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On anna sherbany – Masquerading “The Self”

Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories, but, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation…. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity…identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past

anna sherbany’s work explores history, narrative and the making of identity. It is through the negotiations of the performative self that the formation of subjectivity is constituted. From the early work that interrogates the masquerade of self and the performance of gender through to the questioning of cultural identity, the nature of ‘home’ and exile, sherbany has developed an oeuvre that across its entire output makes and remakes the ‘self’.

Un-naked an early piece, made circa 1976 is an installation that consists of black and white photographs, all double portraits, all life-size and a mirror. There are nine in the series; five of them of men and four of women and the mirror is, of course, to implicate the viewer. The photographs are carefully composed, referencing painting in the use of compositional devices for placing the body in space.  For example one image is of a young man standing in front of a music stand by a window, playing the flute, the composition reminiscent of Vermeer in the arrangement of furniture and window around the body. The contrast of the clothed/unclothed body in this idyllic space of art history begs the question of public and private, or in other words what you reveal and what you conceal. What do we understand when we look at this, male body? The importance of presenting the male body in 1976 amid the discussions of the male gaze upon the female body cannot be overstated. , The young man is standing in the middle distance from the viewers gaze, ready to be contained, as do all the figures in this series, since none of the figures in this piece look out at the viewer. Another image, of a male body lying on a bed on his side, in front of what looks like the backs of paintings gives an even more direct reference to the history of the practice of painting in the studio. This pose is a classic nude pose identifiable in countless paintings throughout the centuries, generally this a female pose, of the woman as muse; but this time it is a man subjecting himself passively to the viewer.  Does a naked body reveal any more than the clothed body? Lurking underneath the suppositions of this photograph are notions of Essence, since debunked: however a slight shift in perspective across the repetition of the image exposes the impossibility of containing the moment. The same can be said of all the images where the moment captured gives way to a different moment, posing as the same. The power of this work lies in the paradox between the composed orchestration that both invites and repels scrutiny of the subject. This man, subject to my gaze is not the same man in the two photographs – and it is not just the clothing and unclothing that makes the difference. The pose is staged and restaged in a narrative sequence that sets up a sense of double take.  In the double take is a shift in time and space, so slight as to be almost imperceptible -but it is there.  It is this slight shift that renders the body opaque and therefore not Essential in the reading and renders the self as manifold.

Women and Dreams (1988) is a series of images of women who have revisited a past in order to ‘reposition’ themselves through their desire to be another. This is a playful piece, inviting women to give life to their daydreams. To imagine a different self and therefore give rise to possibilities. It is important that they are women – an expectation when approaching such a series of images could be of a kind of universal otherness of women, pushed into the bland domesticity of wife and motherhood that posits work as the world of men alone. There is more to this work, however.  The images are photographs, and hand painted, mimicking photos from the early 20th Century. The photographs are faded around the edges of the image further adding to the sense of early photography but also lending a certain kitsch sensibility. The whole work is thus constructed to reference the passage of time and wistful moments, long past.  The images are each of a woman supposing they could be ‘someone else’, dressed up as that other person she might have liked to have been, for example, one is a woman standing beside an aeroplane in goggles and helmet, another is with the pads, gloves and bat of a cricketer posing in front of a wicket, yet another is sitting at a desk with a beret in a silhouetted profile parading as a member of the French resistance during World War II, another is of a woman sitting in a Cadillac. The motivating suggestion in this work is how women limit themselves, this is further revealed through a hidden discourse running through this piece – of class, and how class binds us to expectation as much as gender . Each of these photographs can be taken at face value until you encounter the ‘Blonde Bombshell’: the dream of the sherbany herself.  This image in the series disrupts the understanding of the image   from early discourses of modern feminism and to some extent is the key to the complexity of the work. Not only because the women are all already professional women in their own right (such as Biochemist, Artist, Lecturer, Accountant) but because of the ‘Blonde Bombshell’ is just such the one you don’t expect within the framework of orthodox Feminist desire.  In this way the piece straddles two orthodoxies and two debates on identity – of gender and race. race (and arguably three debates if you include class).  Although each photograph, through the subject, is posing questions, through a kind of negative dialectic, of  “who am I? What could I have done? Who could I have been? What could I still do?” The impossibility of the Blond Bombshell (it is clear she would never have been a ‘true’ blonde nor could ever be so), begs the question of the possibilities of the other ‘selves’ as posited in this series and gestures towards a fatalism of identity. However, the self-conscious staging of stereotype and pose in the images asks about the nature of the ‘real’ self in photography, in this way Women and Dreams draws from Cindy Sherman, but rather than the endless replaying of “self” in Shermans work, each of Sherbany’s subjects gets only one chance; one other self.  In the ‘playing’ therefore, is a loss, a loss of this particular self in relation to that choice of other self that was made: there is no going back . As we are made in specific circumstances of time and place, could these other selves ever have really existed? Or are they fixed within a chimera of self.  As Hall continues,

The past continues to speak to us.  But it no longer addresses a simple, factual past, since our relation to it, like the child’s relation to the mother, is always-already  ‘after the break’. It is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth.


I am a woman, a Jewish Woman, an Arabic -Jewish Woman, an Immigrant Arabic -Jewish Woman, an Israeli-born-Immigrant--Arabic -Jewish Woman, an Israeli-born-Immigrant-Arabic -Jewish Woman Artist.

Although sherbany has explored identity throughout her artistic practice, it is relatively recently that she has dealt specifically with the diasporic experience.

Possibly informed by the complexity of her identity as a Mizrachi Jew visible as black within a politics that can only see Black or Jewish, sherbany’s work picks its way through a continual redefining of public and private, visible and invisible, self and other. Each duality is unpacked and unpicked through a restaging of the binary and a staging of disruption .

Narrative and myth as described by Hall above is being employed in sherbany’s series Divided Selves (2002), although with different emphasis to Women and Dreams. Divided Selves comprises four separate photographs of women.  The women are posed, through the classic ‘evidential’ trace of black and white print, of “mugshots”, that is, head and shoulder, profile and full face next to each other. In the profile the woman is presented as her ‘traditional “ethnic” self’, and in the full face, as her contemporary ‘mulitcultural’, girl-about-town self.  Each person is a friend of anna’s, engaging in the fiction of trying to imagine the impact of cultural otherness through choices of clothes and presentation, that invokes, in the mug shot, the ‘politics of positioning’ that Hall describes. In unpacking this piece I, the viewer am asked to think about the power relations of otherness through the scrutiny and judgement of the “mugshot”; a type of image that invokes the prisoner. In doing so, it also invokes the seminal work by Hall about the representation of Blackness where he first maps out the way in which young black males were (and, I would argue continue to be) positioned as criminals through the media .  And yet the image itself does not reveal this difference.  Sherbany’s choice to represent the women emerging out of the darkness renders the difference between the two selves in each image unclear (and maybe this is the point?) and I am goaded, by the binary set-up, into looking for evidence of difference. 

While we (literally, as I partook in this project) the subjects engaged in the fantasy of imagining what we would look like as our “traditional” selves, and the viewer is complicit in looking for difference, the images themselves reveal that difference is not always situated in the visual and that who we think we are is not always who we are seen to be.

…the European presence is that which, in visual representation has positioned the black subject within its dominant regimes of representation: the colonial discourse, the literatures of adventure and exploration, the romance of the exotic the ethnographic, and travelling  eye…

Occupation of Space is a recent video installation piece that exists as a projection onto a mattress in a darkened room of a woman sleeping in her bed, There are other films of sleeping people, most famously Andy Warhol: sherbany’s piece is an installation that references very different debates .

As with much of sherbany’s work there is a preoccupation with the public and private: in this case it is the paradox of a deeply private activity placed in a public arena. The viewer looks down at a woman sleeping, the woman is the artist. Her skin is posited as dark against the whiteness of the sheets. This body is not overtly sexualised but reference the taxonomy of black skin Only her head, neck and arms are visible, the rest of her body is revealed only by the contours of the sheet.  There is a stillness to her sleeping that every now and again is disturbed by a movement. The stillness and slowness heightens the aesthetic import of the piece, contemplating the beauty of cloth, the sheets, in all their folds and finery.  There is a painterly quality to this image of bedding shimmering through the projection that offers the opportunity to consider the history of painting. In that consideration lays the critiques of virtuosity and of painting as a medium itself as well as that of the body, women and otherness.

She is sleeping alone and self-absorbed in the sleeping of course. Reminiscent of paintings like Gaugin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching, (1892) of a black female lying naked on a bed, to be enjoyed by the gaze of the viewer, the black body lying in this bed reminds us of the ‘positioning’ of the black female in relation to the viewer, not just metaphorically but also literally, by putting her on the floor, easily subject to and consumed by the viewers gaze. How can the viewer not subject this body to a sexualised scrutiny? And yet with the sudden turns and twists in sleep, uncontrollable and uncontrolled, the movement after so long is a surprise.  It is this surprise element, subtle that it is, that contributes to the disruption of looking and containment.  This is a conflicted piece, problematic but compelling – it consciously uses the visual language that is the “problem” in order to subvert the usual readings of art and the Other. One of the most important contributions that this piece makes and what marks it out is the way it implicates the viewer through forcing him/her to consciously take part in precisely what it critiques.


Without relations of difference no representation could occur.  But what is then constituted within representaion is always open to being deferred, staggered, seriealised.

Meaning continues to unfold, so to speak, beyond the arbitrary closure, which makes it, at any moments, possible. It is always either over- or under-determined, either an excess or a supplement. There is always something left over.

I end where I began, with Stuart Hall and his much vaunted essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ .  In reading sherbanys work through Hall, I am reminded of the continuing importance and legacy of his ideas. sherbany’s work however is not merely an example of re-iteration.  Her work allows for the supplementarity of the visual to insert doubt and uncertainty in to the reading of the pieces.  Furthermore, whereas Hall sites his arguments within the specifics of the Caribbean and a particular post-colonial experience. In sherbany’s work the accumulation of devices and effects that her works explore, locates difference across a broader remit of complex othering.  Thus in an age of renewed division through simplistic and cynical demonisations this work takes on a new  urgency.


Dr. Rachel Garfield 2005

Hall, Stuart, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, Rutherford, Jonathan (ed.), Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence & Wishart, 1994, p. 225

Let us not forget that identity in the visual arts and was, at that time mainly centred around the Feminist debates. Photography  as a Fine Art practice was in its infancy  in Britain, as were practices exploring the conditions of diasporic identities through Fine Art.  For an important and interesting thesis on this: Bloom, Lisa Ethnic Notions and Feminist Strategies of the 1970s : Some Work by Judy Chicago and Eleanor Antin’, Souslouff, Catherine, M (ed.), Jewish Identity in Modern Art History,  University of California Press, 1999, pp. 135-163

This could be as much to do with expectations to be a doctor, as expectations to be a housewife (as was woman described to me as working class, who rode in the Cadillac). Furthermore, from a class perspective, men also are limited/limit themselves through their interpellation as working class, but there is not the scope in this article to explore these complexities.

I would like to make a distinction here between the reading of the work and real life:  The artist has told me that some of the women did, in fact, carry out their desires to ride in a Cadillac, or be a trapeze artist, or own a restaurant.

ibid. p. 226

Sherbany, Anna, ‘Joined-up Politics’, Mit dem Konflikt Leben -Berichte und Analysen von Linken aus Israel und Palästina who was the publisher/what date and page

ibid. taken from footnote 2, “Mizrachi – Hebrew for Eastern – the term Mizrachim(plural) refers to Oriental Jews such as those from Yemen, Iraq, Persia, Egypt etc”

Not all of Sherbany’s work uses the binary model but I am particularly interested in this motif in her work: a motif that she returns to often.

Hall, Stuart, Policing the Crises: Mugging, The State, And Law And Order, Macmillan, London, 1978

Hall, Stuart, op cit, p. 233

Andy Warlhol, Sleep, 1963; also Sam Taylor Wood, David, 2004

Hall, op. cit. p. 229

Hall, op. cit. p.230

Hall, op cit, pp. 222-237