The MFA’s Make Believe Captures Magical Realism at its Finest

October 9, 2019 | By Xandie Kuenning

Collecting the work of five photographers from around the world, Make Believe at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) presents a bewitching world where girls levitate, men shoot paper birds out of the sky, magicians make boys disappear, and women weave cobwebs. While the photographs may portray fantastical realities, the social and cultural issues being critiqued are recognizable to all. 


Photos by Xandie Kuenning

Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene’s images will be the most recognizable to a Western audience. Taking inspiration from works such as Sleeping Beauty by the Brothers Grimm, The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, van Meene’s intimate portraits examine adolescent girls on the verge of adulthood. In Untitled #338, van Meene captures the “contradictory mix of confidence and painful self-consciousness that often characterizes the transition from childhood to maturity,” according to the exhibit’s wall text. In Untitled #468, van Meene visually melds the bodies of two young girls, creating a disquieting image that questions what it means to develop your own personality. The natural lighting intrinsic to all of her work emphasizes the ethereal nature of her images. 


“Untitled 0468,” Helen Van Meene / Photos by Xandie Kuenning

In a similar vein, Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian’s inspiration comes from an early Persian folktale which she read to her daughter during the post-election demonstrations in 2009, during the height of the Arab Spring. In the story, a butterfly is caught in a spider’s web and imprisoned against her will in a dark cellar. The spider offers to free the butterfly, but only if the butterfly agrees to capture another insect. Unwilling to sacrifice any other creature, the butterfly submits to the spider, only to be freed and allowed to return to the daylight. Ghadirian’s Miss Butterfly series turns this tale on its head by portraying Iranian women creating delicate webs across windows and doorways, their faces covered in shadows. It makes for a stark commentary on the traditional role of women in contemporary Iran and the dichotomy between a desire for autonomy and the wish to keep oneself and one’s family safe. 


Photos by Xandie Kuenning

While Ghadirian’s and van Meene’s images use folk and fairy tales to examine social issues, Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, from New York and London, respectively, invented their own world by combining a fictional narrative with documentary photography. In their series Eisbergfreistadt (Iceberg Free State), the two take the historical and often overlooked 1923 incident in which an iceberg drifted into the Baltic sea and ran aground off the German port of Lübeck to create a future in which said iceberg became its own sovereign entity.  Part of their series includes notgeld (“emergency money” in German) belonging to the new nation. Examining the effects of the climate crisis, the images question reality and ask the viewer to discern the line between fact and fiction.  


Photos by Xandie Kuenning

Last, but not least, Italian artist Paolo Ventura employs the narrative framework of children’s picture books — his father was a well-known children’s book author — to examine loneliness, isolation, loss and abandonment. This theme is clearly visible in The Magician. In the first half of the series, Ventura, playing a magician, makes his son disappear. In the second half, the son wanders off, followed by Ventura who disappears into the fog. By placing himself as the protagonist, Ventura delves into his own subconscious emotions to create pieces that resonate with his viewers. 


Photos by Xandie Kuenning

The appeal of Make Believe lies in the photographers’ abilities to meld storytelling narratives with classic photography. Though a small exhibit, it provides plenty of thought for viewers to mull over as they wander through the rest of the museum. 


Make Believe will be on exhibit at the MFA until January 20, 2020.