If the eye is indeed the light of the soul, as they say, then Johanna Barthet lays many of her subjects bare in her latest exhibition Now/you/see/me.
The faces that look out at you from her series of small portraits, one hundred and ninety of them, do so with casual glances, saucy stares or timid sidelong looks, but always with an intense eye contact that reveals a restless sea of subconscious thoughts and feelings.
Barthet does not make a secret of the fact that her interest are the secrets that are hidden inside each one of us and that we are reluctant to share, not out of some form of lack of generosity but because, often, they are sadly hidden to ourselves as well. When that’s not the case, they are unconsciously swept under the carpet for fear of facing our demons or, simply, of the judgement of an unforgiving society.
When these secrets are revealed, however, sometimes willingly, often not, it is a magical moment. In Huis Clos, his famous play about Hell and the mirror, Jean-Paul Sartre describes this event that sometimes takes us by surprise. “I am going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become”. It is always the eyes that give us away. It is the eyes that can create a moment of ecstasy that is the germ of a possible future.
Visting the exhibition feels like attending a party. Everyone wears a mask or carries a prop, a necessary crutch that is like a protective armour hiding undesired vulnerabilities and ambiguities. There are purple boas and fur collars and spotted scarves that adorn the tilting head; and hairdos that betray fleeting glances in the mirror and invisible hands that nervously rearrange stray locks on a smooth brow. Only the eyes provide access to the darkness behind the mask.
The faces are mostly young, innocent but knowingly seductive at the same time. The majority belong to that fleeting but transformative moment of adolescence when innocence is learning to let go and awareness steps in to manipulate the world at will, a moment when desire and control are present in equal measure. They all know that for all their faults, they have a great capacity to charm.
In these glances are contained the springboards to a profusion of futures. All is yet to be written and new identities are yet to be painfully forged. The visitor is encouraged to look them in the eye. Visiting this exhibition suggests, in however contrived a manner, that you are party to a flirtation.
Now/you/see/me, curated by Justine Balzan Demajo and supported by Fenech Farrugia Fiott Legal, E Cabs and M Demajo Wines & Spirits, is at studio 87 in Valletta. Viewing by appointment by phoning 9932 4466.