Jen Kiaba‘s photographs from ‘Burdens of a White Dress,” set before us a series of surreal self portraits that reflect her birth into a fringe religious movement – a cult that everyone is familiar with, the Unification Church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon – that sees a woman’s value intrinsically tied to her purity and virginity and, after marriage, motherhood.
Kiaba has since left the Church her parents raised her up in, however, her total immersion in the religious fanaticism of the Moonies, and eventual confrontation with it, has led her to create stark, provocative works of art that give her space to question everything she was brought up to believe.
Most of us have never had the experience of confronting ourselves, our very being, in relation to a repressive religious cult dominated by self – styled messiahs, yet here we see the work of an artist who is both strong, articulate and passionate about how she has been shaped by an extreme experience. And it’s within this context that Kiaba explores femininity, women and their role in society; how patriarchies the world over have sought to subjugate women in every facet of life and society and by any means necessary.
In these photographs Kiaba is specific, in these images she explores the concepts of shame, of evil, of wantonness, and of the blood of womanhood, birth and death. Here’s what she has to say about her work:
My work is about the loss of feminine agency that occurred in my youth growing up in the infamous Unification Church, a religious group referred to by popular media as a primary example of a cult, and its resulting internal landscape. This experience had a lasting effect on my psyche and sense of identity, and it is through writing and photography that I work through these effects.
Growing up in my insular community of religious fanaticism and charismatic, dangerous self-styled messiahs I was intimately familiar with precise, though backwards, logic. My journey into adulthood saw me plunging headfirst towards confronting those dangerous, faulty forms and proofs, unravelling the colourful spectacles of my childhood until only a tired and tattered man-behind-the-curtain remained.
My photographs are about those transitions and discoveries. They chronicle moments of fear, of awakening and oftentimes utilize characters to confront spectators, daring the viewer to follow them down the rabbit hole.
Because this was my own personal experience of leaving a repressive religious environment, I often use myself as a model. My body is then contorted or manipulated to demonstrate the internal effects of the struggle that it is to free one’s mind from a controlling belief system, and to demonstrate the repressed place that femininity had in my world.