(Un)covering gender roles

Donkey Skin exhibit unwraps feminine stereotypes through 1970s musical and film

Miya Turnbull’s nine paper-mâché masks unravel her facial features and present multiple representations of herself.
Miya Turnbull’s nine paper-mâché masks unravel her facial features and present multiple representations of herself.

For many, the ideas of “musical theatre” and “complex scrutiny of traditional female roles” don’t really fit together.

Musicals tend to offer female archetypes whose growth is limited to a burgeoning romance—hardly the kind of subject matter appropriate for a modern art show exploring the presentation and objectification of women. Yet Donkey Skin, the video installation exhibit being shown at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, tries to find deeper meaning in the structure of a musical fairy tale.

The exhibit’s concept, envisioned by the gallery’s artistic director Michael Davidge, is rooted in the 1970 Jacques Demy musical film Donkey Skin. The musical itself is an adaptation of a 17th-century fairy tale that tells the story of a princess—played by Demy muse Catherine Deneuve—who escapes being forced to marry her father by disguising herself in the hide of a donkey. A prince then falls in love with her and, of course, everyone lives happily ever after.

While this may seem to only offer a stereotypical female character and plot, the Donkey Skin artists have reclaimed the film to tell a different story through their video installations of four young female artists. Each artist focuses on the notion of women wearing some sort of skin to disguise what the gallery refers to as “the familiar or the unfamiliar.” This high-art concept lends ambiguity to the exhibit and makes it difficult to pin down meaning—perhaps intentionally, as it allows the pieces to speak more to a generalized feminism than to the specific ideas of the film. As you enter the gallery, located on the second floor of an innocuous stone building on Queen Street, the video projection by Farheen HaQ grabs your attention. Taking up the entire wall, “(un)covering” is an unflinching continuous shot of the artist first wrapping and then unwrapping herself in six metres of fabric.

At first the fabric seems to suggest a hijab, but as more layers are added the meaning shifts to suggest binding. But since HaQ stares impassively at the camera, her meaning isn’t completely clear and the viewer is left to reach his or her own conclusions, a feature not shared by each installation.

“Historiettes” and “Les Filles du Roi,” the videos of Chantal Rousseau, are shown on five white televisions lined up along a blank wall, each on a constant loop of striking black and white animation. Women and birds are depicted in situations—some are sexual, while other scenes are more abstract. In one, a small bird dies, lies on its back, and then flies away. On each TV the scenes, and the characters within them, are doomed to repeat without resolution in what is the most sexualized and obtuse of the exhibits.

Though the videos are eye catching, the meaning and relation to the Donkey Skin theme is difficult to pinpoint.

In contrast, Miya Turnbull literally presents multiple skins of herself, in the form of nine masks resembling a paper-mâché art project. Each is made up of the same features, rearranged to differentiate the expression of each face. The middle mask consists of a video projection of a moving face, which interestingly looks even more surreal than its still-life counterparts.

The final installation, “Bikini Project” by Heather Passmore, is a series of snapshots of women dressed mainly in bikinis presented like a personal slideshow. The pictures could be found objects, which gives them a sense of familiarity—you never know if a lost photo of a friend could come up next.

Passmore challenges the objectification of women by presenting objectified women within the context of the Donkey Skin exhibit, which is ultimately what the gallery strives for with the four artists’ works. This double-objectification toes a complex line, forcing viewers to confront these images as a way to subvert them. The over-arching subversion is abstract.

The exhibit culminates on Feb. 16 with a special screening of the film Donkey Skin, allowing viewers to look for deeper meaning or just enjoy a charming musical. In Donkey Skin, the exhibit, meaning is all in the eyes of the beholder.

Donkey Skin is on display at the Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre at 21A Queen Street until March 1.

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