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Are selfies the successors of self-portraits?

Published 14 Jun, 2019 01:45am
Untitled-48 | Courtesy Canvas Gallery
Untitled-48 | Courtesy Canvas Gallery

Selfie, a digital image taken of oneself with a smart phone, has slithered its way into becoming one of the most common forms of self-expression in the 21st century. On average, a whopping 93 million selfies are reportedly taken worldwide each day. Can these be seen as successors to the once ubiquitous self-portraits made by artists?

The practice of making self-portraits goes back centuries but the term is most closely associated with the paintings made since the start of, what in history is known as, the Renaissance period. This is when the concept of individualism first entered the political and philosophical lexicon.

At its core, individualism is the idea that an individual matters more than a collective. Individuals do not need to subject their values, desires and aspirations to anything bigger than themselves whether it is family, community, church or government. A correlated meaning suggests that individuals are capable of doing great things on their own regardless of whether they have – or do not have – any support from entities larger than themselves. These ideas, along with vast improvements in the methods to produce mirrors, allowed Renaissance artists to paint themselves as they appeared in their own reflections.

A few centuries later, individualism has evolved to acquire both new meanings and new dimensions due to various economic, political, cultural and psychological reasons. On the one hand, it is becoming synonymous with self-absorption and narcissism while on the other, it has made individuals look for validation. The selfie phenomenon is a manifestation of both narcissism and the need for validation.

It is interesting to see how selfies are also becoming a part of the oeuvre of a number of visual artists. Take A Piece Of My Heart exhibits one such body of work.


The artworks exhibited in the show are a mix of 61 paintings and 17 digital prints. The sheer number of works displayed in the gallery seems to be an attempt by the artist to show how selfies have all but taken over social media platforms.

Primarily consisting of a series of selfies, the works in the show also contain images and texts taken from the mobile phone of its creator, Anjum Alix Noon. Some of the images include the phone itself, much like how phones appear in many selfies taken from mirror reflections.

The paintings in the exhibition are largely expressionistic. Noon uses bold strokes and contrasting colours to make her work look like portraits. She layers her palette of contrasting tones onto paper while her strong brush strokes lend her portraits vigour, emotion and a personality of their own. Her colour selection also produces a rather serious and morbid tone throughout the exhibition, forcing the audience to realise that there is more to her work than what meets the eye.

Dopamine is primarily the ‘feel good hormone’. When released in someone’s brain, it makes them feel blissful, euphoric and motivated. Naturally, one would want to feel like this all the time. Studies have shown that ‘likes’, ‘emojis’ (hearts, flowers, smiley faces) and positive comments that people receive through their social media accounts, especially after they have uploaded their selfies, release dopamine in their brains. This probably explains why social media has been flooded with selfies in recent years.

Noon has played with this concept in her work Dopamine Flag 1. It is an interactive piece, which invites the audience to approach a digital print and cut out hearts painted on it. By taking out painted hearts, members of the audience provide visual proof of the need to be liked and validated by others.

Red hearts, flowers and yellow circles depicting emojis appear in several other works in the exhibition as well. Noon is clearly aware of the sensations that these images represent and makes a good use of them.

Her work also touches upon the term “selfitis” (the obsessive taking of selfies) that first became fashionable in 2014. Though it was later debunked as a hoax, some recent studies have shown that those who died while trying to take selfies in dangerous areas were going through the same gamut of psychological experiences. Their feelings are reported to have mirrored the characteristics of what in psychology is known as obsessive-compulsive disorder in the sense that they were looking to take the most perfect, the most satisfying self-image.


Perhaps taking a cue from these studies, Noon describes her work as having “all the elements bordering obsessive behaviour and compulsive disorder”. Since no image that she has created is perfect, she needs to make as many more as it takes to produce the most flawless one. Yet that perfection remains elusive. Her portraits, therefore, remind her audience how even the best-looking selfies are not always accurate representations. Advances in technology have made it extremely easy for anyone to manipulate images until ‘perfection’ is achieved.

This is where the relationship between individual, society and technology becomes a dangerous vortex. Noon highlights this by complementing her largely traditional mediums with an imagery that is all about high-tech innovation and its impact on individuals, as well as the society. She compels viewers to take note of the psychological and emotional problems arising out of a relentless pursuit for individual perfection with help from the latest technologies. In the process, she seems to be posing a grave question: what will the future hold if we continue treading on the same self-absorbed path?

The writer is a recent graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.

This article was published in the Herald's June 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.