Narrative Experiment

Narrative Experiment

Since humans began making art, individuals have been depicting themselves and their experiences. Examples of self-portraits date back almost 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. When mirrors became widely available in the early Renaissance, there was a boom in artists painting and sculpting their own faces, such as Albrecht Dürer’s Self-portrait at 28 (1500). Fast forward a few hundred years and, in 1834, William Henry Fox Talbot changed the face of visual representation, developing a negative-to-positive photographic process that constituted the beginning of contemporary photography.

The form flourished across the 20th century, enabling artists to generate biographical work with accuracy, ease and speed. There is an abundance of images in today’s social media culture, with an estimated 92 million selfies taken daily. For some, self-portraits provide an opportunity to document the unfolding narrative of individual lives, whilst for others they are a means to project fantasy versions of themselves. They can be diaristic, an outlet for alter-egos, a method for therapeutic self-exposure or a brilliant mask to hide behind.

Dutch-Croatian photographer Sanja Marušić (b. 1991) uses the medium to distil real-life events into rich, imaginative scenes. Art has illustrated her journey towards adulthood and self-discovery since she received a camera at age 15. She began studying at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague two years later, establishing herself as a bold new voice in European photography. The multidisciplinary practitioner has worked for global brands and magazines, from Apple and Sony to Elle, The New York Times and The Guardian.

Marušić’s personal work, however, joins creatives whose self-portraiture charts their own coming-of-age. It is a defiant documentation, when motherhood is still seen as “taboo” in the sector, a conclusion drawn by art journalist Hettie Judah after interviewing 50 female practitioners for The Guardian in 2020. “Many artists feel pressured to choose between a professional career and motherhood,” Mara Altman writes in a 2021 article for The New York Times – compounding the notion that parenthood is still seen as a disadvantage to a woman’s career in the industry. This fear is evidenced across professions, with a 2022 Open Study College report revealing that 33% of women changed occupation after children.

Sarah Maple (b. 1985) exemplifies this anxiety in Self Portrait with Pocket Square (2021), asking: “Could I still be a mother and an artist?” The archway of flowers and soft blue background echoes Awol Erizku’s (b. 1988) depiction of Beyoncé, who announced her pregnancy via Instagram in 2017. Maple’s satirical slant on reveal photos are part of a movement that has been gaining traction for decades, defying views of motherhood as a limitation or restraint. Carrie Mae Weem’s (b.1953) Kitchen Table Series, for example, highlights intimacy between mother and daughter, or Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010),whose immense, fantastical sculptures, such as Maman (1999), depict the enormity of maternal experience.

Marušić, likewise, draws on the concept of the otherworldly to centre the joy and evolution of motherhood. Vivid, saturated palettes and vibrant patterns are harnessed to transform autobiographical portraits into mesmerising parallel universes. Out of This World is the artist’s first solo exhibition, which opened at Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, in 2023. The three-dimensional journey chronicles her career to date, whilst imagination and personal experiences are presented series by series. Visitors can trace the cumulative events of a life unfurling before them in striking and unearthly scenes.

This autobiographical structure is reinforced by the physical layout of the exhibition, which takes place inside a spe- cially designed spatial object. Guest Curator Mira Matić conceived this living sculpture, which allows visitors to travel along a single, fixed route – beginning with a trail around the outside of the enclosed gallery space, past enlargements of early sketches. Observers move through rooms filled with costumes, photographs, props and videos, each representing a phase of life. The experience is unique: onlookers are not passive but invited to walk “through” each frame, allowing themselves to be transported to new aesthetic universes.

The use of colour is striking. It is the result of a layered process that provides a distinct and heightened sense of myth. Each mundane landscape is transformed with intensive post- production techniques. “These are just as important as the photograph itself,” Marušić points out. “The photograph is just a starting point, a sketch.” This initial stage is carefully composed and pre-planned, in which scene compositions are mapped out in advance, alongside props and costumes. The editing process involves stripping back large amounts of detail to pare back extraneous details and reveal the stark essence of the photo. There is an “abstraction and emptiness” to an image in its barest form, which is then manipulated with colour – adding rich depth and impact to the resulting piece.

This approach is a mechanism to construct vibrant, bold narratives that layer and build over time. “By using colour, you can tell a story, but you can also focus attention.” Marušić selectively alters the audience’s gaze, guiding them through different levels of understanding and generating meaning as a result. “I play with that. If I use a soft colour on the background and a bright colour on the subject, your attention naturally becomes focused on the latter. I can also generate different atmospheres, but what I find more important is that I create my own moment and world with it.”

Storytelling through colour is evident across explicitly personal works. Friends or Enemies (2018) reflects on the challenges of building lasting relationships through tableaux of groups rendered in alternately clashing and complimentary tones. Elsewhere, Eutierria (2019) is an unfolding love story – inspired by the artist’s honeymoon – and is told through a sequence of images depicting couples painted in match- ing shades. Figures lean and counterbalance on one another, their limbs merging into one. Marušić goes on to portray her early pregnancy in Before You (2020), daubing her naked body with swirling patterns that highlight her growing bump.

The narrative behind these are clear, even without the autobiographical context behind their production. Other series are more elliptical, littered with curious symbols that offer themselves up to be deciphered. Various forms from Singles (2018-2021), for example, evade obvious explanation. These mysterious, off-kilter pieces unfold with an uncanny, dreamy logic that roots the work in the Surrealist tradition.

Central subjects in Singles look away from the camera or have their heads obscured. The absence recalls the faceless figures that populate the photographs of Man Ray (1890-1976) and the paintings of René Magritte (1898-1967). Vast, desolate landscapes channel Salvador Dalí’s (1904-1989) dreamscapes, tinted in the spectrum of 1960s psychedelia. Individuals in red pose in acrobatic positions, their limbs taut and poised. Another lays out in a curved stretch, her lithe body melding with the striped floor. Elsewhere, a figure sits against garnet and cornflour-blue crags, a cube in place of its face. Each image raises more questions than it answers. Is this an alien life form, a vision from the future, a dream or a nightmare? Marušic presents no one answer, leaving a starVibrant landscapes, mysterious, lively figures and pulsing colour palettes collide in Sanja Marušić’s portraits, debating the body and female identity.tlingly beautiful visual puzzle to unpick and piece together.

The photographer’s practice transforms the mundane into the magical. The streak of wonder threaded throughout each series is a desire to return to a childlike sense of imagination. “When I played with dolls as a child, I could drift along through my imagination. I spent hours in love with my own created worlds,” she states. “It is such a pity we lose that as adults. I try to find it again – that joy of imagination and fantasy – and to show that everyone can still search for it.”

Playfulness finds clear expression in the DIY approach to production design. There is a performative element to the work reminiscent of Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), who has spent five decades transforming herself with elaborate make-up and costumes. For example, the Clowns (2003-2004) series constructed bold, hyperbolic characters to examine how identity could be externally constructed in different ways. Al- ternatively, Marušić brings forth a younger version of herself in her photographs, documenting her radical reconstruction in flamboyant clothes, or rendered anew in neon body paint.

The metamorphosis of the self is fundamental. It is an expression of alternative reality. “I like the idea that you can create your own world. Art can be a form of escapism.” Previously, work taken in exotic locations demonstrated this desire. Flowers in December (2015-2016), for instance, was shot across six countries over two years, culminating in transportative landscape views: expanses of volcanic sand and endless blue skies. Yet, recent work originates closer to home.

Ongoing series Sasha and Sanja depicts Marušić with her son in their living room. The influence of folk art, such as the work of Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), is evident. The style also echoes Dutch painter Ruurd Wiersma (1904-1980), whose “naïve art” coated walls and floors in colourful farmland depictions. In expressive and comfortable scenes, mother and baby are set against graphic prints and floral fabrics. These poses are a powerfully feminist vision of new motherhood: equally eye-catching, defiant and unashamed.

Visual experimentation soars in the artist’s latest phase of life. Experiences of motherhood seem to have propelled her towards a greater engagement and stronger sense of art’s emancipatory potential. These daring self-portraits convey confident personal identification and, in doing so, Marušić advocates for the freedom and power of taking control over one’s outward appearance. This sense of reclamation and self-ownership extends to the practitioner’s wider philosophy. Eye-opening, mind-expanding photographs are political statements and a demonstration of how to reclaim the present by looking again, which changes perspective. “These worlds are only there because I make them that way,” the artist states. “I want to show that you have a lot of influence in shaping your own life by how you look at the world.”

This sense of empowerment is contagious. The images linger, highlighting the possibility of altering reality by seeing it anew. Each viewer is invited to see the value in the everyday, which, through Marušić’s eyes, can become flooded with colour – bold, beautiful and pulsating with life.

Words: Rachel Pronger

Out of this World, Nederlands Fotomusum, Rotterdam, until 18 June

Image Credits:
1. Sanja Marušić, Orkater/Konvooi, (2019).
2. Sanja Marušić, Untitled, (2021). From the series Singles.
3. Sanja Marušić, Together, (2018). From the series Singles.
4. Sanja Marušić, HDR1, (2021). From the series One Plus.
5. Sanja Marušić, Untitled (2021). From the series One Plus.