Asheville-based photographer Joel Vannfuller has combined his fascination with African tribal masks, and figurative photography for his most recent installment at Satellite Gallery called Primal Faces Exposed. Nubile female forms wearing African masks appear in these black and white photos which are reminiscent of erotic photography from the early 1900's. Vannfuller's figures are statuesque and the dramatic staging of his subjects is penetrating. From a technical standpoint, Primal Faces Exposed is high-brow on every level.
According to the gallery's press release, Vannfuller was inspired to photograph nudes with African masks initially for aesthetic reasons. He believed juxtaposing primitive art against the female figure created an engaging image. But as he began to uncover the stories behind the masks a deeper relationship began to emerge. Africa’s history– our common ancestry– and the pervasive use of masks raised some intriguing questions.
Because of his interest in African Masks, Vannfuller includes lengthy explanations of each mask and it's cultural relevance. While this is interesting from a sociological standpoint, I find these sort of commentaries in art exhibits a bit tedious, and would prefer that Vannfuller let the work speak for itself.
I particularly like "Spirit at Peace" which depicts a blurry porcelain form wearing a Maiden Mask from Nigeria. This photo reminded me of collages I've seen by Hannah Höch, a German Dadist who created work during the mid 1900's. While there are visual similarities, conceptually the two artists are on opposite ends of the spectrum: Höch's photomontage art was a critique on feminine representations within mass media, whereas Vannfuller uses the form as a design element - contrasting it against it's setting, blurring out parts, or contorting it for aesthetic relevance.
Collage by Hannah Höch
Primal Faces Exposed is a regal photographic documentation of the human form, and a testament to Vannfuller's technical expertise. View images on The Satellite Gallery's website: www.thesatellitegallery.com
The show deserves to be seen in real life, however, because the large scale of the photos makes for a deluxe experience.
Read Vannfuller's blog about his 13 Stories at the Windsor Hotel series: