The Lockhart Gallery on Main Street has a reputation for exhibiting great artistic talent, both historic and contemporary. But this time around, the gallery—which is housed in the McClellan House—has chosen to display a student’s work, namely senior English major and film studies minor Britina Cheng’s photography exhibit “We Were Girls.” Cheng is a student employee at the McClellan House and, as a result, has developed a close working relationship with director of galleries and curator Cynthia Hawkins. This relationship gave Cheng the unique opportunity to show her own work in the very gallery that Cheng helps to install other artists’ exhibitions.
Cheng’s own exhibit is a series of portraits, all of which are women. The key is that the subjects of every shot are very consciously returning the male gaze; the male gaze is a concept in visual art that is used to describe the tendency of fine art to depict the world—and more specifically women—from a masculine point of view. In other words, the male gaze expresses that the purpose of women is to be looked at by men. It is a practice seen over and over again in art history. It is this practice that Cheng is combating.
Each woman in Cheng’s portraits are aware that they are being looked at, and so they have decided to stare right back at the viewer in an effort to humanize themselves. The male gaze turns women into mere objects, but Cheng’s women unapologetically defy their objectification.
In addition to their strength and attitude, the women in Cheng’s portraits are ethnically and sexually diverse in the truest way possible. “My Immigrant Mother, Qing Hua” is a shot of the artist’s Asian mother, “Velvet Rouge, Chloe” features a beautiful black woman set against a vibrant red background, “Genderfuck Us In The Snow” showcases a transgender woman, “Prowess” is of a white woman and “We Don’t Shave” is a shot of a white woman proudly showing the audience her unshaved underarms.
Cheng does not limit herself in terms of style either. Her exhibit includes photos that are large and small, in color and in black and white. She even throws a mixed media piece, “They/Them,” into the mix of photographs.
All of this variety, however, is woven together seamlessly by Cheng. Perhaps this smooth array is meant to drive home the bigger message of the exhibit: all women—no matter their shape, size, ethnicity or orientation—deserve to be respected and embraced.
All of the women in the photographs are Cheng’s friends and family. Cheng noted that although the positions of the models are supposed to be posed in order to enhance the message of playing with the male gaze, most of the poses came naturally and are unforced. This element of naturalness in Cheng’s work sends another message: everyone—even your friends and family whom you see every day—can become the embodiment of art and beauty.
This participation from her loved ones is vital to Cheng’s work. She deals mostly with portrait photography and film, as in mediums that deal with storytelling. She feels that people and their relationships are very meaningful to her life, and so naturally they have become the subject of her artistic work.
Many of those friends that are featured in Cheng’s work—along with other members of the Geneseo community—were in attendance at the opening of her exhibit on April 20. This audience demonstrates the great, relatable aspect of Cheng’s work. A viewer can look at her work and see a beautiful, striking portrait, but—more importantly—they can see themselves.
Art lovers everywhere should be on the lookout for more from Cheng.