Brazilian self-fashioning: Zee Nunes

I’m currently writing an article about fashion photographers working in Brazil for the next Photoworks annual on Fashion and Style Politics []. I’m really thrilled to have been asked, and in preparation I’ve been researching some really innovative image-makers, such as Jacques Dequeker, Paulo Vainer, Guy Paganini and Henrique Gendre. Sao Paulo-based photographer Zee Nunes [], is one of my favourites. Namely because his practice is so hybrid, drawing from a range of photographic genres that encompass ethnographic, documentary, still life, ‘realist’, portrait and art photography. He re-presents these cross-disciplinary influences in subtle and nuanced ways, evoking a range of different moods, whether light-hearted, euphoric, subdued, sombre or enigmatic.

A particularly interesting example of Nunes’ practice can be seen in an April 2014 editorial shot for Vogue Brasil and entitled ‘Glamour Berbere’.[1] This shoot was the result of a collaboration between Nunes, Brazilian stylist Pedro Sales and Afro-Brazilian model, Mariana Calazans. On first glance, Calazans is presented as an exoticised, North African beauty; at one with her lush natural environment, she wears heavy gold jewellery and luxurious Orientalist ensembles constructed from rich, tactile suede and heavily patterned silks. Staged against verdant foliage, the ambiguous images are reminiscent of Jackie Nickerson’s 2002 series ‘Farm’, which documented farm labourers in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe against their working landscapes in thought-provoking portraits that addressed the role of the camera in representing, but also constructing, identity. As a white, European-descended photographer, it might be easy to discuss inherent power imbalances between Nunes and his female Afro-Brazilian subject, drawing upon issues of racism and sexism prevalent within wider Brazilian society. But a closer look at the images easily dispels such claims. Calazans is an active subject, and these images are far too performative and collaborative to be read in such one-dimensional terms of an active (white male) photographer and a passive (black female) subject. The images highlight Calazan’s agency in self-fashioning; she poses in such a way that the distinctions between dress, body and setting are temporarily flattened, and the construction of identity becomes a fluid and performative process. Although reminiscent of European ethnographic photography, these images re-write this well-established genre of domination and objectification in a sophisticated and self-reflexive commentary that serves to erode, rather than to construct, rigid categories of race, ethnicity and nationality.

[1] Zee Nunes, ‘Glamour Berbere: Silhuetas Retas e Elegantes, traduzidas em vestidos e túnicas luxuosamente bordados na típica e rica caartela de cor do mediterrâneo e norte da áfrica’, Vogue Brasil, February 2014, pp. 294-301.