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Elizabeth Stewart’s We Are Stardust at Arusha Gallery

ByKitty Golden

Oct 24, 2019

We Are Stardust, Arusha gallery’s current exhibition, displays numerous works from Elizabeth Stewart, who uses her old family photographs as a starting point for reimagining those around her in dreamlike settings.

Stewart was inspired by Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, which raises questions surrounding photography as an art form; the book explores how photography is a focus on the object itself whereas other art forms are reliant on the psychology of the artist as well as the medium used to create emotion or achieve an artistic aura. This opened up a broader debate over photography, discussed today by art theorists and artists alike, questioning whether a photo can achieve the same effect as other art forms.

Stewart seeks to demonstrate through her work that photography can in fact achieve that ‘artistic’ atmosphere. By removing the subject from its original setting, Stewart hopes to go beyond the fixedness of time and location and reimagine the subjects in a fictional, mythical place which manages to encapsulate the individual’s personality. She thereby moves beyond the worldliness of photography and constructs a piece of truly artistic work.

Her piece Ochil Cowboy embodies this approach. The subject is taken from a photograph of the artist’s older brother, who felt he was too old to play dress-up with her soon after she was born, dressed as a cowboy with their family dog. In Ochil Cowboy the artist has liberated the dear image of her brother in the landscape of the Ochil Hills.

It is, however, arguable that Stewart’s mission of liberating her memories and subjects from an original time is ironic, as her works can be understood as merely immortalising these objects in another setting within a new medium. Yet the dreamlike quality achieved through the transferral of a black and white photo onto a tapestry or dress, along with Stewart’s explicit motivation of allowing her loved ones to achieve something they dreamed of, shows that photography is undoubtedly a legitimate art form which can evoke the same atmosphere and emotion that Barthes questions.

Image: Kitty Golden

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