A Brief Conversation With Stacey Tyrell
by Jean-Philippe Deneault
Philippe Deneault: What have been your most recent projects, or what have you been currently working on?
Stacey Tyrell: The most recent project that I’ve worked on for the past few years is my “Backra Bluid” series. My family is from the Caribbean, and in many parts of my family tree on both sides you will find people from Scotland, England and Ireland. Through self-portraiture, I wish to interpret and explore these distant relatives from both the past and present that I know exist. The majority of people in post-colonial societies are hybrids of its past and current inhabitants. With these images, I’m trying to pick apart certain ideas about race, identity and heritage. By simply changing my skin color and making very subtle tweaks to my own features, I wish to show that if someone were to take a closer look at my face, they would see that it might not be that much different from their own.
Currently, I’m making work that is taking a closer look at the mechanisms of historical conquest in the “New World,” particularly its symbols and systems; in particular, the use of women as allegories by colonizing nations (Britannia, Marie Ann, the Dutch Maiden) and how that correlates to the nature of conquest itself; also, the Spanish Requirement of 1513 which was a declaration that was read to native populations on behalf of the Spanish monarchy explaining their divine right to take possession of territories and exploit and exterminate its people. It’s fascinating to me that such documents were created in order to justify Spain’s activities and read to a people who had no way of fully understanding what was being said to them.
How does “Backra Bluid” differ from or is broadly similar to your two former series “The Great White Hope” and “Chattel”?
The “Backra Bluid” series was a departure from my previous work because I had never thought to use self-portraiture as a tool in my art practice. It was a new way of working that took me a while to figure out (especially from a logistical standpoint) because in the past with other series, I had been used to shooting still life images, (The Great White Hope) and landscape images (Chattel). Once I had figured out a way of photographing that worked for me, I found it quite freeing to be able to use myself as a means to create an image.
What is the most thought-provoking thing that you heard someone say about your work?
I wouldn’t say that there was one thing that someone said but more what they had asked me. I was asked how I felt this latest project in particular had changed me, and I was truly stumped. I guess I was used to looking at my practice in a very linear way, where I start by having the desire to express an idea, and then create images with the hopes of it being viewed by an audience—but I never saw it as a reciprocal interaction. My work on some level generally has selfish origins, because I use it as a form of catharsis.
All of your series make powerful statements with respect to race, representation, heritage, diversity, etc. What do you feel or hope has been the impact of your work so far?
I hope that by talking about these topics in an open way I can make even a small contribution to a greater conversation that I feel needs to be had about race and representation. The characters in my images are a way of trying to subvert and maybe even co-opt the white mainstream gaze that I feel that myself and every other non-white person is constantly under. Even with the supposed strides made in mainstream culture regarding beauty, privilege and opportunity in today’s society, all of us are viewed within a prevailing Caucasian frame of reference. Too often the term “black” is used to describe millions of people worldwide without consideration that within that category there is a rich tapestry of thousands of cultures, identities and genetic makeups that are interconnected with other races. I really wish to contribute to a greater discourse that I feel needs to open up surrounding the very loaded notion of racial identity. It’s a discussion that is uncomfortable for a lot of people regardless of what color they are, because it involves the acknowledgement of a very ugly important chapter in Western history that helped to create the wealth and society that we currently live in. The main hope with my work is to at least for a moment make someone reflect on the way in which they view others and themselves through the lens of their own identity.
What are your thoughts on Sonya Dyer’s 2007 seminal essay Boxed In?
I think that Dyer raises a lot of very valid points in that essay, and I feel that they can easily be applied within a Canadian context. While Canada has done a lot of work in terms of multiculturalism, one area that it lags behind greatly is in its representations of artists of colour on a national level, especially in its art institutions. The artists and the talent are out there, but for some reason there seems to be a real disconnect with the opportunities that are afforded. I think some of it boils down to the prevalence of certain biases and misconceptions that get attached to the ideas behind the work and its overall quality (made by non-white artists) and how it would engage with a wider audience. There is still a tendency to pigeonhole artists into certain categories where their work is only really suitable at certain times of year (ie. Black History Month) or to include their work simply for the sake of appearing diverse, instead of on the true merits of its overall contribution to a contemporary discourse.
Are there particular photographic self-portrait artists that are an inspiration to you?
There are many artists’ images that I enjoy, but in particular, I would say that the images of Nikki Lee, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson have had the greatest impact on myself in terms of how I approach my self-portrait work.
The work of both Cindy Sherman (the “Film Still” series) and Nikki Lee (“Projects 1997-2001”) are intriguing to me because of the complete immersion and dedication needed in order to push the boundaries of portraiture and play with the viewer’s gaze. Both Carrie Mae Weems’ and Lorna Simpson’s work in general resonates with me, partially because both artists are African American, and partially because it deals with a lot of the themes found in my own work, particularly those of cultural identity, class and race.
What are your thoughts on selfies and selfie culture?
Believe it or not, I’m a little confused by it. It may be because of my age, but I don’t understand the need to obsessively photograph oneself and post it on social media. Everyday I see people walking around constantly taking photos of themselves in the most mundane environments. I think for some it fills a need for self or peer validation, and for others it functions as some sort of solid proof (for what it’s worth in a digital age) of their own actual existence. In the past few years, we’ve become a society of extreme navel-gazers that may be missing out on a great part of the human experience by constantly wanting to put ourselves on display for consumption by others, as opposed to truly interacting with each other.
Are there topics you find particularly difficult to address in your art or just in general?
I think that I already work with topics (race in particular) that, up until recently, I found difficult to address because they can be very emotionally and politically loaded. I think I use them because it is a means for me to instigate a discussion about issues that I think are on the minds of people of all different backgrounds. The language that is used to discuss race in a Western context is fascinating because it stems from pseudo-scientific theories that were created and popular almost 200 years ago.
Jean-Philippe Deneault has held different positions within various artistic and cultural organizations such as Le Mois de la Photo, Vox Centre de l’image contemporaine, la Biennale de Montréal, the Canadian War Museum, and Library and Archives Canada. A resident of Saskatoon, he currently sits on the Editorial Committee of BlackFlash Magazine. He wishes to thank Jessica Hébert at Artexte in Montreal for her research assistance with this article.
This interview was originally featured in BlackFlash Issue 33.3.