Meet Cara Judea Alhadeff: An Emerging Artist in the SFMOMA Collection

Meet Cara Judea Alhadeff: An Emerging Artist in the SFMOMA Collection
Terri Whitlock

One of the great pleasures of my role as curatorial associate in the Department of Photography at SFMOMA is the opportunity it provides to discover the work of emerging artists. One such dynamic young artist is Cara Judea Alhadeff, a San Francisco-based photographer and performance artist who first showed her photographs to Sandra Phillips in 2001. Since then, we have watched her work evolve and have purchased two of her photographs for the collection. Recently, she spoke with me about her background, influences, and intentions.

Alhadeff’s identity as an artist might seem almost predetermined when you learn that she was born into a family whose artistic roots run deep. Her father is an art historian whose scholarship focuses on the work of Michelangelo and Géricault; her mother is an artist who began her career as a painter, but recently expanded into installation art. The family’s home in Boulder, Colorado, was filled with modern and African art. Although her childhood was immersed in the world of art and intellect—her bedtime stories were Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the writings of Foucault and Goethe—she did not immediately embrace the artist’s life. It was not until she returned to the United States for college—she spent her first post–high-school year living in Belgium and North Africa—that she was drawn to art making. At Sarah Lawrence College, she met Joel Sternfeld, who was teaching color photography at the school. His enthusiasm for her photographs encouraged her to take up that mode of expression seriously. She worked with him for two years before leaving upstate New York for Pennsylvania, to be closer to her mother, who had been diagnosed with leukemia. At Penn State University, Alhadeff devised her own program of study and created a body of work that dealt with multiculturalism and issues of difference—how difference is represented and how those interpretations are manifested. Using her mother’s experience as a catalyst, Alhadeff launched into a project that investigated, as she describes it, “representations of the medicalized body and notions such as the diseased body as other.”

The two photographs in the museum’s collection—The Spectacle of the Invisible and Disarticulated Membranes—were made in 1993 and 1994 while Alhadeff was at Penn State. Her works’ lyric titles, which are often excerpted from journal entries, compliment the enigmatic quality of the pictures they describe. Like portholes in the search for meaning, the titles are selected to invoke a visceral experience in the viewer. Spectacle of the Invisible came to her when she was in a workshop about racism. She liked its layers of suggestion, the way it describes “the emotional aspect of walking outside and what happens with our interactions with people; it captures the vulnerability inherent to the public sphere; it reveals the disguises we don when our private selves cross into the physical and conceptual boundaries that define public space.”

Alhadeff’s work cannot easily be categorized, perhaps because her influences come from such diverse sources. When asked which artists most influence her work, she names Frida Kahlo, Kiki Smith, and Ann Hamilton. The connecting thread to Kahlo’s work is apparent; like the surrealists, Alhadeff says she explores “the everydayness of our sexuality and the constant possibility for our transformation.” These philosophical layers of possibility that interest her are also influenced by her emersion in the practice of yoga. Her photographs embrace the very definition of yoga—to be at ease with the difficult—and the discipline’s aim of finding clarity in the midst of movement and chaos. Many who have modeled for her pictures have told her that the experience empowered them with a new kind of awareness and respect for their individual beauty. She believes that the pictures are like open spaces that allow her models “to be free in their uniqueness and to impeach cultural notions of the ideal.”

In her photographs, Alhadeff includes organic and synthetic objects with her models, with the objects and bodies juxtaposed in such a way as to blur the line separating them. In The Spectacle of the Invisible, she depicts a surgical glove stretched over a gourd with a woman’s breast pressing against a piece of glass. The pairing of a glass slide with a latex glove, which gives the enveloped gourd a membranous appearance, connotes the space of a laboratory and its clinical view of the body. The manner in which the breast is pressed against the surface of the glass suggests a mammogram, further critiquing the dissecting eye of science, which fragments the body into diseased parts versus healthy ones. On a formal level, the strong relationship between the flesh-toned gourd and the breast is immediately recognizable. The gourd’s protruding knobs suggest the nipple of a breast. The two objects appear as a double—one almost a reflection of the other in the glass that separates them. The poetic comparison between the breast (representative of human life) and the gourd (representative of the natural world) suggests the dynamic union of these two realms. In her pictures, the body parts and objects constantly slip into and out of their human vs. nonhuman categories. She locates the self in relation to the world it inhabits.

The womblike composition of Disarticulated Membranes presents intimately tangled bodies. When this photograph was on view in Picturing Modernity: Photographs from the Permanent Collection most viewers paused in front of it. Its sensual, abstract composition held their attention and challenged them to form opinions and interpretations about its content. The picture positions the viewer in that powerful experience of attraction/repulsion and invites them to investigate their assumptions of what they are seeing. By challenging the viewer’s expectations concerning beauty and order, Alhadeff offers an alternative system for organizing the world and understanding our place within it. She questions the body’s fundamental identity and the wholeness of our concepts of it. She confronts the deep-seeded cultural distinction between public and private, self and other. Ultimately, the subject Alhadeff explores is our undeniable connectedness.