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National Academy Museum & School– SELF: Portraits of Artists in their Absence

Published on
February 23

I will not deny that the allure of self-portraits by big names like Marina Abramovic and Chuck Close caught my curiosity, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the best part of this exhibit was the diversity of voices. SELF: Portraits of Artists in their Absence at the National Academy Museum was superbly curated. In the age of the selfie, this exhibit created a much-needed space for reflection.

The pieces in the exhibit were in lively, clear communication with one another, with many contemporary political themes running through. A theme that resonated with me was how women use the self-portrait to criticize the silencing of their identitiy. In the following two pieces, though the artists come from different cultural contexts, they both reclaim motherhood and address the representation of women’s bodies to establish the importance of their visibility.

In Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004) the unapologetically tattooed, short-haired, hefty artist photographs herself topless cradling her infant as she breastfeeds, gazing tenderly at her child. Her attributes are outside the mainstream representation of motherhood or idealized femininity but through the work we are forced to confront that she does exist and her identities or performativity of gender norms are not antithetical to tenderness. This is exemplified best by her strategic pose reminiscent of the Madonna and Child. The piece also reclaims the female body from sexuality and confronts the breastfeeding taboo through its direct portrayal of a mundane action.


Right across from Opie’s piece in the first floor is Mother, Daughter, Doll (2010) by Boushra Almutawakel. The piece consists of a series of photographs of the same pose with her toddler sitting on her lap holding a doll. As you look from left to right you see a progression in covering which starts with the artist wearing a hijab that shows her hairline, to her daughter wearing one too but not showing a hairline, to all of them including the doll wearing an abaya, then a niqab, then a burqa, until the final photograph has a black veil covering the lens and you can tell they are no longer sitting in front of the camera. In the spectrum they move from toothy smiles, to flat expressions, to not being able to see their expression. 

Her piece prompts a questioning of how much covering is required for modesty (whether it is related to sexuality if children are covered too or if the feelings of women about it matter) and through her final photograph suggests that perhaps it is not women’s bodies that are the problem. The final photograph also reverses the roles and makes the gaze emphasize with the experience by showing what the world looks like through the veil.


The National Academy is not just a museum but also an association of artists and architects dating back to 1825. In order to join the academy, potential academicians must submit a work to the collection and this has often included self-portraits. It was neat to see those traditional genre paintings of self-portraiture and they provided contextual contrast to the expressive or experimental leanings of more contemporary artists.  Beneath the majestic stairs on the first floor, behind the iconic Robin Hood costume, the museum had a gallery dedicated to self-portraits by students in their school. Their work varied in medium and frequently stepped beyond literal representation. This gallery also held one of the most exciting features of the exhibit: a photo booth. We were encouraged to pin up one set of our photos on a display wall. Seeing the wide interpretation of self-portraits by visitors was quite a treat.


I was curious about the school element of the National Academy Museum and School and had a chance to interview one of the students, Sofia Echa, an artist that specializes in abstract paintings on aluminum sheets. The National Academy School is a continuing education institution. It offers classes in various artistic mediums and it also has a Studio Art Intensive program. Sofia participates in the program and had nothing but praises for her studio space, the individualized attention she receives from professors to develop her own voice, the many exhibition opportunities (including a solo show), and the thorough introduction to navigating the art world. Though she studied Economics in Russia, the Studio Art Intensive gave her the chance to focus on developing her art. The program is proposed as a preparation for competitive MFA programs but Sofia said that with the guidance she receives in navigating the art world and her productivity, she feels comfortable that good work can stand on its own. The National Academy always pairs its exhibits with student work and that exposure and inspiration is worthwhile. The National Academy does an admirable job integrating its role as a museum with its service to its students.


SELF: Portraits of Artists in their Absence is on display at the National Academy Museum until May 3rd. You can learn more about the National Academy School through their website If you are interested in seeing Sofia Echa’s work, visit