Issue 155 Mary Blair Award Winning Piece
24 x 36 in.
Caroline Dejeneffe is an award-winning artist from Paris, France. She has widely exhibited her work and has been involved in festivals in Europe and North America, including at Fonderie Darling in Montréal; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Collect at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
See more of Caroline Dejeneffe’s photography, including "Rebirth",
Lance Fung’s Commentary
“Rebirth” teeters on the balance of beauty and ugliness. In one way it was almost difficult to look at, but that resistance results in a compelling desire that only reels me in deeper. The androgynous nature of the figure is only overshadowed by the profound sense of transformation that implied by the title. Initially, “Rebirth” reminded me of fellow curator Rob Storr’s ongoing interest with the grotesque. However, after much reflection, I am overcome with a sense of delight and hope. The implied lack of time and place with the sumptuous warm tones of the imagery provides a feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, the world may soon be willing to address humankind’s relationship with nature. One can hope that the next generation forces the world to follow through with the necessary vision. If this morphing of ideals and philosophy does not occur, then extinction is deserved. “Rebirth” allows me the time for reflection and consideration, which is what strong artwork should do—not merely decorate a wall.
in conversation with
MH: First and foremost, your self-portrait, “Rebirth,” is a stunning piece. It is very moving and I think a lot of people can relate to it—especially now. Can you talk about your inspiration for this specific piece?
CD: Thank you! “Rebirth” is one of the most recent pieces I created from a series that analyzes and explores my personal experiences during the pandemic. I went through hardship and was completely isolated. I remember one day I wasn’t feeling well and noticed that my arms were tightly wrapped around my body—I was giving myself a hug. The second I noticed that, I burst into tears. I realized how much my body was there for me; it was the friend, the partner, the family member I was longing for, giving me the love and comfort I desperately needed. When I used to think about my body, it was often to feel ashamed of something.
We don’t consider enough what our bodies do for us every single day. The human body is the most advanced machine there is. Let’s just take a minute to process this. We’re all walking around with this super advanced piece of technology that nobody fully understands, and all we worry about is a bunch of new white hair we grew on our heads in the past couple of months (joking, but not really). Our bodies are constantly healing and supporting us. The moment I realized this, it was a major breakthrough for me on a personal and professional level. I developed so much respect, compassion, and love for what my body is and for what it does for me. I felt like I was seeing myself differently, my body differently.
That’s how “Rebirth” was created. Like many aspects of life, rebirth is a process that unites polarities of the mind and body. Strength and vulnerability. Stability and flexibility. Suffering and relief. I used feathers and the naked body to illustrate vulnerability. The shell that protects them represents our body's strength and resilience. This work was also a reminder to take our time. Rebalance, rebuilding, and rebirth take time, and we should appreciate this as much as the experiences that shape our identities.
MH: All the photographs in this series are self-portraits; can you talk about what it’s like to be the photographer and the subject for your work? Why self-portraiture?
CD: I’ve always been interested in questions related to the human experience. Before the pandemic I was working specifically on how our experiences shape us individually and collectively, and define the relationships we build with each other. We’re so different from one another physically, of course, but we also have different cultural upbringings, different beliefs, different tastes. On the other hand, we’re similar in so many ways: we all know what fear, pain, and love feel like. Our bodies function the same way, and we’re all humans. My work gravitates between these two concepts., trying to understand where individuality begins and where the collective ends.
But since the pandemic started, I had nowhere to look for inspiration. Society became nonexistent for a while, so I had nobody to analyze but myself. I suddenly became the starting point in my practice, which was something really new for me. I started to look at my personal emotions and how I experience being human. For that, I had to use my body, and that’s how self-portraiture took its place in my practice. I couldn’t hide behind anything anymore; I wanted to see and show my body’s emotions, struggles, and evolution during difficult times. And photography of the naked body does just that: it catches the essence of the person better than anything else.
MH: I know that you work with other media as well—paintings, sculptures, installations. Can you talk about your multimedia journey? Do you stay with one medium for a while and then switch? Do you have a favorite media to work with? When starting a piece, do you conceptualize first or decide on what medium to use first?
CD: During my schooling, I learned to play with a lot of different mediums and techniques. I don’t stay with one media like most artists do, but I do keep working on the same subject over and over again: the human experience. The human body is always at the center of my work, whether in the form of an immersive installation, part of the “action painting” process, or as the main subject of the piece. I’m fascinated by what it means to be human. We are multifaceted beings. I use the techniques and materials that support the message I am working on—as Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.’’
Photography is a fairly new media in my practice. While searching for the best way to express my body’s distress, I felt like I had to use photography. It’s probably the easiest media to use for me, I think—I only need a camera and a computer—but I somehow need other medias in order to feel fulfilled, creatively speaking. I need to touch and build things, and also move my body and interact with the space around me in my practice as well, which is another part of what being human is.
I work in a few different ways. Sometimes I have dreams or visions that I try to reproduce as much as possible, only understanding what the mean to me while looking at the final work. Sometimes I have a message I really want to work on and I create something around that. And other times, the media leads the way.
MH: As I scrolled through your Instagram page, I enjoyed reading your microdiscussions on polarity, spirituality, and other human experiences. How do these topics play into your self-portraiture? Are there other topics or subjects that you would like to illuminate as a driving force to create the work that you do?
CD: Being human is really something that fascinates me. We’re so complex, and both science and spirituality together can’t even understand half of it. Through my work, I try to understand parts of what it is to be human. And if I don’t fully grasp the extent of it all, I at least ask questions, describe different states of being or analyze patterns.
Self-portraiture allows me to look at questions centering around the self rather than humanity at large, like I used to before. And I can definitely say that COVID-19 and the whole pandemic have been the cheapest and most potent therapy I ever did. Even though you wouldn’t want to go through trauma again, you’re somewhat glad you did because you grew so much. I believe that’s ultimately what life is about: a collection of different experiences which all lead to the same place: helping you understand all that you are in all your singularities. That’s what I love exploring through my work.
MH: What was your reaction when you discovered that you won the Mary Blair Award for Art?
CD: I was really happy to be selected. To me, being an artist isn’t about what a piece looks like, but about the message it carries. I know this series is about my personal experience, but a lot of people experienced the same things I went through. And at times, knowing that I wasn’t the only one was the only thing that made me feel better. I feel grateful to be able to share my vision, but I also feel a strong sense of community knowing that we are all in this together.
This series reflect pains, fears, and questions. It shows what is to be human and the processes of self-realization, of rebuilding ourselves, of becoming stronger, wiser, and more loving and resilient. We became better humans because of it. Let’s celebrate that together.
MH: Would you like to plug any upcoming shows or creative endeavors that will take place in 2022?
CD: This year has been busy—I’ve been part of eight exhibitions between the US and Europe so far. I’m also working on exciting new projects, including a new series that still uses the body as the main subject and photography as medium, with a mix of geometry in it.
The way we interact with the space around us and how that space helps us connect with each other on an emotional level is something that I’ve also been increasingly interested in, so I’m planning on working on more installation concepts in the next year.
This interview has been edited for length.