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Mario Popham on photography, curation and the male gaze

By 10th November 2021No Comments

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Hundred Heroines caught up with Mario Popham to discuss his approach to curating an exhibition that subverts the male gaze

HOME and Waterside galleries are two of Manchester’s centres for international contemporary culture, amplifying art and humanity in the heart of the city. Their latest exhibition, She Appeared to Vanish, maintained their exploration of groundbreaking innovation in the arts.

In this group show, prominent women artists including Céline Bodin, Delphine Diallo, Sarah Eyre, Pinar Yolaçan and Contemporary Heroine Eva Stenram questioned historical portrayals of women in photography. Amid the prevalence of the male gaze, the exhibition asked: how can paintings, sculptures, photographs, and surrealist collages challenge the normative gaze within art?

After the show closed, Hundred Heroines’ volunteer writer Fanny Beckman caught up with the curator of the show, Mario Popham, who frequently works with Waterside gallery. Together, they discussed Mario’s rationale for the exhibition and his approach to curating a show about the male gaze while identifying as a man.

I think it is now more important than ever to work together across the many perceived divides – be they gender, race, political persuasion – in order to find some common understanding and reach a place where we value one another’s differences, as idealistic as that might sound!

Fanny Beckman: She Appeared to Vanish questioned ‘conventional representation of the female form’. How would you describe traditional depictions of women in art?

Mario Popham: Historically, certainly in the West, representations of women have been largely defined and filtered through a male perspective and produced predominantly for male consumption.

John Berger famously distilled this asymmetry of power between the genders in Ways of Seeing when he proposed that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Yes, it’s another view espoused by a man on the subject of male/female relations, but it is one that seems to have found common resonance among women.

In the Western art tradition, particularly before the turn of the 20th century, there are countless examples that illustrate this asymmetry. Depictions of women by (mostly male) artists often adhere to clear gender stereotypes that are designed to satisfy and flatter the “ideal” male spectator/consumer. Typically, female subjects would be illustrated as gentle, submissive and self-conscious, or lascivious and highly sexualized. We can see this influence hangs on to this day in much of contemporary advertising and mainstream media.

FB: How did She Appeared to Vanish offer an alternative to these representations?

MP: Hard-won battles for women’s rights and liberties over the last century coincided with the democratization and emergence of the camera as the primary tool for seeing and recording sight. However, with many notable and under-celebrated exceptions, the field was largely dominated by men for the first century of the medium and, consequently, men still largely defined how women were seen and represented in photography.

I think we have come a long way in the last two or three decades, and while there is still much work to be done, women today are holding an ever-increasing stake in the worlds of art and photography. I hope She Appeared to Vanish provided some modest contribution to this ongoing rebalancing of the scales.

The works in the show are the result of women looking at women; the five artists, each in their singular way, take control of the terms and actively play with the power dynamics of the gaze whilst questioning the historical iniquities and peculiarities of representation.

FB: The exhibition featured a diverse range of multidisciplinary women artists. How did you choose which artists to include?

MP: I was keen to emphasise the diversity of approaches to photography and how it commonly exists in conversation and collaboration with other mediums. I also found myself drawn to artists who were open, explorative and experimental in their practice and who had a singular aesthetic vision across several bodies of work. The exhibition ran across two sites, at HOME and Waterside, so I was looking for artists who have two distinct but interrelated bodies of work that would be shown in the two venues at once.

While the final outcomes in the show were all lens based, two-dimensional and photographic, the production and development of the work engages with other disciplines and approaches. For instance, the consideration of the body as a sculptural form in Pinar Yolaçan’s work; the innovative approaches to collage in the work of Sarah Eyre and Eva Stenram; Delphine Diallo and Pinar Yolaçan’s use of performance and painting in their respective practices; Céline Bodin’s direct engagement with, and elegant refutation of the masters of fine art painting. Taken together they suggest that photography is part of a broader continuum of artistic movements and traditions.

It took some time to arrive at a selection of artists where I felt there was a strong balance of contrasts and commonalities between their various approaches, aesthetic sensibilities and the emotional tone of their works. Once I reached the final selection, I was fortunate enough that they were all very open to being involved.

FB: I am very curious about the title of the exhibition – where does it stem from?

MP: It was a long period of gestation for the title to emerge – one thing lockdown was useful for. I wanted a title that would reflect the paradox of visibility that seems to be at the heart of the work in the show and one that relates to the wider issues around visibility in the experience of women.

There is a tension and unease that pervades much of the work and I think this has its source in the space between the visible and the hidden in which these images operate; a space which “activates our imaginations”, as Eva Stenram put it. The female figures in the works vanish and appear simultaneously; the artists here are in control of the terms of engagement, presenting us a series of visual riddles that urge us to consider the act of looking and its historical context.

FB: What do you hope that the audience took away from their visit at HOME (and Waterside)? How do you think this exhibition can impact our mindsets?

MP: I didn’t want the exhibition to be overly didactic, hence the enigmatic title, and I’d like people to have enjoyed each of the works on their own merit. Although by bringing these stylistically disparate pieces together, I hope that, on a subtle level, this did prompt people to think critically about how women have been represented historically. I think the subversive, defiant or unnerving quality of the works in the show can provide a key to unlocking these ideas in the mind of the viewer.

FB: You started working with HOME (and Waterside) in 2018. How has the photographic scene in Manchester evolved since then and where do you see the future of photographic exhibitions in terms of diversity and social impact?

MP: The scene in Manchester is steadily evolving and the city still holds incredible potential for a bourgeoning and blooming photography scene. We have a brilliant community of photographers, artists, students, academics and lovers of photography in Manchester, but we still need more tangible physical spaces for this community to share ideas and cohere around. I hope this exhibition and others like it are a steppingstone to an emergence of something more substantial, solid and long-lasting.

For now, RedEye do great things to bring this community together with their physical and online events program and Bound Art Book Fair is fantastic addition to the city’s photography/art calendar. We also now have the wonderful Village Books opening a store in the city centre, so things are certainly looking up.

I would say there is space for more exhibitions, photography or otherwise, that reflect our incredibly diverse and forward-looking city. As we steadily come out the pandemic years, and despite best attempts by the current government to run down the arts, I hope we’ll see more opportunities to see and show important work that engages with the urgent issues of the age.

FB: As a male curator, what is your perspective on creating a show that questions the male gaze?

MP: It is difficult terrain I’m on and I must admit to feeling nervous as I was putting the show together – how would the rationale for the show be perceived by the artists involved? What could I possibly know about women’s experience of the male gaze? Working on a show like this as a male curator is a particularly tricky position to occupy, given the highly polarised time we’re living through. I was acutely aware of my responsibility not to impose some curatorial “vision” on anyone’s work and was instead interested in finding those commonalities and areas of alignment between what I saw in the work and the ideas held by the artists themselves.

I think it is now more important than ever to work together across the many perceived divides – be they gender, race, political persuasion – in order to find some common understanding and reach a place where we value one another’s differences, as idealistic as that might sound! I think the arts and photography provide an ideal forum for dialogue – in particular, I believe the latter’s indexical relationship to reality continues to be a powerful catalyst for engagement and dialogue.