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Holding Up Selfies

Francis Cristalfo's HOLDUP in the HOOD project (all photos courtesy of the artist)
A photograph from Francis Crisafio’s “HOLDUP in the HOOD” project (all photos courtesy the artist)

Pittsburgh-based artist Francis Crisafio’s ongoing project HOLDUP in the HOOD extends the definition of the selfie, bringing in a directorial component similar to the one seen in Oli Rodriguez’s rendition. For more than a decade, Crisafio has been documenting an after-school arts program called FACES / a children’s arts collaborative, which works with inner-city youth from the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Manchester. Here, uncovering the self and the selfie requires understanding implications of race, class, and gender at a very young age.

Manchester used to be the home of Pittsburgh’s super-rich in the 1920s and gave rise to artists such as Mary Cassatt, Gertrude Stein, and Martha Graham. Today, it’s a neighborhood in flux. “The neighborhood never seems to get totally gentrified, which sort of sets up this contrast of extreme poverty on one hand and the gentrified set on the other,” Crisafio told Hyperallergic.

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HOLDUP in the HOOD is multi-pronged, engaging the kids through self-portraiture, collage, drawing, and free association. But self-portraiture is the foundation. “I basically take a portrait of each child, and we teach them how to do a drawing of themselves, to really look at their drawings, and then we teach them how to remediate the drawing with collage,” Crisafio says. “So it’s a pretty simple process, but it always produces interesting results from what I am seeing — it’s very collaborative, and how well they are able to pick up on the process and execute it. Some do it pretty beautifully by themselves.”

Unlike the more mainstream, cinematic selfie associations that often come to mind —adolescents acting rebelliously because of privilege, boredom, and hormones — Crisafio notes that the kids he’s working with come from very different types of environments.

“There are a lot of issues with the kids in terms of their emotional states — you’re not just dealing with kids that are coming to school well-adjusted and ready to learn something. So they bring all that into the classroom with them,” he says. “Maybe it’s my background or just me, but the conflicts they come in with bring a certain rawness to the exchange between us. I find that invigorating, even though at times it can be extremely taxing.”

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As an artist, Crisafio says he tends to invest himself in long-term projects in order to take the time to get inside of them. HOLDUP in the HOOD is now in its tenth year, and Crisafio says he’s beginning to witness nuances and permutations that he hadn’t seen before. Initially begun as documentary-style photography of the neighborhood and kids, the project evolved into what it is today when Crisafio “started to document the kids doing what they are teaching them [to do in the neighborhood] — shielding their faces and creating a sort of mask.”

Working with the kids themselves brings out an additional, personal layer for Crisafio, who originally comes from a painting and drawing background and started shooting photographs in the early ’90s.

“Collectively, I think they are a self-portrait for myself as well,” he says. “That’s the hardest part for me to articulate — it’s a reflection of my own sense of identity in a way, a part of myself that is hidden away or that I keep behind multiple levels of masks.”

First portraits, then self-portraits, these works become multilayered selfies as they float across the internet, mirroring the Manchester neighborhood inhabitants to the global village at large.

HOLDUP in the HOOD is on view at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (707 Penn Gallery) through November 3.

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