Caroline Pera
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Introduction to ‘Painted Identity’

The children’s faces were painted using oil paint during Pera’s 3 months stay in the orphanage in Nepal, she then asked each child to complete their portrait by painting their bodies using pure pigment from Nepal. The paintings - simultaneously portraits and self-portraits of the children - are displayed alongside a descriptive label by Elena Orlandi, a psychologist’s interpretation of the children’s use of colour, composition and symbols. Pera’s act of collecting, documenting and presenting disparate fragments of information, which like pieces of a puzzle constitute the child’s portrait, approximates the empirical, quasi-scientific methods employed in anthropology.

The role of the anthropologist is often to infiltrate ‘other’ cultures in order to gather valuable analytical data. This activity implies a dual condition as ‘observer,’ and ‘participant,’ two contrasting identities, which encapsulate the complexities of the very discipline. As a temporary worker in the orphanage, Pera approached the persona of the participant observer, and the totality of the analytical data she collected comprises her investigation. Regardless of the formal rigor apparent in the execution of the paintings, the affection that imbues them, betray a quasi-maternal sentiment, and suddenly the data she collected morphs into mementos of the children she left behind. Pera’s work follows a legacy of women artists engaged with issues of motherhood, the most notable of whom is perhaps Mary Kelly, the ’Mother of Conceptual Art.’ Her iconic work Post-Partum Document (1973-1979), meticulously collected, charted, divided and analyzed representative fragments of her baby’s growth.

The culmination of Kelly’s work occurs in concomitance with the beginning of writing. Conversely, Pera’s works culminate in the phase that precedes the conscious perception of symbols and language, or what Lacan termed ‘the mirror phase’: a pre-linguistic stage in subject formation during which a child begins to recognize images and develops imagination. In simplified terms, during this time he/she begins to recognise him/herself in the mirror as a separate being from the mother, for whom this process is most traumatic. Pera’s works restage this pre-linguistic moment of subject formation, which appears most evidently in the works completed by younger children, which lack the figurative or representative qualities of the older ones (who also write on the canvas). Here the stark contrast between the children’s spontaneous lines, forms and colours and Pera’s realistic renditions of their heads, suspended in the middle of the canvas, encapsulates the sense of trauma caused by separation (her leaving the orphanage). The deliberate gesture of uniting her mark with each child’s is perhaps the moving desire of every mother for her baby to never grow up.

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