'How Far Back Is Home' Celebrates A Photographer Who's Come A Long Way.
By Margaret Regan
JULY 28, 1997: SANDRA SEMCHUK'S NEW show at the Center for Creative Photography, how far back home..., begins easily enough.
Black-and-white pictures that are closer to exalted family snapshots than art photography open the exhibition. They lovingly chart Semchuk's place within her family, and not so incidentally her connection to the land. There's her beloved father, Martin, and her Uncle Ed sitting on a couch on either side of her sweet grandmother, Baba, the two sons locking the lovely old woman in with their big bodies and uncompromising love. There's the photographer herself, staring glumly into Baba's bedroom mirror, on the day of the old woman's death. Her young face is disconsolate, but even without her grandmother, it's not alone: It's surrounded by a constellation of family pictures that the old woman had tucked into the mirror frame. And there's Baba's simple grave, marking out a piece of turf in the vastness of the Saskatchewan plains.
But these endearingly homely glimpses of one family's life, taken in the 1970s, are just the beginning of Semchuk's photographic journey into self and identity. She moves from these accessible images to searing self-portraiture, head-on pictures of herself that are almost confrontational in their honesty. One work, "Mute/Voice," is a wall of some 77 self-portraits arranged in a giant grid. Taken between 1976 and 1991, they starkly note the aging of Semchuk's own face, from its unlined version back in the 1970s to its 1990s incarnation, when her skin is creasing and her hair graying. These pictures are silent, offering no explanation for the series of black eyes on the young woman's face or for the face's grim intensity at every age. The "voice" comes in the 78th self-portrait, a talking-head videotape of a more gentle Semchuk. Here she speaks in a soft, almost chanting voice about her matrilineal line, from her grandmother down through her mother (Mom Josephine died on the job, polishing a silver plate) and herself, and on to her own daughter Rowenna, who once boldly commanded the waves to heel.
Then, departing this middle period of self-consciously feminist storytelling about women's lives, Semchuk heads into installation: big, room-sized works featuring photos, video, tapestry and text. These big pieces take on room-size themes, too, of aging and death, wilderness and culture, nationalism and self-determination. Semchuk's photographic technique here is a long way from the early, glorified snapshots. Now she splinters her coherent images into dozens of magnified close-ups.
She puts together a compelling portrait of her aged father, for instance, in part two of the big installation work "Old People, Animals and Indians," by shooting cinematic glimpses of his shoes, his hands, his sleeping face. These shots are organized into an irregular mosaic on the wall, and as your eye darts over them, you're reminded of the wandering eye of the movie camera. At the side are lengths of canvas, printed with the text of a conversation between father and daughter that's short but profound. "Death is a natural thing, sweetheart."
"I am going to miss you, Dad."
Semchuk, a Canadian photographer who studied at the University of New Mexico, now teaches at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver. (This traveling exhibition was organized by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.) She grew up in Saskatchewan, the great-grandchild of Ukrainian immigrants who raised her to know the stories of the Russians' oppression of her ancestral people. In some of the early pictures, the onion domes of the local Ukrainian church rise up above the backyard gardens set into the Canadian plains, an unspoken reminder of identity's many layers. Those multiple layers are made literal in a jubilant piece that celebrates the liberation of the Ukraine from the former Soviet Union. In "Ukrainians Vote to Go Own Way," a portrait of Semchuk and her father is printed on a sheer piece of acrylic, their proud faces set in between newspaper headlines announcing Ukrainian independence. The acrylic dangles in the air, allowing the viewer to see through to the Ukrainian embroidered cloth attached to the wall beyond. This cloth, though, is not full of the usual gentle folk designs: Instead it contains the text of another dialogue between father and daughter, the daughter telling him that he taught her that home must be a place of free choice.
That enduring political lesson also informs her giant four-part installation work, which is in part about the disenfranchisement of Canada's first inhabitants. Billed as a collaboration among Semchuk, her father and her partner, a Native American activist named James Nicholas, the piece describes the way modern culture isolates elders, Indians and animals on "reservations" of various kinds, deliberately cutting off the mainstream from their wisdom. "Taking Off Skins," part four of the installation, is a series of shattered close-up shots depicting Nicholas taking off western-style dress, and clothing himself in skins and bear claws. Again, like a movie camera, Semchuk's still camera has jumped here and there, alighting on Nicholas' face, the claws, the unfastened trousers falling to the earth. This sense of movement helps the ritual spring to life.
Semchuk's political works are troubling, and if the viewer gives the them enough time, persuasive. (The videotape of Semchuk's articulate father talking about the plight of the elderly and his fears for his grandchildren is heartrending.) Yet their more intimate elements are also the most moving. The wall of images of Semchuk's father, living out his few remaining days with grace, is more profound than the pictures of a bear on the opposite wall, a bear that seems heavily burdened down by its symbolism of both Indian liberation and Soviet oppression.
And like that old feminist saw about the personal being the political, the snapshots from Semchuk's own life successfully raise her individual circumstances from the particular to the universal. Her pictures turn into works about all daughters, all mothers, recording the inevitability of life's connections and ruptures. "Seeing My Father See His Own Death" is a 1983 series of color photographs of her father walking along a waterway and in a garden. It's beautifully photographed, combining sharp images with the deliberately blurry, and it's a palpable exploration of a daughter's attachment to the father she will soon lose.
Likewise, a long, horizontal picture of Semchuk and her young daughter dancing in their kitchen back in 1979 somehow captures the heartbreaking love of parents for their children. That little girl is gone now, all grown up, but Semchuk's picture stands as a timeless witness to life's twins of love and loss.
how far back is home..., an exhibition of two decades of photography by Sandra Semchuk, continues through September 14 at the UA Center for Creative Photography. Sandra Semchuk will give a free talk in the gallery at 5:30 p.m. Friday, September 5. Tamarra Kaida, a photographer and art professor at Arizona State University, will speak on Daughters: The Search for Identity Through Art, at 5:30 p.m. Monday, September 8. Susan White, a writer and English professor at the University of Arizona, will give a talk on Intimate Landscapes: Sandra Semchuk in the Context of Women's Autobiographical Film, at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 10. Regular gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free. The Center is located south of the pedestrian underpass on Speedway, east of Park Avenue. For more information, call 621-7968.
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