Karim Gavins No matter how many times I try to make it, I can never make the same me.
By Mary Truong October 19th, 2020
As a child, Karim Gavins was primarily educated in a Black Montessori school that taught Black history and African traditions. Once he entered a predominantly white college, he realized that his upbringing differentiated himself from different social groups: “I didn’t relate to the Black kids, and I didn’t relate to the white kids… If I can’t fit in either of these groups around me, then who is it I’m supposed to be?” Art became a way of exploring “identity as an act of the individual” and a means to communicate; through art, Gavins could tell others, “Hey, these are the things I’m interested in… These are the ideas I’m thinking about.” Aspects of Gavins’ identity that eluded his articulation could instead be represented with self-portraits to which viewers could relate.
For someone who claims art primarily as a method for communication and an institutor of conversation, there is something distinctly (and somewhat literally) self-effacing about Gavins’ work. One of Gavins’ past professors pointed out that almost all of his self portraits consist of him covering his face. Even in the photograph that Gavins claims is most “confrontational,” his figure stares at the viewer, but half of his face is obscured by a line drawing of a face on a sticky-note (and part of that drawing is covered by yet another sticky-note drawing). Although Gavins clearly establishes a discussion about his identity through these photographs, he offers few concrete statements about that identity: is he hiding through these masks? Are the masks an intentional remark about being the self-determiner of his own appearance? Or is it a sign of resignation in the simplification of his identity?
“The goal is to try and figure who I am…”
Regarding the abstracted face drawings, Gavins says, “When we view people, we tend to simplify. I think it becomes one of the easier ways for us to understand what we’re dealing with… Whether you see the mask or you see me, it might as well be the same.” Gavins seems to be surrendering to the human impulse of categorization and acknowledging that how he is perceived will always be reduced to a simplified notion of himself. But then, he goes on to add complexity to his line drawings. “It became a light obsession [that] spiraled into this bigger idea— No matter how many times I try to make it, I can never make the same me.”
In a past photo series named “Modern Renaissance,” Gavins manipulates self-portraits to reference typical European Biblical and mythological imagery, posing as Venus de Urbino and holding an apple in his hand to reference the fallen Eve. He frames the series as a question of “why are we recycling these images over and over again?” To Gavins, there’s a strange dynamic that occurs in repeating certain visual references: though society ascribes certain meanings to these references, they can easily be subverted and overturned by an individual. He notes that many fashion magazines might pose a model like Venus to represent a pure, white, ideal woman. Gavins says, “I can do the same thing. Does that now change what ‘Ideal Woman’ means?”
If this is Gavins stance on repeated imagery, then what does that mean for the visual language that he creates in his own artwork? Gavins’ “light obsession” with his simple face drawings means that image arises constantly in his work. Language requires semantic consistency for proper communication, but Gavins masks offer an inconsistent portrait of himself: just as he is unable to draw the same face, he is also unable to be the same self from moment to moment. The viewer can try to assign a distinct identity to Gavins by simplifying him, but underneath the abstractions, he is in constant flux.
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