Viviane Sassen’s UMBRA Is Illuminating Walk Through the Shadows

The walls at the Museum of Contemporary Photography are lit this evening by overhanging gallery lights. Photographs of shadows dancing across hidden faces, hunching figures, barren landscapes, and wrinkled clothes hang throughout the gallery, spanning three floors of rooms and egresses. Besides the lights that hang above them, these photographs are illuminated by another source, too—it is opening night of UMBRA, and the space is full of viewers who stop to look at them.

'Black Hole' by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.
‘Black Hole’ by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Known globally for her work in fashion photography and its relation to cultural diversity and identity, artist Viviane Sassen has always been drawn to the presence of the shadow. Through her exhibition known as UMBRA, meaning “shadow” in Lantin, she explores the concept of the shadow and its far-reaching implications on both external and insidious levels.

'Four Shoes' by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.
‘Four Shoes’ by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Near the center of the gallery tonight stands Viviane Sassen herself, wearing a dark striped sweater and palazzo pants atop tall leather boots. She smiles gently and nods as she converses with several of the viewers. Her presence is tall yet humble, and she annunciates with unabashed and inquiring curiosity—much of what has driven her work and has connected it to the world.

“I think I’m not the only one,” says Sassen, “who’s experienced this kind of fear, this existential fear, when I was much younger: the fear of death.”

Sassen was born in Amsterdam but spent much of her childhood and adolescence in Africa where her father worked as a doctor. Living alongside his practice influenced her work “from the very beginning” as she became more and more aware of death in her life. “Death in Africa is something different than death here in the Western world,” she explains. “It’s much more visible and it’s just right in front of you on the streets.” Living with this, Sassen experienced significant internal panic thinking about death. “I always had this idea,” says Sassen, “when you die, that you would float in cold space…forever…all alone…very, very terrible. But…making work and making my art was always also a way to, kind of like a sorcerer, of dealing with my own fears and my own longings.” Just 22 when her father died, “this whole project has been a way of kind of readdressing his death and mourning over his death. In that sense it has been a very personal journey.”

'DNA' by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of artist.
‘DNA’ by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of artist.

Sassen has elaborated on this personal journey by exploring different aspects of the shadow on a universal level, as well: the shadow related to the unknown, the other, xenophobia, fear, it’s relationship with light, as well as the shadow’s role in the medium of photography itself. While human eyes are able to discern more details within a shadow, a camera may only read it as pure darkness. The resulting photograph creates a distinct and separate experience of the shadow. Through Sassen’s work, the camera acts as a documentary medium through which the shadow is viewed, revealing (ironically) the many layers of our perception. The photographs draw just as much significance to what we see as to what we do not.

UMBRA’s museum installation is composed of 7 chapters of photographically-driven works, containing not only photographs, but elements of video, photo-manipulation (e.g. drawing and cutting), projections, poetry, and sound. Many of the works contain references to art history and philosophy, expanding their emotional content to intellectual grounds while echoing the universal significance of shadow.

As part of the show opening, Sassen called in a panel of “shadow specialists” whose work also relates to the shadow. The group included Jungian analyst Mary Dougherty, shadow puppeteer Myra Su, astronomer Dr. Andrew Johnston, and fiction writer Maryse Meijer. This opened discussion on the shadow’s many interpretations, aspects, and applications, bringing to light the weight of its universal significance.

'Finger Sheet' by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.
‘Finger Sheet’ by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Still, with Sassne’s UMBRA, the sense of something very intimate and deeply personal remains. As one encounters the show, though surrounded by crowds of viewers and a plethora of connections, there is a striking sense of isolation that can only be found in facing darkness.

“[UMBRA] has been a kind of soul-searching,” Sassen reflects, “a kind of journey into my own personal shadows.” While it connects to so many concepts and perceptions, UMBRA remains to be a look within. Externally quiet and internally loud, the works of UMBRA are, first and foremost, an intimate experience.

Walking through the gallery, one is faced by large prints of figures masked in darkness, small photographs of trailing shadows, swooning projections of passing light, colored shapes arranged along the geometries of spanning landscapes. Some photographs are cut into, drawn over, or pinned up, while others hang eloquently with heavy presence. Stepping through the gallery feels hauntingly transcendental— like passing through layers of black silk, one is just another shadow among the others.

'Cardinal' by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.
‘Cardinal’ by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Through her work, Sassen has come to find that “The shadow is not only about death and misery. There is also a colorful shadow, which is much more philosophical maybe, and spiritual.”

'Axiom M' by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of artist.
‘Axiom M’ by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of artist.
'Axiom BO1' by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of artist.
‘Axiom BO1’ by Viviane Sassen. Photo courtesy of artist.

This led to the creation of more abstract pieces, investigating color and form through the manipulation of shadow, which are also included in the collection. These contrastingly colorful works intercede with a sense of control and impartment, highlighting a side of the shadow one might not normally think about.

UMBRA comes across through intersections of dark and light. As the gallery closes for the night, the lights are turned off and Sassen’s works are left in the dark. In a show that delves headfirst into the infinite spectrum of darkness, there is much to be found—and still much that remains unknown. But perhaps that is just as much a part of it.

UMBRA opened at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, 600 S. Michigan, on January 26 and will be on view until April 1. The museum is open 10am-5pm Monday through Friday and 12pm-5pm Sunday. Admission is free.



Stephanie Lenchard Warren
Stephanie Lenchard Warren

Stephanie Lenchard Warren is a visual artist and nonfiction writer. Her work explores finding ourselves in nature as well as the nature in ourselves.

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