to identity. His ideas also relate to Deeman’s previous work in thinking about the power of movement, and specifically how the Black diaspora has shaped expectations and portrayals of identity.
In tandem with her investigation of self through portrait, Deeman turned her attention to exploring the ways in which a photograph can also be transformed. “This image that I’m making of myself — does it have to conform to what we think a photograph is?” she says.
Using 3-D printing software, Deeman created molds from her black-and-white portraits to cast the images into Californian Cassius Obsidian clay. Deeman’s choice of material also speaks to her exploration of place, belonging, and ability to transform. Deeman relates this aspect back to ideas of Black permanence and cultural belonging. Although clay can be molded, once cast and fired it presents permanence — certainly in relation to paper, where most of her photographs have existed.
There’s an intimacy to the small-scale topographic works. Deeman liked the personal quality of the works, and initially thought about a presentation that would let people hold the 3-D-printed pieces. In tandem with working on the pieces that would become “Familiar Stranger,” Deeman was commissioned to photograph artifacts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture for The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Working on that project prompted her to reflect on the notion of access and ownership, leading her to present the “Familiar Stranger” works inside of frames.
Although her initial photographs of herself have been transformed, the sculptures retain an uncanny photographic identity. Deeman is aware that there is a universality — and thus power — to the language of cameras and photographic images, and is excited to continue pushing the medium’s potential. “This whole process has taught me that there’s something exciting in exploring outside the camera and the paper,” she says.
These past few months Deeman has also been reflecting on the idea of movement and becoming as it relates to the current social unrest. The role of collaboration and community is more important than ever.
“The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many other people, naturally as a Black person, as a Black woman, there’s been so many things going through my mind during this time,” she says. “And some of that is definitely pushing me forward, making sure that my voice is heard, and that I am creating platforms for other Black creatives as well.”
There’s an optimism there, too. If people are unfixed and moldable, then it’s never too late for change to take shape.
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