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The Roots of identity. Where does it all start?

In our current blog, Lyn French, A Space Director, reflects on what makes us who we are using images and themes from our most recent set of Emotional Learning Cards, What do relationships mean to you?

WORKSHOP NOTICE: Using the Emotional Learning Cards, Thursday 6 July 6-8pm at Iniva. This demonstration workshop for personal and professional development will be led by art therapist and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist Lyn French (director of A Space, Hackney) and Georgina Evans (art psychotherapist and visiting lecturer at Roehampton University) will facilitate an experiential workshop on creative, hands-on ways to use our Emotional Learning Cards with young people. For more information & booking go to Eventbrite or email jstarr@iniva.org.

We all need to figure out who we are whether we do this from a position of conscious enquiry or outside of our awareness. This isn’t a passive act; none of us can ‘look inside’ and discover our identity, fully formed, like a statue mounted behind a screen. Instead it is an emotional and psychological journey that can be exciting but is also confusing, daunting, frightening and even shocking or shame-inducing. The kinds of questions posed by philosophers over the centuries are still relevant today: do we ‘find’ or ‘create’ ourselves? To what extent are we moulded by the conscious and unconscious histories, attitudes, belief systems and biases that thread through all families and societies?

Helen Chadwick, one of the artists featured in What do relationships mean to you? has never taken a conventional approach to art making. In Mark Sladden’s Book ‘A Red Mirror’, Helen Chadwick recalled, “Traditional media were never dynamic enough… right from early on in art school, I wanted to use the body to create a set of inter-relationships with the audience”. Where did this impulse come from? It’s likely to have many sources however perhaps there is a clue to be found in her family context.

Helen Chadwick’s mother was a Greek refugee and her father came from East London.  Her parents met in Athens during WWII and moved to Croydon, in south London, in 1946. What might it have felt like to be a Greek woman living in the suburbs in the 40’s and 50’s? How did Helen’s mother adjust to being in a country where it was considered a ‘badge of honour’ to cover up, deny or disassociate from the raw more visceral, emotional  parts of life? Helen Chadwick’s image, Loop my Loop (1991) presents us with a visual representation of this kind of duality. It is possible that her mixed heritage may have been one element at play in her fascination with binary oppositions of this kind which feature in most of her work. On a surface level, it’s easy to see how Greece and the UK can seem poles apart culturally, geographically and experientially.

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Helen Chadwick Loop my Loop 1991 Cibachrome transparency, 127x76 cm. Copyright the Estate of Helen Chadwick; courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

In this work, golden locks of hair are interwoven with a pig’s intestines. The glossily groomed blonde loop of hair suggests so many things – nature tamed, artificiality, stereotyped ideas of beauty and myths or legends – while the presence of intestines hints at a darker, more primal state. Bringing together the seductive and the repulsive makes for an uneasy and even disturbing coupling. This can be a metaphor for our emotional life too.  It can be tempting to present a carefully styled and arranged ‘face’ to the world, covering up what can at times feel like shamefully raw feelings which threaten to expose and infantilise us.

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Salote Tawale Princess and the Prince 2012. Digital Print 61 x 43 cm Courtesy the artist

Chadwick’s interest in juxtaposing opposites and injecting sexuality with ambiguity are interlinking themes that are picked up by many artists today. Salote Tawale’s double self-portrait Princess and the Prince (2012) playfully subverts ideas of ‘royalty’ as reflected in European art by jumbling up gender and including cultural references relating to her own heritage as a Fijian living in Australia.  Although the overall effect might seem light-hearted, there is a serious message here both about who is represented in art and who is left out as well as who constructs the image. That which is conspicuous by its absence from the Western canon of art, books and music is as telling as what is included. Artists such as Salote Tawale prompt us to question the nature and status of our cultural heritage and to give space to unheard voices.

George Chakravarthi’s work takes this kind of exploration in another direction. The polaroid photographs entitled Barflies: Triptych (2015) show Chakravarthi experimenting with different representations of femininity embodied by cross-dressers.


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George Chakravarthi Barflies: Triptych (2015) Edition of three prints on Harman Gloss archival paper with window mount, 54x24cm, Courtesy the artist 

Chakravarthi explores a range of alter egos and identities in his art. For example, he is male in some of the pieces within his work entitled ‘Thirteen’, female for one of the characters in ‘Memorabilia/Aradhana’, transgender in ‘Barflies’, gay in ‘I Feel Love!’ and Indian in ‘Andhaka’. This refusal to adopt one identity throws into question the idea that we have a sense of self that is somehow innate, awaiting discovery, or fixed.

That said, many of us do have strong feelings about who we are which may be in conflict with who we imagine we’re allowed to be. Some, for instance, sense from very early on that they are gay but suffer deep confusion about it as they never see themselves reflected in the world around them. In their chapter entitled Perspectives on Gay Fatherhood Noah Glassman and Steven Botticelli comment on this, saying, ‘As proto-gay children, we emerge into families unlike us, often without a sense that anyone is like us either out in the world or within our own biological family structures.  We often do not get to know of the gay uncle, the lesbian aunt. These relatives have often been closeted or if not, then disowned, their very existence sometimes eliminated from family trees or narratives.’ (from Clinical Implications of the Psychoanalyst’s Life Experience edited by Steven Kuchuk, published by Karnac 2014).

No matter how comfortable we may feel with the concepts of gender, identity and sexual fluidity, we know that for each of us, the journey of discovering who we are is at times a very private one. Our parents’ cultural or religious norms, our peer group’s biases and our own self-esteem can make this an emotionally resonant process, impacting on who we allow ourselves to be and the lifestyle choices we make. There is no ‘one closet’ to come out of – we all closet or hide parts of ourselves even from our own eyes.  We all have ‘coming out’ experiences whether or not we’re gay. Although we might seek a defining narrative arc, each of us is tasked with living the experience and telling our own stories.

Just as Phoebe Boswell’s portrait Stranger in the Village (Gothenburg) 2015 is partially erased or undrawn, we too are constantly shaping and re-configuring our identity, with the blanks representing either potential selves or that which we don’t wish to see.


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Phoebe Boswell Stranger in the Village (Gothenburg), 2015. Pencil on Paper, 10x10cm. Courtesy the artist

In his personal account of working in medicine entitled Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery (2017), Henry Marsh says, ‘This sense of self, of being coherent individuals free to make choices, is little more than a title page to the great musical score of our subconscious, a score with many obscure, often dissonant voices’.  We all have alternative selves – perhaps the most compelling task is to make the unconscious ‘musical score’ conscious so that we are better equipped to positively influence who we are becoming.

To book your place on our Introduction to the Emotional Learning Cards workshop for personal and professional development visit our Eventbrite booking page.

Please remember that our new set of cards Let’s Talk about Values are available for pre-order now.