Barbara Astman, Dancing with Che, 2003


While visiting Cuba, Astman was drawn to the emblematic design of novelty items that had been emblazoned with the face of Ché Guevara, a Cuban revolutionary leader prevalent during the 1950s. Astman found herself interested in the proliferation of his image, observing how his portrait continued to be appropriated – so many decades after his death – by various groups as a symbol of extremism.


In Dancing with Che, Astman examines the blurring identity between historical figure and pop culture icon. Addressing the issue by imbuing the now banal image of Che with the physical presence of her body, creating a personal, as well as a present moment, in which act as a fading reminder of a historical and cultural past.


When viewed sequentially, Dancing with Che is a fictional performance between Astman and her dance partner, Che Guevara. Astman uses her image to evoke an emotive narrative—rooted within her psyche and based on her own lived experience, completed in the viewer’s imagination—through carefully orchestrated compositions of poses, gestures, and form.

“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.