An award-winning fine art photographer, installation artist, author, professor, and filmmaker, Donna Bassin is an artist heavily influenced by her work as a clinical psychologist and her experiences working with war veterans and at Ground Zero. She uses her art to explore the creative edge of collective loss, grief, mourning, and transformation. She is known for her documentaries, Leave No Soldier and The Mourning After, and her photo series The Afterlife of Dolls – a solo exhibition at Montclair Art Museum that was featured on PBS’ State of the Arts and received both a Golden Bell and Gradiva Award. Her photographic series, My Own Witness: Rupture and Repair, explores the human desire for reconciliation in the wake of social fractures.
“Following the 2016 presidential election, I initiated portrait collaborations between those who – through race, sexuality, gender identity, age, ethnicity, and/or disability – felt they had been deemed invisible and un-entitled to their place in this American moment,” she says of the My Own Witness series. “Storytelling through pose, gesture, gaze, and props, they turned themselves ‘inside out’ to visually assert their identity and invite a visceral face-to-face encounter with their humanity. The shared black velvet background and chiaroscuro lighting create an aesthetic unity, joining the individual to the collective.”
With the arrival of the pandemic, however, Bassin’s work, like so many others, was interrupted. “I had to shut down the portrait studio,” she recalls. “I couldn’t bring people in to shoot them. Then one day, I was reading the news – there was economic disparity, an increasing racial divide, and a discrepancy between who was getting sick and who was receiving care. It was heart-breaking,” Bassin says. Faced with a tide of rising inequality, she felt the need to respond. “I think art is about what you do when there’s excess. I also write as a psychoanalyst, or I did write, but I felt like the writing just couldn’t hold the intensity of the feelings I felt – the helplessness,” she continues. “I’m in a professional group with my psychoanalytic community, people very much engaged in social responsibility. They are incredible scholars and thinkers, and they had written that feeling. I didn’t think that I had anything to add in that way. And you know the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. So one day I went down to my studio, I had one of the My Own Witness photographs out, I looked at it and just ripped it out of despair. Then I looked at it again as I left the studio and I thought, this is the embodiment of the inner rips and ruptures in our culture.”
Channelling the injuries brought on by the pandemic, Bassin decided to use the portraits to bring physical expression to the present unrest. “I ripped the portraits to create ‘wounds’ that reflect our individual and collective traumas. Then, inspired by the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – which mends broken pottery by using gold lacquer to repair damage while highlighting the scars – I restored the torn portraits using golden rice paper and thread,” Bassin recalls. The sewing added a visceral quality; raw, haphazard, and almost undone. “The resulting scars remind us that we must not forget the incidents that create our wounds, but rather use them as inspiration to move forward and mend our fractured relationships with ourselves and each other.”
Explore more of Donna’s work on her website.