by Nima Esmailpour
Taken with a neutral facial expression, bullet points follow: Eyes open and clearly visible. Mouth closed, no smiling. How interesting that a passport photo can be a description of an “identity photo” to be captured on a plain white or light-coloured background? What does it mean to a racialized person seeking a status to be reminded that photos must reflect/represent natural skin tones2? What if we notice the delusion of neutrality attributed to the official portrait only resides in the background: a plain background to detach any subject from their past, regardless of how well their “natural skin tones” have been represented?
Majorité invisible inverts the authoritative logic of the officials ascribing “visible minority” to racialized groups in order to assign them rights to be visible —a forceful marking in favor of white colonial-settlers’ alleged “invisible” traits. This series of drawings advocates the refusal of visibility weighed against the propagated figure of the “angry person of color,” undermining their expression of grief and indignation. The artist pushes the facial expressions of the figures to the extreme in stark contrast from their background, while the subjects remain earthbound and at times mutually attached to their shared precarity.
On the other hand, the accumulation of paper boats featured in the exhibition is reminiscent of endurance in migratory experience, enfolding the dispossessions of these subjects in the patient act of folding papers. The pencil drawings can be read in continuation with the artists’ past monochronic drawings. In Assemblée générale des actionnaires (2014-2015), the artist depicts anthropomorphic figures involved in a struggle with human subjects dissolving into blank within a presumed bureaucratic setting. In You Look Worn Out (2013), bureaucratic officials metamorphose into beast-headed figures worn out by an unnamed assembly.
A seemingly-invisible feature persisting in Shabnam Zeraati’s works is the blankness that posits the characters-in-conflict detached from their background to evoke the instilling apathy of how we picture the suffering of others. By creating a diasporic imaginary in the experience of loss and unbelonging, Majorité invisible foregrounds the historic trauma of people of colour and of Indigenous communities.
1 To borrow the title of Vivek Shraya’s book: Shraya, Vivek. Even this page is white. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016.
2 The italicized phrases are drawn from: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/passport/apply/photos.asp
Nima Esmailpour is an art historian and educator based in Montreal. He graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with an MA in Art & Politics and is currently pursuing a PhD in the Department of Art History at Concordia University. His research examines shifts in art production enabled by discursive and institutional (trans)formations in the Middle East. Nima is the co-founder of Taklif.