Elevate Difference

The Selves

Sonja Ahlers’ The Selves is a visual essay which combines collage, poetry, watercolor, calligraphy, prose and fabric. The result is a multi-layered and textured work that reveals something new every time you leaf through it. Although pastiche and mixed media immediately come to mind to describe Ahlers’ work, it may also be considered a new genre or a new way of looking at our lives as women in relation to mass media. As passive consumers of pop culture, we assimilate the images and narratives that mass media serve us. Unable to discern the promoters from the products and the dreams they’re selling, we model our various “selves” from babyhood to old age around the ideals these promoters project. At least, that’s my interpretation of the book, but yours may be very different. Now imagine someone appropriating these same images and presenting them in a new way as social commentary. For instance, Ahlers presents an intellectual side of Marilyn Monroe using a rare photograph of her reading, next to a text by Gloria Steinem describing how hard it was for men to reconcile Marilyn’s love for books with her physical appearance. We also see repeated images of Princess Diana throughout her life, from a young woman who marries a prince, to a princess who never lives happily ever after. We also see a very young Angelina Jolie in the company of her father, reminding us that beauty and fame do not exempt anyone from pain. The public is indeed very different from the private. Some serious themes such as suicide, child abuse, self-mutilation, female rivalry and abortion are raised in The Selves, but this book is not without humor. The images Ahlers uses are readily recognizable to any woman born in the 1970s or early '80s, and nostalgia is guaranteed. I enjoyed the author’s unapologetic acceptance of these images into her life and presenting them in a new light to show another side or expose another issue. This visual essay may be hard for some to embrace, but I applaud any artist-cum-author who takes on this challenge and does it well enough to land a publisher. Moving away from the old confines means not letting others define what an acceptable genre is.

Written by: Heather Leighton, August 26th 2010