Clementine Suite, 2004-2005

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Barbara Astman

Artist Statement

The Clementine Suite, 2004-05

The Clementine Suite of installations is inspired by a photograph that appeared in the National Post in April 2001, depicting a group of approximately twenty young men and women who are posing for the camera, appearing in good spirits and health.  The byline below the image described the photograph as a group of Jewish orphans who have recently arrived from Europe to Canada in September 1947. I saved the image and kept referring back to it, questioning the contradiction between the smiling faces and the text.   I wondered what the true story was behind each smiling face.  It was the contradiction of the inherent joyfulness displayed in the image in relationship to the truth of government quotas and war horrors that has directed this series.  It was the faces of these young people that also instigated this work. 

I explored the use of standard, commercial ready-made lighting systems such as flashlights, disco lights and festive lights as modes of projection for the photographic images of the faces.  These ready-made lighting devices project images of the faces onto their darkened surroundings.  The projections have an ephemeral, magical, almost joyousness to them; yet, a serious intention and reading of them.  The projected faces become ghostly images referring back to a history once lived.  The face on the three hundred small cloth bags draws attention to the place of the individual amidst the multitudes.

I have come to regard this series of installations as a celebration of orphans, of survival and human spirit.  Uniting all of the components in this suite is the use of ready-made novelty objects as means of presenting the portraits. This deliberate reference to Dada concepts emphasizes the celebration of survival, the innocence of youth and the legacy of our collective history in a contemporary context.


“Barbara Astman’s career has spanned more than 23 years of photo-based media innovations, but has always been about more than the lure of new technology. Astman’s staged and sequential work suggests issues of identity, systems of representation, gender perspectives and the anti-narrative of popular irony.” - Ihor Holubizky, art/text 1998


“In the early 1980s, there was a clear delineation between what was considered photography and what was classified as art, and I felt I didn’t fit into either category. That is when I started calling myself a camera artist--one that was working within the contemporary art world as a whole.” - Barbara Astman

Whether household wares or store-bought novelty items such as key-chains, mugs, and ashtrays, much of Barbara Astman’s work involves the use of objects. Imbuing these with memories and histories by means of her artistic process, she dematerializes the material and makes personal the impersonal. In installations such as Clementine Suite (2006) and Enter Through the Giftshop (2011), or series such as Newspapers (2006) and The Red Series (1981), she explores the role that mundane objects play in forming our personal and collective histories while commenting on our consumer culture. Astman was one of the first to utilize the polaroid in her art, treating the medium more like a three-dimensional, malleable material than a flat, two-dimensional surface. She often photographs self-portraits that have been carefully choreographed, so that her image becomes removed from reality: a symbol of a constructed memory. Then, in a process of scratching into, enlarging, Xerox-ing or printing over, the photograph is further removed from a document, becoming closer to an object itself.

Barbara Astman creates photographic series that target the personal world through recollection or revelation. Her early work responds to contemporary feminist issues by incorporating humor and stereotypes to challenge the roles of women domestically and in the work place. Her large-scale photographs from the early 1980s are striking in their bold, unusual use of color and scale.


Throughout her career, Astman pioneered the artistic use of both analogue and digital reproduction techniques. She is among the first to discover and explore the technological practices and concepts that are key signifiers in contemporary art.


Born in Rochester NY, Astman studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the late 1960s when multi-media practices were the hotbed for artistic innovation. Astman came to Canada in 1970 during the wave of draft dodgers from the Vietnam War. Since the mid 1970s she has been a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.