Portraits of local women clad in costume or cosplay cover the walls of a modest art gallery lodged in an unassuming pocket of Little Haiti. Not merely a foreshadowing of Halloween, the opening of the Iris PhotoCollective ArtSpace’s new photography exhibit, “Dressed,” reveals there’s more behind the persona of each subject than meets the eye.
With "Dressed," on view through November 23, photojournalist C.W. Griffin, photographer Johnny Acero, and creative director Anna Zilberberg aim to challenge the viewer's perception of identity and self-expression by employing costumes and symbolism to expose their subjects' authentic selves and examine the cultural norms surrounding wardrobe and acceptance.
“Every time we get up to put clothes on, we make a decision as to what we want to look like and the image we’re trying to portray,” Griffin says. “Whether we’re dressing up for a special occasion or a holiday or a festival or a religious activity, we have to make those decisions: What am I going to wear? What am I going to look like?”
Shrouded in masks, dramatic makeup, or eerie getups, each of Griffin’s unabashed subjects is captured on occasions that allowed them to show up dressed in ways they normally don't dress. He began by approaching people wearing creative costumes on Halloween in Wynwood two years ago and eventually infiltrated other festive spaces, including a Renaissance festival and gay pride parades. Each person seems to be flaunting their enigma through expression — from the sly smirk of a woman posed like Pennywise the clown to the prideful gaze of two women wearing identical military uniform-like costumes while holding hands.
“What you choose to disguise your face and your identity tells more about who you are than what you think,” exhibit curator Carl-Philippe Juste says. “With getting dressed sometimes, there’s a sense of control in a world where we can’t control.”
Juste, who came up with the exhibit's title, says it takes courage for people to fend off the physical expectation of their personhood.
That same bravery informed the alter egos of the subjects of Nomads, a subset of “Dressed” that hangs alongside Griffin’s photos.
For Nomads, Acero asked acquaintances to choose a personality they wanted to be reimagined as. “We didn’t just want a portrait of them, so we let them decide or bring back their alter ego," Acero says. He explains that the idea came from the late Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian author "who says every man has three lives: public, private, and secret.”
Persuading the women to warm up to their most vulnerable version of themselves wasn’t easy. Zilberberg and Acero transformed an ESPN broadcast journalist into a bruised boxer. Other corporate women emerge as blood-stained warriors or passionate activists.
“We used limited props to make people comfortable and to enhance their emotions, not mask their emotions,” Zilberberg says. “The whole point is to show what is projecting from inside that person.”
The underbelly of each woman’s identity emerges in the details: the embrace of a child, the cultural reckoning of a tear-soaked smile, the choice to embody a cultural hero like Frida Kahlo. The artists encouraged the women to tap into the double consciousness of being “othered” in America.
“We started out doing each shoot for two hours but would end up immersing ourselves in the shoot for about four to five hours,” Zilberberg elaborates. “It was kind of a social and artistic project. There were many aspects to it.”
The title is a nod to the role a person’s ensemble plays in their daily routine. What we wear signals our class status, culture, and career, but rarely does it leave room for us to relay our stories.
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“Each image speaks to a truth. If it's to immigration, if it’s to women’s empowerment, if it’s to capitalism or gay rights, it’s all on the wall,” Juste says. “It’s a sense of heritage and pride. And that cannot be solely depicted by naked skin. Sometimes you have to dress it up a little.”
Zilberberg, who poses as a ballerina in one of the photos, reports that after the project, many of their subjects felt newly empowered to pursue a passion.
“Society molds us in the direction it wants us to go,” Griffin notes. “There will be some who follow that street, and then there’s some who will revolt. This is one of the arenas where you have the choice. It’s always a choice.”
"Dressed." Through November 23 at IPC ArtSpace, 225 NE 59th St., Miami; 305-796-4718; irisphotocollective.com. Call for gallery hours.