The first artwork in “See and Be Seen,” the portrait show at Praise Shadows Art Gallery, is an ever-shifting installation of prisms, mirrors, and thread set by the window. As the sun moves, lights, shadows, and rainbows flash through the work.
“Fragile Breath,” in the words of its maker, Katherine Mitchell DiRico, is a “contemporary vanitas still life.” Carefully composed and fixed in place, it still reminds us of how quickly life moves and fades.
In a portrait exhibition, it reminds us that identity is an ether of glinting light, shadows, and the occasional rainbow, spinning against the backdrop of society.
Even the most innocent-seeming portrait here examines power dynamics. A golden-skinned Black baby kicks through shimmering water in Modupeola Fadugba’s enchanting “Swim Baby Swim: Power Puffs.” Fadugba, a Nigerian based in Philadelphia, makes paintings about swimming while Black.
Just as “Swim Baby Swim” conveys hope and freedom, it resounds with a history of racist restrictions to public pools and a foreboding future for this child: In 2014, the CDC reported that Black children were 5.5 times more likely to drown than white ones.
Suchitra Mattai’s gorgeous “Self Portrait as a Stranger” unpacks tangled histories. The Denver-based Mattai was born in Guyana, where her ancestors were taken from India as indentured labor to work on sugar plantations.
A worn, floral, oriental-style carpet unzips to reveal the artist looking directly at us, although her face is largely concealed with embroidery thread and other bright textiles. That commanding gaze insists that we wrestle with a subject, not an object: a woman radiant and tattered, a product of migration, hard work, and code-switching.
In “Café Bombing: Grandpa,” Miguel Angel Payano Jr., an Afro-Caribbean painter based in Beijing and New York, places a silicon, peach-shaped mouth, and eyes of glass cut from a wine bottle against a sky with a drone flying through it. The bulbous mouth focuses on how language and conversation shapes us. Mouth, eyes, and fluffy white hair read like accoutrements dressing up a threatening figure bare as air.
Historic portraiture celebrated power. Contemporary portraiture deconstructs it. “See and Be Seen” reminds us that seeing must be active, not passive. It is reclamation.
SEE AND BE SEEN
At Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 313A Harvard St., Brookline, through Jan. 31. 617-487-5427, www.praiseshadows.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.