With the exceptions of some occasional fold out pages, the text page insert and the interchangeable photograph on the front cover the book is simply an edited catalogue of portraits taken by the character ‘2041’. So it is not the book that is odd, just the subject, who is an octogenarian Englishman quietly obsessed with covering his entire body with customized burqas, niqabs, capes, gowns, hats, hoods and gloves.
After crafting his bizarre outfits at home, 2041 takes his own portrait and shares it online to a community of likeminded people who revel in the variety and sensation of the fabrics they use to hide their own appearance. 2041 has been doing this for a while, but has always had a fascination with dressing up, though not in any perverse or provocative way. In his spare time he paints, sings with his local church choir and is an amateur actor and photographer. As with his online profile however, he wishes to remain anonymous with this book too, which is appropriate as these self-portraits are non-portraits, so they were never about communicating the likeness of the individual, rather they were originally intended to communicate the expertise, ingenuity and sensation of the material physicality of the outfits worn.
What is striking about a lot of the pictures, originally shot at home using a digital camera and flash, is their obvious relationship to traditional portraiture and a handful are genuinely beautiful images with sensual tonality and surface. Many of the textiles are chosen for their luxurious qualities, so we see a lot of silks and wools, cottons and velvets. There are also patterns, stitching, zips, knitting and patchwork, experiments with colour, texture and design. The light washes materials in different ways, it brushes off others and is completely absorbed by those which leave us with a sudden flat shape reminiscent of a human form but completely unidentifiable. One or two images appear to be performances, the wearer jokingly sitting at the dining table, or desktop printer, “sunbathing” on a bench, while others reference classical painting.
Authoring a special piece of text himself, 2041 also includes a hand drawn diagram for creating “The English Burqa” which begins with the line: “This new idea translates the idea of perfect coverage as understood in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the English high street, for anyone who enjoys anonymity, luxury and a sense of drama.” It goes on, “It’s easy; all it needs is a sense of adventure and courage.” While obviously playful and harmless, there is an aspect to this that seems ridiculous when contextualized within the broader spectrum of photographic image culture as a number of the images appear to reference police mug shots and passport photos. These pictures completely subvert the idea of the head-and-shoulders photograph used for identification purposes by officialdom. Whether intended or not this is relevant in today’s world, especially regarding the European Court Of Human Rights supported French ban of the Muslim full-face veil for example.
A further (possibly unintentional) sense of discomfort is implied by the pictures that show 2041 posing in the garden and then the same garden without any trace of the person, as though the individual has literally disappeared. It could read in relation to the notion of anonymity and the desire for the wearer to be ‘invisible’, or taken in context with the socio-political reference to the burqa it could also be read in relation to the practice of control orders, abduction or even rendition associated with the global ‘War on Terror’ and Islamist extremism.
It must be said one cannot get away from the fact that the majority of these costumes are sinister looking; let us ignore the obvious satanic-like hooded versions and consider an individual who completely covers their appearance and hides all that others require to read their intentions creating a sense of suspicion and intrigue – or “drama” as 2041 calls it. Humans have evolved to subconsciously read one another’s face down to minute detail, and when that is removed our instincts are piqued. Who are we talking to? Can we trust someone who readily conceals appearance? In his interview with Peter Brook (Prison Photography), Lewis Chaplin talks about verifying the images for the book, “I can verify 90% of them through their EXIF data, as we have had access to raw camera files. However, it is not necessarily the same person concealed. I think it is this lack of verification that is the titilating point of these images. [sic]”
It is safe to say that portraiture is not about merely describing the physical appearance of an individual. It is about creating an image of an individual that speaks of that person’s inner workings, that expresses that person’s internal world through a purely visual surface rendering. However with 2041 we don’t have a single picture that portrays the individual, but a mass of images; while the face is not visible that is not to say the person beneath the veil is not present, or to put it another way, that the overall picture one sees is indeed a rendering of that person’s character (assuming it is the same person). We can read quite a lot about 2041 by his choice of poses, his penchant for particular materials, his frames of reference and influences. We may not know his real name, or see his eyes and emotions, but we know what he allows us to know. We know aspects of his character: his tastes, his psychological disposition particularly in relation to how he interacts with others, his values regarding privacy and vanity. He lets us into his personal world, while retaining his sovereign control of that visitation. Ultimately this is the same as if he were wearing nothing at all. After all, we only ever know what someone allows us to know.
You can purchase a copy of 2041 directly from Here Press.