Adriana Duke



About princesses, mothers and nymphs: some female images

Adriana Duque, It was (2022)

A portrait – writes Paola Tinagli – is the representation of a specific appearance, but it is also a constructed image of the self that, through the process of art, helps to create and redefine social and cultural ideals and, at the same time, respond to them. That is, the portrait displays “the public face of an identity, shaped by the ideals of the society to which it belongs”.

If this definition of portrait applies to any individual, regardless of gender, it cannot be forgotten that, in the case of women, their representations obey precise ideals of beauty, behavior and presentation, and should be seen as coded messages addressed to an audience able to read and interpret them. This concept of portrait means that, from the XNUMXth century onwards, female effigies are conceived as an exhibition of the family's wealth, which explains the emphasis given to jewelry and clothing. As Tinagli recalls, this display of elegance was not “a gesture of gratuitous vanity, but a significant means by which women made their position visible in the eyes of society”.

It is this idea of ​​the female portrait as a status symbol that is problematized by the Colombian photographer Adriana Duque in series such as Icons (2011) Icons II (2014) and Rebirthing (2018-2021). In the first two series, different teenage models embody an archetype called Maria, who is distinguished by the use of unique ornaments covering her head and covering her ears, very similar to current headphones. A reinterpretation of historical crowns, the rich adornments designed by Adriana Duque establish an anachronistic link between the aristocrats portrayed by past painters, with an “aura of impaviness and natural isolation”, and the teenagers of the present who, thanks to headphones, interpose a barrier between them and the surroundings.

This aspect highlighted by Eder Chiodetto is not the only anachronistic element used by the photographer in recreating her unique portraits of young aristocrats. Sumptuous dresses, adorned with elegant embroidery or red flowers, sleeves with white lace cuffs, pearl necklaces, brooches with natural motifs are part of stagings aimed at showing the female figure as a status symbol. A hasty look would lead to the conclusion that Adriana Duque is simply transposing to photography the norms of a society that she located in certain types of noble fabrics, in elegant embroideries and in jewelry, signs of nobility, magnificence and virtue.

A closer look, however, dispels this first impression. The Marias of the two series, conceived around the concepts of repetition and variation, occupy interior spaces, and not the public scene, in which the exhibition of women's elegance was a way of attesting to the wealth and importance of the family. Even if they are related to intimate scenes, there is something strange in their representations, since, in most of the works, there is no limit between the private space (alcoves) and a free zone like the kitchen. This looms behind theatrical sets decorated with heavy curtains and velvet blankets, discreetly evoking an ideal of femininity based on precise rules: the woman should be raised to be a good wife, which implied the ability to manage the home.

An image from the 2011 series, Maria 08, is quite emblematic in this sense. Wearing a black dress, whose severity is mitigated by a white shirt with lace cuffs, a blonde teenager, who looks directly at the viewer, is portrayed next to a table and against the backdrop of a precarious-looking stove in a space completely dominated by dark shades. The feeling of estrangement is not limited to these aspects. In the 2014 series, it spills over into the plastic brooches worn by Maria 20, Maria 21 e Maria 23; by the baskets of vegetables that hang from the arms of the last and Maria 19; by the unusual gestures of Maria 14 e Maria 17, pictured near tables covered with vegetable produce, peeling a fruit and holding a green apple, respectively.

The search for an ideal, “invented” beauty, which characterizes a part of Renaissance female portraits, is at the heart of the series Rebirthing, in which Adriana Duque updates the legend of Zeuxis reported by Leon Battista Alberti in the treatise from the painting (1436). Tasked with painting a female portrait, the artist, who believed it was not possible to “find all the beauty I was looking for in a single body”, chooses the five most beautiful virgins of Crotona “to extract from them all the beauty that is appreciated in a woman”.[1]

Like the Greek painter, the photographer uses the process of assembling isolated elements, with the help of digital techniques. As she herself declares: “Each of the works places the definition of the portrait in a moving field, because they are not images obtained by simply recording the portrayed subject. The totality of each work is composed part by part, so that each resulting image corresponds, in reality, to dispersed fragments and meticulously reassembled in search of an ideal image, the one that only inhabits the artist's mind”.

Unlike the 2011 and 2014 series, in which different portrait formats were explored – bust, ¾ and full body –, in Rebirthing, the photographer favors the first modality of representation. The result is images of angry faces that occupy the foreground with inquiring gazes in rigorously structured compositions. The repetition of the same frontal pose of teenagers who wear richly elaborate adornments around their necks and have their heads covered with headphones and crowns creates an idea of ​​uniformity, which is not broken even by the presence of black models (Felicia e Grace, 2019) and by a composition like the last princess (2019), fully resolved with white shades.

Two images, however, introduce a difference in the series not only because they display the ¾ format, but, above all, because they bring up the issue of sexuality, sublimated in the other photographs. María Rosal (Fernán‐Núñez, Córdoba, 1961) is a complete writer. She has published children's theatre, has received the Andalusian Critics' Award (2004), the Children's Poetry Award (2007) and the José Hierro National Poetry Award for Carmín rojo sangre (2015). Her poetic work has been translated into English, Italian and Greek.<br/> <br/> This is her second book for children in edebé, after the funniest title, El secreto de las patatas fritas.<br/> <br/> Maria has a very funny sense of humour. (2018) and Eva (2019) receive the treatment of devotional images: they recreate scenes of the Virgin with the baby Jesus, very common in manor houses, in which they performed different functions. In addition to establishing a channel of communication with the divinity thanks to the mediation of Mary, they aimed to offer examples of chaste, modest and diligent behavior to married women. Through the figure of the Virgin, humanized from the XNUMXth century onwards, a pedagogy of family morals is propagated, which gives married women the role of social mediator, “expanding affective ties and redefining the understanding that had hitherto been held of the idea of family”, with important political and economic effects, as Isabelle Anchieta writes.

The good wife should be in charge of the governance of the house, being responsible for taking care of the children, for managing the servants and for a set of daily tasks, although she did not have financial autonomy. Another task attributed to women was the control of feelings and desires, since the Church established a distinction between carnal love, condemnable, and true love, “serene, honest and peaceful”. In symbolic terms, women learned to be wives and mothers through three female figures: Maria, her mother Ana and her cousin Isabel. There was a reason for the incidence of devotional images on the figures of Mary and Jesus: they made it possible to reinforce the affective bonds of the family, guaranteeing their conservation, in addition to instilling in women the virtues of humility and obedience.

María Rosal (Fernán‐Núñez, Córdoba, 1961) is a complete writer. She has published children's theatre, has received the Andalusian Critics' Award (2004), the Children's Poetry Award (2007) and the José Hierro National Poetry Award for Carmín rojo sangre (2015). Her poetic work has been translated into English, Italian and Greek.<br/> <br/> This is her second book for children in edebé, after the funniest title, El secreto de las patatas fritas.<br/> <br/> Maria has a very funny sense of humour. e Eva they are representations of a humanized Virgin, whose main characteristics are soft gestures and a serene countenance. The black Maria, adorned with a crown and a black veil that hides the headphones, presents a white doll to the observer, awakening in him the possibility of assuming the role of a son to be protected by her. The white and blonde Eva is even more human than Maria, as she wears only golden headphones on her head, divesting herself of a supernatural aura. With folded hands, she leans her face towards a black doll, showing feelings such as humility and kindness on her face.

With these two images that put the ethnic question on the agenda, Duque not only performs an operation of desublimation of the Renaissance ideal. The miscegenation implicit in the difference between mother and child becomes an unequivocal sign of the place where the photographs were produced, Iberian America, in which images are generated that introduce changes to the European canon, questioning stereotypes and giving a central role to marginalized figures.

Caps also play a central role in the last series produced by Adriana Duque, “Everything that tries to reveal itself” (2022), presented at Zipper Galeria between August 13th and September 17th. Transparent, revealing plant motifs, they adorn the heads of black girls (Eda, Eva ) and white (Ela, Ema, Adagio), which do not exhibit the hieratic and distant aspect of models from previous series. Eder Chiodetto finds an explanation for this change in the role that the photographer assigns to these new figures. They are no longer the princesses who often confronted the viewer directly; they are nymphs, who “personify the fertility of nature”, endowed with an oblique look, from which “benevolence, empathy and altruism” emanate. If there were any doubts about this change of focus, it would be enough to remember the gigantic figure of Gaia, which occupies the first wall of the gallery, enclosed in a more sumptuous frame than the others.

The black tone that dominates the composition, starting with the color of the model's complexion, gives a solemn look to the image, whose title evokes the Mother Earth of Greco-Roman mythology, born right after Chaos, endowed with immense generative potential. The association between Adriana Duque's photograph and the mythological figure is corroborated by the plant motifs that decorate the elegant black dress, in an obvious allusion to nature's fertility.

The delicate caps that adorn the nymphs' heads reveal a specific meaning when the observer turns his gaze to the most elaborate composition of the set entitled It was : the portrait of a nymph surrounded by flowers, situated inside a transparent cocoon. This is topped by a triptych with elderberry flowers with roots and hummingbirds and flanked by two panels with the same phytomorphic motif, which receive the titles of Queen.

In the second space of the exhibition, the spectator is faced with a universe populated by an even more fervent life. Transformed into membranes or placentas, the caps bring in their interior tiny elements of flora and fauna, which refer to an incessant process of renewal. This process is corroborated by a video, in which a girl builds a private garden inside a luminous structure.

According to Chiodetto, this new moment in Adriana Duque's career began when, looking at a leaf crossed by beams of sunlight, she came across “a membrane, a kind of receptacle, an incubator capable of conceiving lives”. The revelation of what existed inside the leaf – “double paths, labyrinths, connections in rhizomes” – led her to conceive pulsating microcosms of life and energy, preserved in the delicate caps of the nymphs. By opting for these and modest dresses, the photographer goes against the grain of traditional representations of female natural spirits that personified nature's fertility. The nymphs, as a rule, were represented with light or transparent clothes and with their long hair loose or tied in braids.

The relationship between the caps and a teeming life enclosed within them suggests that Adriana Duque is taking a delicate but resolute stand against the devastating consequences of human action on nature. The presence of tiny plant and animal elements in the membranes/placenta seems to be an unequivocal sign of the importance that the photographer gives to all living beings, proposing a critical look at the imbalance caused by the transformations introduced into the environment by humanity. Nature as a creative expression finds a paradigmatic condensation in the caps, which refer to the female generative capacity, understood not only in biological terms, but also conceptually.

After all, the pulsating life of nature forms a unicum with the heads of nymphs, in a demonstration of the possibility of proposing new paradigms based on women's creative capacity. Much more attentive than men to the annihilating effects of violence and destruction, the woman/nymph of Duque could invert the current view of other living beings as “foreigners” in the territory that rightfully belongs to them.[2]

The title given to the membranes/placenta, Espectro, seems to reinforce this perception. The term spectrum, in fact, does not refer only to a ghostly presence, but also to an immaterial figure, real or imaginary, that populates the thought. The specters sheltered in the nymphs' caps can be associated with ideas of nature preservation, with the possibility of restoring a lost balance, based on concrete gestures. The serene countenance of the nymphs contrasts with the seriousness of the grieving Gaia, but this transition must not make us lose sight of the fact that the various images that make up the series point to the same objective: the search for a renewed relationship between humanity and the universe.

For the photographer, the translucent membranes represent the “thin and enveloping fabric of energy that connects us to the world and at the same time isolates us from this world, protects us and at the same time imprisons us, and transforms us into individual subjects”, giving a meaning more dialectical to the “vibrant and mysterious interior that somehow tries to reveal itself”. In this, which is probably her most personal series, Adriana Duque sets aside a closer dialogue with the history of figurative representation to focus on a peculiar reflection on nature and its forms. His approach to the female figure suffers, with this, a sensitive change.

Em Icons, Icons II e Rebirthing, what was on the agenda was not only a critique of representation through the trivialization of idealized situations and the over-idealization of the effigy of women, but also the idea of ​​the subject as a social stereotype. Like artists like Cindy Sherman and Yamumasa Morimura, the Colombian photographer recovers, in the form of parody, “the fiction of a concept of traditional representation”.

Thanks to the technique of living painting, Adriana Duque ends up using representation against herself, in order to challenge her authority and criticize art history and its methods of interpretation. If Juan Martín Prada's idea can be applied to the aforementioned series, it is even more congenial to the simulated representations of the Virgin and child, which result from an “accumulation of cultural images”, which can be considered “ironic abstractions” of a genre aimed at for the confirmation of the greatest social role of women: motherhood.

Playing with the distance between memory and actuality and with parody effects, the photographer elaborates a reflection on concepts and ways of interpreting the themes of sex, gender, the reified experience of the world and the possibility of an ironic opposition to it. The elusive nymphs and the grieving Gaia distance themselves from this desublimated vision of cultural references rooted in the past to insert themselves into a tense temporality, in which mythological archetypes are placed at the service of an active idea of ​​the role of women in configuring a new order thanks to to a mental attitude attentive to silent life impulses, but full of beauty and harmony.

* Annateresa Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Visual Arts at ECA-USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reality and fiction in Latin American photography (UFRGS Publisher).



ALBERTI, Leon Battista. from the painting; trans. Antonio da Silveira Mendonca. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 1999.

ANCHIETA, Isabelle. Images of Women in the Modern West. São Paulo: Edusp, 2021, v. two.

CHIODETTO, Ed. “Icons” (2014). Available in: .

_______. "Everything that tries to reveal itself". São Paulo: Zipper Galeria, 2022.

PRADA, Juan Martin. Postmodern appropriation: art, appropriationist practice and theory of postmodernity. Caracas: Editorial Fundamentos, 2001.

TINAGLI, Paola. Women in Italian Renaissance art: gender, representation, identity. Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

VIDAL, Nara. “Life after death”. four five one, Sao Paulo, no. 61, Sep. 2022.

GALLERY ZIPPER. “Renaissance” (2019). Available in: .

_______. “Everything that tries to reveal itself” (2022). Available in: .



[1] The story had been narrated in book II of the treatise of the invention (88-87 BC), by Cicero.

[2] The idea of ​​the “foreigner” was suggested by reading the article “Life after death”. In it, there are references to a reflection by Christian Dunker on “land as possession, based on the treatment given by the European invaders to the original peoples of the Americas, who were treated by them as foreigners in their own territory”.


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