Culture | A case for the selfless selfie

Exhibit surprises with unexpected take on social media trend

Every muscle is tensed to create a perfectly formed pout. Her head is cocked slightly to one side to reveal her excellent cheekbone structure, her arms outstretched to highlight her slender figure.

It is the face of Kim Kardashian on the cover of her book Selfish, a compilation of selfies taken by the celebrity from 2007 to 2015. It is easy to mock and dismiss Kardashian’s book as the embodiment of narcissism and vanity, but the content of Selfish may not be as vacuous as one might assume.

“Selfie,” a group exhibition of thirteen artists of Iranian descent on display at the Maison d’Édition Ketabe Iran Canada (MEKIC) gallery, explores the role of the selfie in modern life using a variety of different mediums to challenge the attitudes surrounding this modern phenomenon.

Local artist Nima Emrani connects ideas about representations of the self in technology with how the self is perceived in nature. Emrani’s drawing depicts a large fish swimming in a pond whose eyes reflect the artist’s face. The drawing is meta-referential and therefore a crucial part of its commentary exists in its own self-awareness. Emrani demonstrates a freeing of the self from the confines of technological scrutiny by asserting control over his depiction in the eye of the fish.

“I want to be liked. I want to be shared, I want to be tagged, and I want to be commented on. The selfie is a way of finding importance in the world, but anything done in extremes is unhealthy” Afshar said in an interview with The Daily.

Just as Emrani controls the way he is depicted and shown to society in his piece, the act of selfie-taking gives an individual control over their own exposure. However, this image may be distorted, just as the fish eye distorts the image of the artist in the drawing, or as a fisheye lens can distort the photographic image captured in a selfie. The creation of a selfie, then, is an empowering process. Emrani’s work aligns the practice of selfie-taking with self-portraiture to illustrate this point.

In contrast, Nazanin Afshar picks up on this theme of distortion and criticizes the transient feeling of empowerment that the selfie produces in its creator. Two identically sized paintings, originally selfies by the artist, are placed alongside each other. A third canvas is hung to the right of these two paintings. It is an image of the artist’s bloodshot eye, but a circular mirror is transposed onto the canvas where the pupil should be. Viewers are forced to see themselves and confront the flaws in their naked image. The viewer is thus rendered powerless before the complete honesty of their own reflection, which stands in stark contrast with the two contrived images of the artist. Afshar approaches the selfie as an unsustainable tool for the expression of self-love by pointing to how it breaks down in the real world where flaws cannot be hidden.

“I want to be liked. I want to be shared, I want to be tagged, and I want to be commented on. The selfie is a way of finding importance in the world, but anything done in extremes is unhealthy,” Afshar said in an interview with The Daily.

Afshar’s piece speaks to the incapacitating effect of the selfie as the feeling of importance gained from taking selfies comes at an expense of defamiliarization with unfiltered depictions of the self.

On the whole, however, the artists featured in the exhibition seem to sympathize with the motivations that underlie the modern selfie. For many, the selfie serves as a storytelling device.

Artist Ronak Kordestani, for example, took photographs of herself for twenty-four days. At the end of this process, Kordestani used mixed media to etch out hidden emotions that were less obvious in the original photographs. “The appearing and disappearing patterns added to the image, projected my day-to-day emotions in a self-observatory process,” Kordestani told The Daily. In this sense, the artist’s self-reflection dictated the creation of the piece. The chronological layout of the selfies and the visually highlighted emotions Kordestani reveals help her to convey a narrative to the viewer.

“Selfie” creates a grey area between self-reflection and self-obsession, forcing viewers to re-evaluate how easily society dismisses the act. As explored by the artists, the symbolic potential of this modern mode of self-portraiture goes far beyond vanity and narcissism.

Inspired by the arguments made at “Selfie,” is it now possible to regard Kardashian’s Selfish as the manifesto of a movement to reinvent the modern self-portrait, and Kim as being at the helm of a shifting artistic narrative?

“Selfie” is on display in the MEKIC Gallery at 4438 rue de la Roche until July 14th.

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