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The key ideas I will discuss revolve around issues of identity, memory, family and culture. The relevance of these issues, in relation to the development of artwork with an autobiographical narrative, is significant, in that the content of the artwork is based purely on a set of family photographs, and the physical experience of the artist remembering. Also, I am an immigrant and in a dislocated context, displaced from my country of origin by thousands of kilometres and many years. I have come to new understandings of the intersections I have created in my experience as a hybrid of two separate cultures, and many subcultures.

In an artist's world, the symbolisation of the self is an integral part of the art making process, as the art work is an extension of the identity of the artist, whether or not the work is of an autobiographical nature. The perceptions of the artist are unique and a product of her or his accumulated experiences, that spring from local or global culture. As well, it is impossible to separate culture from symbolisation which develops from "historically transmitted patterns of meaning" (Lifton, 1993, p.13).

Compounding this hybrid condition is the changing psychological landscape of our world. Over the years of my lifetime the world has shifted from a modern experience to a post-modern fluidity. This has created a shifting sense of self that "differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment" (Lifton, 1993, p.1). He suggests that people from all different cultures are now responding to this with a tendency to anchor themselves in memory, and hang onto the cultural moorings of their identities that usually spring from childhood experiences. I believe that this is a reaction to the multiplicity of postmodern life, to take refuge in the home of memory.

I have discovered during the course of my study that cultural products, media influences and historical dogma have had a major influence on my concept of my identity. Stripping away these layers and exposing them as only influences, not the true structure of who I am, has led me into very interesting territory. I have determined that ideas have been fed to me, and I have heartily consumed them throughout my life. I have developed a new awareness of my identity, that has supplied me with enormous creative potential. Following from this, I assert that I employ metaphorical synesthesia to express my content through the formal elements of painting, and the act of painting. This allows me to translate my memories into the physical object of the painted surface.

The first of several key strands that I will examine is personal history as a poetic construction. This refers to the relationship between memory and narrative which is explored in Chapter Two, followed by a discussion of the impact of the recorded photographic image on the construction of identity and social values. For instance, I will discuss discrepant memories and the challenge of the dubious concept of historical fact. The recorded image has a powerful influence on memory and the recollection of events and feelings in an autobiography, via the family photo album or souvenir. Having access to this tiny, portable and personal museum (Stewart, 1984) can alter the perception of an individual's truth about their experience of the family and life experiences, and it functions as a vehicle for transposing meaning from the past into one's present life and identity. The focus of my studio practice has involved the use of a recently acquired, comprehensive family slide collection that covers the period from 1955, five years before my birth, to the time I left home in 1977. The early childhood years reveal a classic American family of the 1960s and '70s and the photographs record milestones in the family history and souvenir moments. As the studio integration of the theoretical investigation is paramount I will then discuss the objectification of the narrative in my work, and the communication of meaning to the viewer through visual storytelling.

Chapter Three defines family identity as a person's primary historical relationships, and discusses the impact of 'culture' on the development of identity, particularly as it relates to the 1960s and '70s American culture and sub-cultures, such as the military family, and development of both family identity and my own identity as a child of that era. The influence of the media, specifically television, is also discussed.

In Chapter Four I discuss Robert Lifton's concept of the protean self and place my studio work in the context of these ideas and concepts, as well as those previously discussed. The Protean Self is a term coined by Lifton to describe the evolution of a malleable self that responds to a post-modern need to continusously re-invent itself, using imagination. I briefly discuss the work of several artists before looking in detail at the work of American artist Mary Frank, who explores archetypal psychological landscapes, and New Zealand/Niuean artist John Pule, who has undertaken his own journey, investigating his identity and the dynamics of his familial relationships. Lucy Lippard's concept of a "multicentred self" and a "sense of place" is applied to the discussion at this point as well.

Coming to an understanding of metaphorical synesthesia has been integral to my studio work. Synesthesia, in the context of my work, concerns the translation of the memories and physical experiences into art objects. This connection is necessary in my studio processes, linking my theoretical investigation to my studio practice. In Chapter Five I discuss the history of scientific research into synesthesia, artists who have already investigated it and the contemporary neurobiological research that claims there is a connection between human sensory perceptions. My assertion is that an understanding of synesthetic tendencies allow artists to interpret and render experience in their chosen medium.


The sudden and traumatic death of my father in 2001 led to the acquisition of a set of family slides that I had not seen since my childhood. Between 1998 and 2001 my parents had been travelling in a motor home around America. My father passed away in a remote desert town in Arizona. In the back of his pick-up truck was a set of slides; fourteen carousels with over two hundred slides in each, and a projector. All the slides had been labelled and sequenced in chronological order. In the resort where my parents had been staying, my brother and I found a room where we could set up the projector and we spent two nights looking at the images. It was an emotional yet healing experience for us in our time of grief, and transported us back to our rather strange military childhood, living in mobile homes that were a typical feature of a military lifestyle at that time. We compiled a selection of the slides to show at our father's funeral, which was a wonderful celebration of the happy times he shared with his friends and family. The healing power of the images extended to the funeral party.

It took me a full year to convince my mother to lend me this selection of the family slide collection. I had prints made from them, about one hundred and twenty images in total. Having the slides converted to a more accessible and tangible format doubled their impact on me. My enrolment in the MFA program was the perfect opportunity to take the time to explore my personal history and use these images as a starting point in the creation of artworks.

Shāna Carlan-Riddell
Paradise Valley
RD2, Rotorua
New Zealand
Phone +64 (07) 350-2114
Mobile +64 027 659-6538