Artist and U of L professor Tanya Harnett presents 16 large-scale digital self-portraits
Q: What were your intentions when you started this project?
A: The University had a staff exhibition called Alter Ego several years ago, and I contributed two pieces that dealt with self-portraiture and identity. At the time, I wasn’t comfortable dealing with the idea of identity that publicly, so it was really difficult for me. I figured if it was that scary, then I’d better approach it head-on and examine it more closely.
In persona grata, I really wanted to represent myself in a realistic way, but not in a way that was pretentious or self-involved. There are autobiographical elements to the show that I don’t necessarily want to talk about but I do want to emote. It’s more about being poetic than actually descriptive.
Q: How does persona grata explore different
aspects of your identity?
A: These pieces look at identity and the reality of being human, an artist and a First Nations person. There are a lot of people of mixed race, although they’re often defined in very restrictive ways.
In flag, for example, I looked at myself as part of a social group rather than as an individual. This piece comments on the ridiculousness of a binary identity: they are Indian or they are white. By wearing the Canadian flag I examine being part of a country and embracing that, but also questioning how that’s embodied.
Q: You are the subject in these portraits, but we don’t see much of you. Why is that?
A: Truthfully, I don’t think that I want exposure. I realize this is kind of ironic in a medium like this because I am out there on display.
For example, steam was the first one I did, and I decided to hide a little and not show very much of myself. I brushed my hand across the glass to let the audience see my gaze, but I didn’t want to give much more than that. This work subtly reveals bits of myself, but I’m trying to stay away from overt explanations.
Q: As an artist, what attracted you to southern Alberta?
A: The U of L has a great reputation in the art world. The collection here is fantastic and that was obviously a huge draw. Also, the Art Now lecture series brings in some of the top artists in Canada. The exposure to the national presence in art is unlike that of any other institution.
In addition, I’m in a unique position at the University because I’m part of two faculties. I teach Native American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Art in the Faculty of Fine Arts. This position reflects my First Nations background, and that’s something I am very proud of, but it also reflects how I can integrate that part of my identity into a contemporary artistic practice.
The Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) is another thing that attracted me to southern Alberta, and it continues to attract artists from all over. Many people don’t realize that it’s one of the more important art institutions in Canada and that there are artists, nationally and internationally, who want to show there.