At the Art Gallery: The Photography of Theresa Bertocci



Photo-documentary on Arranged Marriages Hightlights Exhibit…….

Through April 28th the Lewis University Art Gallery is presenting a photography exhibition by Theresa Bertocci. This exhibit is the 11th in a line of exhibitions dating back to the gallery’s opening in January of 2013. This wonderful addition to the Fine Arts building has proven to be a campus magnet under the direction of the Art Department and the ambitious gallery coordinator Director Natalie Swain. They are to be credited for contributing mightily to the development of visually literacy on campus.

The exhibit by the talented Ms. Bertocci, a graduate of our university with an English degree, is really three exhibits in one. The featured exhibit is one on arranged marriages, a cultural practice that many Americans, most of whom are products of love marriages, find a difficult time comprehending. Most media images present us with the dating and courtship customs of free-floating individuals who choose a spouse without parental involvement, at least not with the strong visible parental authority and consent one finds in arranged marriage situations.

Ms. Bertocci’s project began in the wake of 9/11 when she, like so many citizens, became agitated by the knee-jerk misconceptions of members of the American Muslim community. Arab women wearing hijabs were viewed as meek, powerless actors in a misogynist male-dominated culture and the veil was synonymous with subordination and low female self-esteem. Eager to get at the fuller truth of the lives of Muslim women, especially married individuals, Ms. Bertocci sought out subjects for her photo-documentaries. Building upon a class in the photo-documentary that she took as part of her education at Columbia College, she set out to do this important anthropological work. In her Arts and Ideas Gallery Talk, she revealed the delicate negotiation in getting subjects to join her in the project. Although she encountered some refusals from individuals who looked at the effort as yet another tiresome exercise in self-justification, many of the individuals complied. They were able to see that the photographer’s goals were their goals: to reveal the richness and complexity of their lives, and, in the process, to cut through misunderstandings.

This first section of the exhibit is made up of eight large photos, five couples, one widow, and two community matchmakers. The photos of the married couples are accompanied by interviews of the subjects and by a smaller photo taken on their wedding day. The overall effect is of individuals of different faith communities — Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Muslim — who stand proudly and confidently in front of the camera and celebrate the vitality of their commitments. The viewer has a chance to read excerpts of interviews with the individuals, skillfully edited by Ms. Bertocci, who prior to her career in photographer, was a professional writer in the corporate world. Each of these panels tells a remarkable story, one that helps to demystify their lives and erase stereotypes.

When asked about her biggest surprise, Ms. Bertocci pointed to her discovery of the strength of the women in these relationships. An arranged marriage does not necessarily mean a forced or trapped marriage. These women were given freedom to reject suitors brought to their consideration by parents or matchmakers. These women saw themselves as empowered females who had a say in choosing their spouse and who freely made a commitment to building a life with a spouse who shared many of the same values and religious beliefs. The arranged marriage is one in which the parents serve in the role of gatekeepers who propose and screen candidates to ensure that the proposed spouse shares religious beliefs and social status. The self-described role of the matchmaker – as exemplified by her Jewish and Palestinian matchmakers featured in the exhibit – is instructive. Although the arranged marriage does not begin primarily with a love commitment, the shared values provide a strong foundation on which a love relationship can develop and deepen. The sociological data reveals that the arranged marriage is much more resistant to desire for divorce, though some of this research does not separate out the forced marriage in which parents exercise absolute control.

The other two parts of the exhibit are absorbing, but in different ways. In one of the galleries, Ms. Bertocci has gathered a series of photographs taken in her global travels that are loosely tied together under the title “Believers’ Series.” Unlike the formal, staged portraits of arranged marriages, these photographs are fleeting, unrehearsed moments captured by a photographer attuned to the wonders of spontaneous daily life. As Ms. Bertocci noted in her talk, the influence here is not the formal portrait photography of Richard Avedon but the candid street photograph of Henri Cartier-Bresson, acknowledged to be the father of photo-journalism. Thus the images captured here are not those of elaborate, public religious celebrations or celebrated religious leaders but rather of the presence of religion and spirituality in daily life. Worshippers gather on a ghat on the Ganges for puja, the Hindu devotional attention to multiple deities. A cantor practices in a meeting room of a synagogue in suburban Highland Park. A solitary woman prays in a crumbling Mexican church. In incense burner lights candles in a Hong Kong temple.

In the last gallery, one finds photographic abstracts, photos treated as painting. Intentional blurred images of landscapes are printed on canvas and conventional stretched and framed as paintings on canvas might be. These minimalist photos show the range of Ms. Bertocci’s art. This is an exhibition well worth visiting.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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