Sovereignty is Mi’gmaq photographer and mask-maker Duane Isaac’s first solo exhibition in Vancouver. The portrait series documents an Indigenous body in nature outfitted with a fantastical mask – one side overgrown with fledgling greenery while the other half conjures a ghost of the human face hidden beneath – who succumbs to increasingly foreboding flames, mask first. Motivated by the health and survival of Indigenous bodies and Indigenous Lands, Isaac casts his model as a vessel of sovereignty under threat; “Sovereignty explores the questions of autonomy and health of both body and Land. The health of the Land will reflect the health of the body and the health of the body will reflect the health of the Land. One cannot survive without the other.” The figure’s mask embodies this dualism, representing Indigenous identity as equal to and inseparable from the Land.
Isaac’s photographic practice traces the ephemeral, having hand-crafted dozens of surreal and otherworldly masks solely for his portraiture and further heightening their narrative presence through lighting and digital manipulation. Ranging from darkly demure to expressive gaudiness, his masks are opulent, clever, twisted, unsettling, sexy, and unquestionably queer. His lens seeks a balanced relationship between body and mind where masks externalize a rich internal world populated by grotesque and seductive creatures, guided by Indigenous ways of knowing, the queer gaze, environmental angst, and an apocalyptic perspective on the past and future.
Balance is less easily found in Sovereignty – the final photograph is not a portrait, rather a sparse landscape featuring the figure’s red garment amongst the undergrowth, presumably shed in anticipation of immolation. The Land remains, but the body is gone.