Staging Oneself

Photography and New Media Self-Portraits by Women Artists

24 Feb –
2 Jun 2024

A Cairns Art Gallery exhibition, curated by Julietta Park, Consultant Curator

Staging Oneself examines the extraordinary and creative ways in which contemporary women artists use role play, disguise, and self-portraiture to explore womanhood and female identity within the public and private spheres.

Artists represented in the exhibition are from diverse cultural backgrounds and draw on their own experiences, or broader cultural and social stereotypes, to engage with ideas and issues around gender, sexuality, self-image, traditions, race and empowerment. Using photography and new media, their self-portraits reveal a complex interpretation and understanding of female identity informed by real and imagined experiences. In so doing they seek to question and challenge preconceived or stereotypical social and cultural readings that are prescriptively used to define identity. Staging images of the self, using props, clothing, object placement, gestures and other cultural, social and gender markers are, for many artists in this exhibition, a way of codifying issues of identity to suggest a new construct for interpretation and empowerment of the female self.

Since the early 1980s, American artist Cindy Sherman has approached photographic portraiture with wit and acuity, creating works that continue to challenge, amuse and outrage audiences around the world. Sherman is one of the most significant artists of the so-called Pictures Generation – a group of artists who gained notoriety in the early 1970s and included Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo. Together they created enduring images which were appropriated from and responded with humour and criticism to mass media images from film, television, advertising and magazines of the day. Her Untitled 2007/08 photograph of two fashion-aware women at a society exhibition opening exemplifies the artist’s extraordinary ability to capture not just an event, but all the shades and nuances of motivation, self-image, ego, and staged awareness of two women caught up in their moment of being ‘immortalised’ by an event photographer. 

Canadian artist Sage Szkabarnicki’s portrait image entitled My Room, 2017, typically positions herself as the subject in her portraits. Szkabarnicki is a young millennial who is absorbed by a search for meaning of day-to-day life in a world that increasingly faces threats of environmental and climatic change.  Her self-portraits involve complex choreography, styling and collecting of props and other trash, turning the process of image-making into a one-woman creative production for the camera. In her work My Room, the artist has chosen to create a super-lit scene to emphasise the simplicity and surrealism of a single moment in which the subject’s stance, attire and down cast eyes simultaneously provoke a humorous and whimsical response from the viewer.

For Japanese photographer Tomoko Sawada, the presentation of a series of ID style self-portraits in her work Decoration/Face, 2008 enables her to explore ways in which the staging of self can reveal complex relationships between our inner and outer worlds. As a contemporary artist and conceptual photographer, Sawada’s works explore notions of cultural identification and gendered societal norms through staging images of herself in various guises, while unblinkingly challenging the viewer to interpret their meaning and intent.

Khadija Saye (1992–2017) was a Gambian-British photographer whose series of photographic portraits entitled Dwelling: In this Space we Breathe were exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion in the 2017 Venice Biennale. Also known as Ya-Haddy Sisi Saye has been described as an activist and artist of extraordinary promise. Tragically, her career was cut short when, in June 2017, she and her mother and more than 70 other people perished in the Grenfell Tower apartment fire in London where they lived. Some of Saye’s most powerful images are from her Dwelling series. Together these self-portraits virtually ‘immortalise’ the artist. In these images we see the artist, disguised and nuanced, sometimes interacting with ritual objects to explore her connection to spiritual practices as a member of the African diaspora living in London, and at other times using images from popular culture to challenge and decode notions of self and identity in contemporary London. For Saye, devices such as headdresses, shadowy forms, superimposed images and her own hands and body parts are carefully used to obfuscate identity while still leaving a powerful sense of self still present in her portraits through gestural and other forms of expression.

Cairns Art Gallery consultant curator Julietta Park, has brought together works by fourteen artists on loan from public and private collections in Australia and overseas for inclusion in the Gallery’s Staging Oneself International Partnership Program exhibition. Staging Oneself includes photographic and multi-media works by blak/black African, Australian Aboriginal, American Indian, Samoan, Japanese and Indian artists, together with works by Irish, Filipino, American, British, Canadian and non-Indigenous Australian women artists, including Sama Alshaibi, asinnajaq, Vivienne Binns, Yuki Kihara, Tracy Moffat, Khadija Saye, Trish Morrissey, Pushpamala N., Wawi Navarroza,  Dita  Pepe, Julie Rrap, Tomoko Sawada, Cindy Sherman and Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart.


List of works


Selected works


Installation images


Pushpamala N
Hasya (The comic)
from ‘The Navarasa suite’ from the ‘Bombay Photo Studio’ series  2000-03
Gelatin silver photograph, sepia-toned on paper
57.1 x 70.9 cm 
Purchased 2004. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund. Accession No: 2004.126.008 
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art 
© N Pushpamala

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