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Reflecting on Masculinity and the Body: A Conversation with Jordan Browne

Jordan Browne: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ (installation view), 2017 © James Morley, Ryerson Image Centre

Jordan Browne’s latest works, Sweet Dreams, Francis, was recently on view at the Ryerson Image Centre Student Gallery. His photography explores the relationships between our cultures and our bodies through the contours of the nude genre. We recently had a chance to throw a few questions at the emerging artist about his work and his latest exhibition.

Novella: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

JB: I’m a 28-year-old emerging photo based artist. I graduated from Ryerson’s Photography studies program in 2016 and also hold a BFA from York University. In addition to my interest in photography, I also have a passion for independent and foreign cinema.

N: Did you grow up in an artistic household?

JB: I wouldn’t say I grew up in an artistic household but I would say my interest in the arts came from my father who at one point pursued art in his early 20’s. He has really great technical skills, which he taught me when I was a kid. My parents have always encouraged my artistic endeavors as a child from drawing to my interest in theatre.

N: You studied both visual arts and photography. What made you decide to focus on the latter?

JB: My interest in photography solidified after taking a Black & White photography course in high school. With words of encouragement from my teachers, I started to think about pursuing it after graduating. This became even clearer to me when I started my studies at York University.

One of the requirements of the program was that we had to take courses that explored different mediums. Photography is the only medium that really resonated with me. I never felt that sort of enthusiasm with painting or drawing — nor was I very good.

Jordan Browne: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ (installation view), 2017 © James Morley, Ryerson Image Centre

N: Describe your latest series, ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’

JB: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ explores themes of masculinity in relation to the body and its portrayal in the nude genre. The photographs of various gay and queer men evoke a sense of calm and quiet — a proposition that contrasts with depictions of male bodies in photography and visual media in general. Fabrics are employed throughout as a means of softening the imagery, thereby gently disrupting traditional notions of masculinity.

N:What would you say has changed in visual representation of masculinity over the decades?

JB: It’s hard to say definitively as this series is born out of my own experiences as a gay/queer individual who has felt pressures to conform to masculine ideals from a young age. I feel that there are still a lot of external messages we are getting that suggest that to be a man you have to behave a certain way. My hope is that people are becoming more accepting of those who do not conform to these ideals and that men are becoming more comfortable exhibiting a range of emotions.

N: In your description of the series, you write that it’s not explicitly a critique of depictions of male bodies. What did you mean by that?

JB: I mean to say that I am not making a direct statement criticizing notions of masculinity. I’m more interested in reflecting on these ideals and interpreting through my own experience. I’m not making a political statement that signifies change as the series is meant to be more personal than that.

N: How do you begin new works?

JB: It starts with curiosity. I then begin to do a lot of research on the subject matter I am exploring and pull various visual references, both historical and contemporary. I also do a lot of reading of both academic and non-academic texts to give more context to the project. I think it’s important to really understand the subject matter from a historical point of view and to understand how it has previously been explored.

N: How did you go about selecting the vintage photos?

JB: I have long been interested in archival/found imagery. I also like the idea of collecting. It was really as simple as browsing through these snapshots on eBay and selecting the ones that resonated with me most. Whether through body language or composition, I picked images that I felt had homoerotic undertones that could be brought forth when displayed alongside my own images. I found images where I could mimic the poses of the men in my own photographs. This aided in developing a dialogue between the two types of imagery being displayed.

N: Tell us about the actual process of photographing the series, ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’.

JB: Before shooting my models I do test shots of the space to get a sense of the light. I pull several references in preparation for shoots so that I have an idea of what I want to achieve.

I think it’s important to have conversations with the models prior to shooting so that you’re on the same page and have a mutual understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. I also think it’s important to establish a dialogue with models as it really is a collaboration. Without them these photos would not be what they are. My direction is very laid back — I go with the flow. If I like a pose I may have a model hold position as I navigate the body within the frame of my camera.

Jordan Browne: ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ (installation view), 2017 © James Morley, Ryerson Image Centre

N: How did your series ‘Anonymous (2012 – 2016) come about?

JB: This series is really a precursor to my main body of work. It is on going and also functions as an extension to ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’ in the aesthetic qualities I am exploring. I started out photographing predominantly women as I’ve always felt much more comfortable with them. As time went on, I really became interested in creating a body of work that related to my own identity, which led to photographing more men. This ultimately progressed to ‘Sweet Dreams, Francis’.

N: Are there other ideas or themes you’d like to explore in the future?

JB: I’d like to give voice to being both queer and a person of colour. I think I could speak to the ways in which those identities intersect and how they have shaped my experiences in my formative years. While sexuality is a major theme explored in my current body of work, I think it would be interesting to add another layer to that as an individual who is also of mixed race.

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Hot List: Artist Osheen Harruthoonyan

Osheen Harruthoonyan is an experimental photography-based artist working out of Montréal, Canada. He photographs using B+W film and prints on fibre based gelatin silver paper. Drawing upon his rich experiences growing up in Iran, Greece and Canada, he employs a multi-faceted approach towards his artistic practice; investigating the complex relationships between memory, history and time. Osheen’s work has been featured on the CBC, Vice, Bravo! Arts Channel, Space Channel’s InnerSPACE, and numerous national and international exhibitions and
publications.

A Conversation with Neeraja Ramjee on Broken Images at the Red Sandcastle Theatre

With Broken Imagess Canadian Premiere at the Red Sandcastle Theatre comes a unique, one-woman show starring Neeraja Ramjee, written by the contemporary playwright, Girish Karnad, and directed by Clinton Walker.  This psychological thriller is a commentary with many different layers, focusing on the ways in which we construct ourself in our current world.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Neeraja to discuss the context of the play and the way in which image dictates our self-worth in our current world.

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in theatre? What was your first production? 

Neeraja Ramjee: I went to acting school in New York, I wanted to put what I was learning into practice and auditioned to be a part of theatre companies in New York. I became a part of a couple theatre companies and started auditioning for parts and got more involved in the acting/theatre community. The first production I was part of was very special for me, it was my first time acting in front of a large audience, and it was equally terrifying and thrillingJ. It was a lovely one act play and I portrayed this character who wanted to commit suicide and through the play, she talks herself out of it.

K: Tell us about your experience in presenting a one woman show. What are the difficulties? What are the surprises? 

NR: This is my first time performing in a one woman show and also producing it. I wanted to do something where the story excited me, was different and challenging, and this show presented all of these elements to me. Any solo performance is a challenge, because you are the only flesh and blood actor on stage, with all eyes on you and you have to take the audience through the journey of the character and tell the story. There is a lot of technique, tact and authenticity that goes with it and you cannot afford to sit behind on your heels. When you have another actor on stage, you can play off of them and you get energy from them. In a one woman show, really the audience is the other character. The playwright has written such a masterpiece with such an arc for the character and so many levels of complicatedness – so to hit it, be present in the moment and move the story along, all by yourself is definitely a challenge. There is a technology element to this piece of theatre and a level of precision involved there, which is also very exciting and challenging at the same time. I surprise myself everyday by discovering something new about the character, and her underlying intentions. It’s been quite the journey discovering her, and quite frankly discovering parts of me through this journey.

K: Tell us about Broken Images. How did you stumble onto this play and what can it teach us? 

NR: BROKEN IMAGES is a masterpiece of self-delusion and self-worth, taking a cutting look at the Indian literary establishment, the desire for fame, and the need to win at all costs. When Manjula, a mediocre Indian writer gets international fame for a book she wrote in English, and not her native tongue,  she gets flak from her literary community, and is questioned without warning by her ‘Image’ to unearth the scandal behind her sudden rise to fame.

I had watched Broken Images staged over a decade ago, and it stayed with me because it was a unique storyline that was edgy and I knew people would connect to it.  Fast forward a decade, when the opportunity presented itself to produce a play, I knew I wanted to recreate Broken Images. . The play explores themes such as identify crisis (do we really know who we are), reality vs hyper-reality (do we live in a false reality, do we project ourselves to be different from who we really are?), and the desire for fame, which are all still very relevant in today’s digital/social media world.

K: It is said that with Broken Images, you hope to nudge diversity in the local theatre scene a bit further, as well as make people aware of the negative effects of social media. What does this mean to you? Why do you feel that people are unable to be within their present moment?

NR: As an avid fan of the performing arts, and most certainly theatre, one would be hard pressed to find many diverse actors in lead or one person shows. If this show could open doors, nudge diversity in theatre a bit further, wouldn’t that be great. There is so much talent out there, so many stories to be told from different cultural standpoints, it would be great to walk in and see more diverse actors in prominent roles, telling stories that hit us as human beings, irrespective of race, gender, caste, and creed.

I think social media and digital is great for a lot of things, it makes our life more efficient, makes the world smaller, gets us information way faster, helps us spread important messages, gets people together etc., however I think it’s great as long as it does not affect the emotional well-being of people. We are all performers in some way or the other, and the question really is do we project ourselves to be different than who we really are and is that false reality of ‘perfection’ impacting our emotional well-being, because we tend to evaluate our life based on a ‘false reality’ we see. I think, and I am as much prey to it J, sometimes we are so interested in capturing the moment, vs. actually being present in the moment and soaking it all in.

I was reading an article recently on how social media is harming the mental health of young people. There is a need to constantly feel a sense of ‘self-worth’ with the number of likes you get, and a fear of missing out and not being looped in with your friends. I think we chase ‘perfection’ that we see on social media/television/billboards, which quite frankly does not exist, and can be quite harmful, if it affects the emotional well-being of people.

The play touches on themes such as false reality, self-delusion, self-worth and the impacts of it is relevant to the current digital/social media world we live in.

K: At the same time, as being a successful actor, you are also a very successful business consultant. How do these two worlds collide? How do they intersect?

NR: The two worlds I live in are on either end of the spectrum. As a consultant, your emotions are always in check, controlled, it’s the exact opposite as an actor – emotions are raw, with no inhibitions. At the end of the day – art imitates life, it is about people, human behavior and there are elements from my personal and professional life that I bring to the characters I portray. The discipline, professionalism and analytical side of me helps me as a producer and actor, and my creative side helps me look at solving business problems with a different lens.

K: What is wrong with society’s obsession of image? What are the dangers, and how do we navigate away from this?

NR: As human beings, we are perfectly imperfect, which is beautiful. However, we project ourselves in society to be ‘perfect’ and quite frankly perception is reality J. There is a pressure to be ‘perfect’ . Most of the posts you see online are of people having a ‘perfect’ time, it’s the way we like to project ourselves. You seldom see posts about challenges in people’s lives on social media. I don’t know if our lives can be as perfect as Instagram J. If we chase this perfection which does not exist and it affects  our emotional well being, that’s when it becomes dangerous. What’s real and what’s not? Why does someone look so perfect at 7 am in the morning, when I look pretty crappy with my tousled hair and puffy eyes……if this leads to questioning your self-worth, if you begin to define yourself by a social media post, or a like or comment – then we have a problem.

K: How did your collaboration with Clinton Walker begin? What is it like working with a director in an intimate, smaller rehearsal space that makes up the one woman cast?

NR: When I knew I wanted to move forward and produce Broken Images, I knew I wanted a director who was talented, was on the same page as me in terms of the vision for the show and also someone who was focused and challenged me. My agent (we share the same agent) introduced me to Clinton who had directed a one person show last year at the Fringe and has been in the industry for close to 40 years. When I met Clinton, we had an instant connection, it’s hard to put in words and we bonded because we both don’t have patience for BS :D. I am very fortunate that he jumped on this journey with me. It’s been an incredible journey so far. We entered this maze of what’s real and what’s false, and the different avatars we play. It’s been a frightening and thrilling experience. We’ve shared laughs, tears and discovered things about ourselves and most importantly had fun as we navigated through this brilliant piece.

K: Not only are you starring in this production, but you produced it. What was it like to wear both hats? Were there any difficulties throughout?  

NR: This is my first time producing and it’s been a learning experience for sure. Very exciting and challenging at the same time. As an actor, I had more of myopic view to the entire production of a show. I understood the story, my character, how it fits into the larger storyline and did the best to take the audience through the journey. As producer, your pulse is on every element of the show – getting the right people onboard is one of the most important elements, if you have people you can trust and work well with, half the battle is won. Managing all elements of the production and the minutia of it has been challenging and then switching to actor mode J. But I love it, wouldn’t trade it for anything.

K: What do you hope audiences take away from Broken Images?

NR: I think a good play entertains you and hopefully affects you, impacts you in some way. Hopefully the audience walks away entertained, and also slightly impacted/changed or with questions to ponder on J.

K: What can we expect from you in the future?

NR: Depending on how we do, it would be lovely to take the play to New York. Continue to work on my craft and see what is interesting, challenging and authentic for me to take on J

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5 Queer Artists Working Now

If art is meant to push boundaries, then some of those should be the boundaries of imposing straightness and cis-ness, right? In other words, the art world ought to be a more open and inclusive place for queer people. And while most of us can think of older queer artists from the past (Andy Warhol probably comes to mind), there are lots of wonderful and talented queer artists working now. Here are five:

Kent Monkman, The Daddies

1. Kent Monkman: Monkman’s work is brilliant and brutal, examining modern Indigenous life and recasting colonial history, sometimes with his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Monkman is known for using classic colonial images and inserting Indigenous people or characters to recast the narrative. He is also known for his stunning installations and large paintings documenting everyday life for Indigenous folks, the beautiful and the heartbreaking. Blending gender, sexuality, and race together in brilliant ways, Monkman is definitely one of the best queer artists out there. He is currently touring the exhibition “Shame & Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” His work can be found on his website here.

Eiki Mori, Intimacy (No. 1)

2. Eiki Mori: This Japanese artist is best known for his beautiful photography that explores male sexuality in the most intimate settings. Born in Kanazawa, Japan, in 1976, Mori has been active for almost 20 years in the art and photography world and has produced several photography shows and three books, including, most recently, Intimacy, which was published in 2013. Mori is never flashy and doesn’t demand your attention, instead he invites you to the quiet, more gentle moments. Some of his work can be seen on his website or his Instagram account.

Joe Average, Floral Fatigue

3. Joe Average: After being diagnosed with HIV at the age of 27, Joe Average chose to commit the rest of his life to his art. While his work may seem a bit simplistic, it is undeniably beautiful, colorful, and bright. You can even see his work on banners around the gay village of Vancouver. He is also a prolific photographer, with bright images of flowers, drag queens, birds, and other daily images of life. You can see all of his work here.

Image from Wet Moon by Sophie Campbell

4. Sophie Campbell: Campbell is mostly known for comic art work like her graphic novel Wet Moon and her webcomic Shadoweyes. What is most admirable about Campbell’s work is her inclusion of a diverse array of characters of different races, genders, sexualities, and body types, a diversity rarely seen in most comics. She has also drawn for the Jem and the Holograms graphic novel series. You can see all of her work on her art Tumblr.

Image from “Sissy” series by Elisha Lim

5. Elisha Lim: Lim first came to prominence for their portrait series “100 Butches”, an ambitious project meant to document many butches Lim came across. They have since worked on numerous different projects, many about documenting other queer, trans, and non-binary people. These include series of portraits about “Sissies“, or works documenting their own life history from Canada and Singapore. Lim’s work can be found in their graphic novels 100 Butches and 100 Crushes.

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