Art essays and curatorial commentaries

Gabriela Tofan – Discourse About the Dynamics of Shame – The Immaculate and the Dirty Look + Interview with the Artist

Gabriela Tofan is an artist born in Romania with high academic studies in art sector: a bachelor degree received from the National University of Arts in Bucharest and additionally, she holds a master’s degree in visual arts from the same esteemed institution. She focuses on the realms of sculpture and graphics, holding deep appreciation for these art forms.

Furthermore, her time spent studying in Italy through the ERASMUS program at the University of Arts in Macerata is worth mentioning for she also exhibited in Italy as well, among other places in Romania such as Bucharest, Iași, Târgu-Jiu, and Sibiu. She is also a tenured collaborator of the National Museum of Art in Romania for more than a decade now, her experience translating greatly into her artwork.

Gabriela Tofan, 2023

Narratives of Shame

In her most recent exhibition, Gabriela Tofan proposes to the viewer an interactive, multimedia discourse that revolves around shame from a feminist perspective. The artist challenges the norms with a unique sculptural design whose potential is being maximized by the colored lights and the projected videos. The result? A mesmerizing, immersive, and captivating experience that embraces the viewers with fascination and curiosity. The amalgamation of different artistic mediums allows for a deeper exploration of the themes at hand, creating a rich tapestry of emotions and ideas.

Through her exhibition, Gabriela Tofan invites the audience to reflect on societal expectations and the power dynamics that underpin them, igniting a dialogue that lingers long after the visit. The intricate interplay between the various elements within the space fosters a greater engagement with the artwork, weaving together a narrative that resonates with each individual. The masterful execution and thought-provoking approach make this exhibition a true testament to the transformative power of art in relation to an undeniable curatorial activism that lies behind this project.

The Immaculata

The main character of the exhibition is The Immaculata, a bust portrayal of a woman caught in a Mona Lisa-like stance, where each viewer could make note of a different state: is she laughing? Is she ignoring somebody? Is she looking away? Or maybe at the sky? At the same time, her presence gave me Nefertiti’s bust-like vibes – therefore she clearly can’t be ignored. Nonetheless, this sculptural presence stands in front of us with a prodigious name that also works as a title: The Immaculata. With obvious Christian references already on our lips, Gabriela Tofan takes The Holy Virgin’s title and carefully places it with great care on her artwork, having a double effect: on a profane level, the artist manages to remind everybody about the purity that we all have and that we should all look for in one another.

Moreover, considering the supporting feminist theme traceable in the exhibition, at this profane level, we can highlight the importance given to womanhood and to everything that it meant for humanity throughout history. On a sacred level, the artist gracefully took womanhood to another dimension, deifying the woman figure in the same way in which artists such as Bernini did with The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa: through sculptured beauty.

The visual enhancement faithfully recreates the peaceful atmosphere of a sacred church, decorated with stunning and skillfully made stained glass windows. A holy place filled with deep understanding, unwavering commitment to equality, and the embodiment of pure goodness. It stands as a guiding light, specifically dedicated to honoring and empowering women, promoting a sense of safety, calmness, and cooperative efforts. Within these special walls, an extraordinary temple emerges, one that boldly embraces and emits an unwavering aura of genuine love that extends compassion to everyone.

It is a sanctuary where differences are celebrated and valued, a sanctuary that challenges and rejects hateful communication. The Immaculata, an esteemed symbol of resistance against oppression, proudly stands tall above the very stones that were once thrown at her. She bravely stood against the wave of hateful words, emerging untarnished and unbreakable. She has rightfully earned her place in this world, remaining strong and true to herself. Truly, she transformed the very obstacles thrown at her, molding a magnificent temple of resilience and defiance from the very rocks of adversity. It stands as evidence of her lasting strength and unwavering determination.

Dynamics of Shame

It is a discourse that Gabriela Tofan proposed to us, a discourse that opposes discrimination, hate speech, and malevolent intentions of a world that is as divided as globalized today. While the dynamics of shame keep on getting new forms, the Romanian artist looked back at the oppressor not with an aggressive look, but with a redemptive one, through the eyes of The Immaculata. This discourse serves as a reminder that in a world filled with animosity and division, it is crucial to approach our adversaries with compassion and understanding.

The Immaculata’s perspective offers a unique lens through which we can seek redemption and healing, rather than perpetuating the cycle of hatred. Through Gabriela Tofan’s artistic expression, we are reminded of the power that lies in forgiveness and empathy, and the potential for positive change that can emerge from such a perspective.

Interview with Gabriela Tofan

AF: Gabriela, your most recent exhibition, “MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL, WHO`S THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL? Discourse about the dynamics of shame”, opens to us as a fairytale, and gives us an invitation to play multiple roles. Before we discover more about the ideas behind it, I am really curious to hear your insights regarding this project: what was the start of it and how did this theme enter your artistic universe and reached this amazing form?

Gabriela: Hi, thank you for the opportunity to talk about my project. I’m so happy you like it and call this shape amazing. Well, the beginnings were in my student years, I think… I studied in Bucharest – at the High School of Fine Arts and then the University of Arts – both at the Department of Sculpture. And at that time it was kind of hard to make sculpture – the general opinion was that sculpture was made for men, not for women, so I think it all started from there. I was raised to believe that I am NOT GOOD FOR THIS. I didn’t belong there… And over time I felt that I didn’t fit. And maybe that’s where a sense of shame began… that has haunted me over the years

AF: The main character of the exhibition is, by far, The Immaculate. We want to know her better, and for this, I would like to ask you some questions about her: Who is she? How come she bears such a powerful name, actually more of a title related to Christianity? Are we facing something holy?

Gabriela: Well, I think she is a normal Romanian. A good thing to see Christianity in her… She is the real Romanian woman, who used to be a girl who knew that this is a man’s world. Simple! 🙂 And she decided to live life alone. She has created a universe where all people are welcome, not just women of her kind. She tells us that she doesn’t care about the rules or the boundaries of society and that she just wants to live. That’s why she’s smiling! She doesn’t defy us, she doesn’t reproach us for anything, she just smiles and is warm, and welcoming… she conveys that feeling of acceptance, motherly indulgence even. We are not dealing with something holy, but we offer her a holy guarantee if you will. Why this? To believe her. 🙂 

AF: It is clear that we are facing artwork that speaks about womanhood and, correlated with the title, about the shame associated with various subthemes that we could think of in relation to this topic. How do you see this shame from this exhibition point of view, and what should we learn about it from here? What are the forms and shapes of shame related to women, today? Are those spheres at the base of The Immaculate bust stones, maybe? If yes – who threw them? 

Gabriela: We should leave the exhibition with question marks, rather – and not with answers. It should make us think and make us take a mental inventory of life situations that have given us a state of shame, that have accused us of shame, etc… and to free ourselves from all these states (hence the smile and the pink present in the expo). There are many forms of shame and the saddest thing is that all of them lead to guilt – we blame ourselves and that is very sad! because we end up causing ourselves diseases and planned destruction, without even being our fault. :). So, as a woman, first of all, you learn to be ashamed of your body… then to hide it, not to show it, not to intrigue, etc. (biblical scepter still persist!!), then you learn that you have a shameful behavior – disobedient, inappropriate in public, etc. Next comes the shame that lives with your family: the children – how you raise them, how they learn at school, their results, etc. – all these are forms of shame – instead of being prizes from society, they become just pins of shame!! !! Non-verbal accusations…. Sad!!  And yes, those are the stones of accusation, thrown by society at every woman. It is painful to see daily, especially in your eyes as a woman, how even today you cannot express yourself freely and confidently. Attention: without causing damage to others. :). But I would like the statement of the exhibition to be felt as an optimistic, victorious message and not to inspire revolting feelings… the message is of safety and not of insecurity.

AF: The exhibition also carries a profound immersive set-up, and I want to know more about how digital mediums augmented the experience for viewers in this case. Are these digital visual aesthetics the new way of connecting with contemporary viewers? How do you see this transition toward the new Metaverse? Does The Immaculate has a place in the Metaverse, or maybe a fresh start will give us a chance to experience true equality in this new world? Should we expect to experience shame in a world completely shaped by us?

Gabriela: Yes, you noted very well: it is an immersive space in which the visitor is completely included, directly introduced, and captivated. He only perceives the space created, which is very good, for the message of the exhibition. And I think so, today we need to play with all the space around us so that we can convey concrete messages. The visual and the sensory conquer together, convincing the viewer. Yes, the Immaculata has a place in the Metaverse, as every human does. I think that individual representation in Metaverse should give us courage and not scare us: we are not running away from this world, we are just trying to understand it better. We materialize visually (shapes, colors, spaces, etc.) what we think, see in our mind, or think collectively – and I think this will help us to develop strongly. And yes, I want equality in any world – new or old – I want regardless of gender (Attention: the new genders!!) to understand each other. We need to go beyond the limits started 500 years ago… it’s time to evolve! 🙂 

AF: For the final question, I have to say that your exhibition is one of my favorites this year, and I want to thank you for the effort of putting it together in such an amazing form. Lastly, I would like to hear your thoughts on the current state of gender politics in the art world. Are we still facing some sort of misogyny when it comes to the art world? Do you think we are going in the right direction? Is The Immaculate a critique of the current status quo?

Gabriela: I try to talk about the artistic life in Romania – and I say yes, we still have misogyny in Romanian society. Especially in terms of art and culture. In the European and international space, I don’t think we are talking about such a thing anymore… they are far from us, the evolved ones, although from time to time hard truths appear about how women managed to fight in society… this is a tough and debatable topic. But I am talking about art in the Romanian space. That much! I made no compromises either in my training or in what concerns this exhibition. I achieved all of them with great effort – of time, resources, people, etc. – and I did not compromise in any way. BUT THIS IS BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO DO IT… OTHERWISE, THE EASY WAY I THINK IT COULD SOUND A LITTLE DIFFERENT…Immaculata criticizes and defies these contemporary misogynistic attitudes at the same time. It’s pretty tough, although she seems calm and smiling… I would like the Immaculate’s smile to no longer be a reaction to an action by society, but to be an action in itself.

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