Canadian artist Fiona Dunnett:
Images of self and death in Oaxaca are muted with comic style
Comic strips, a young Canadians self portraits, and
photographs of violent deaths in a Mexican daily newspaper,
make strange bedfellows. But they constitute a major part
of the driving force for the creative energies of artist Fiona
Dunnett, a resident of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Ottawa-born Dunnett has been living in Oaxaca since 2005.
As in the case of so many artists who now reside in this city
in southern Mexico, her arrival has been rather circuitous.
And like so many others, her artistic talent has been influenced
at virtually every stop along the way. At age five she left
Canada for Bangladesh with her Canadian diplomat mother and
the rest of her family. After three years it was back to Ottawa,
and then a further three years in Zimbabwe.
When I left Zimbabwe I felt close to South Africa. I
took a course in stone sculpture while there, so yes, I suppose
living in Zimbabwe has had somewhat of an influence on what
I do today, she surmises. But it was her upper level
academic training, first at the Canterbury School of Arts,
followed by British Columbias University of Victoria
from which she graduated with an Hons. B.A. in Fine Arts,
which exposed her to the personages who have impacted her
creativity the most.
Ive had a strong interest in the work of Gustav
Klimt [1862 1918], Dunnett reveals. The Austrian
symbolist painter was one of the most prominent members of
the Vienna Art Nouveau movement, yet a controversial figure
in his time, criticized for his works being too sensual and
erotic. She continues: But its Lichtenstein whose
art Ive actually made more of a conscious effort to
respect and carry forward, imprinting it with a bit of my
own personality and life experiences.
Fox Lichtenstein [1923 1997] was a prominent American
pop artist, whose work was heavily influenced by both popular
advertising and the comic book style. The latter clearly shines
through in Dunnetts more recent works, and in an earlier
piece which graces a wall in her home in Oaxacas Xochimilco
neighborhood which she shares with her boyfriend and three
others: That ones based on a dream I had, certainly
with overt comic book imagery; in the particular dream there
was a calenda (parade), with bodies being dragged through
the streets. I once did a series based on my dreams. I dyed
the red sky forming part of the background of this canvas
with cochineal [the minute insect with naturally produces
carminic acid, and was an important export industry for Oaxaca
during colonial times].
Dunnett is much too modest. Since moving to Oaxaca theres
no doubt that shes put her own mark on the comic style,
with her un-daunting desire to learn, and innovate. The geographical,
cultural and political environment in which she lives provides
her with diverse opportunities for artistic inspiration. She
attended a workshop to learn about the use of natural dyes
such as those derived from flowers, plants and of course cochineal,
at the educational and research facility known as Centro
de Difusión de la Grana Cochinilla Tlapanochestli.
For quite some time Id been thinking about using
natural dyes in my work, but it wasnt until a couple
of years ago that I realized that here in Oaxaca [actually
a few kilometers out of the city, in Santa María Coyotepec]
I had the opportunity to learn about their use from an expert,
Manuel Loera Fernández, the chemist at Tlapanochestli.
Theres just so much artistic stimulation in Oaxaca that
its hard to resist taking advantage of everything available.
Dunnett has also participated in more traditional hands-on
seminars, at the well-known Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca
(IAGO) and at a couple of other institutes in the city. Towards
the other end of the spectrum, she credits two local graffiti
stencil art groups with providing her with additional inspiration,
which becomes apparent after an examination of her work.
I began moving out of realism and into stylized, surreal
works towards the end of my Canadian academic training. It
was about the same time that I began working with mixed media,
my strong preference at this stage of my development.
Coming to Oaxaca was perhaps the catalyst she required in
order to begin more experimental work, within the context
of an extremely encouraging environment.
Aside from a leaning towards the use of natural colors for
backgrounds on her canvasses, one of the major identifying
features of Dunnetts work is her use of collage ---
cut-outs from newspapers, magazines and comic books. Another
is using photographs of her own head and face to provide the
stimulus for her portrayal of expressions and poses she seeks
to capture for each subject. Almost every head in every work
is based on a self-photographic portrait:
I started doing self-portraits when I began doing photography
several years ago. Then when I moved into painting, I had
this corpus of self-photos, so I was able to draw from them
for my art. Although I wanted to shoot other people, I never
felt at ease doing so. And though my boyfriend and I have
been together for close to four years, I still dont
feel comfortable photographing even him. So its all
me, perhaps because of being shy when it comes to shooting
others. But that red one over there, textured with corn husks
from tamales, its an experiment, using a face thats
not my own --- I think its best if I stick to my own
Each face evokes different emotions, and images of self. The
faces make eye contact; viewers eyes move around each
work and then return to the eyes and face, she explains.
Its undeniable that Dunnetts own pleasing facial
features, and her comport, once transferred to canvas, play
a significant role in directing the viewer. She has masterfully
photographed her head and upper body at every angle and with
a plethora of facial expressions for use in her work.
But theres another reason we return to the images of
Dunnetts facial expressions: The torso and limbs of
each primary subject portrayed is far too troubling --- each
is a digitalized version of a photograph of a person who has
died a violent death, usually in a traffic collision or as
a consequence of domestic conflict, captured by Dunnett from
both print and online versions of a Oaxacan daily, Noticias
Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca. But in the artist herself, there
is a sense of calm.
I started using those photographs because they just
began to jump out at me. You never see anything like it in
Canada. In Oaxaca, its on the street corners and in
the newsstands. Death here seems to be an everyday thing,
and attitudes towards death are so different than from where
you and I come from, not so hidden away.
Dunnett stresses that her intention is not to invoke feelings
of horror, nor reveal the gruesome. The facial expressions
she initially captures with a lens, then transposes onto canvas
with brush, lead us away. In the case of her work with a collaged
iguana, its curiosity in her face, rather than demonic
imagery of death, which draws one in.
The juxtaposition of death against the aesthetics of comic
imagery is striking, almost as much as the multiplicity of
presentations of Dunnetts own self. Its that combination
which maintains the viewers awe of and transfixation
upon her work. Perhaps Fiona Dunnett never should break out
of her reticence about photographing the faces of others.
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