‘Without a leg to stand on’ Farihah Aliyah Shah @ Stride Gallery (Calgary)

Historically, Black people have faced several points of impasse on the promise of change; slavery to emancipation, segregation to civil rights and finally to present day.

This series reflects what it means for our society to be at yet another junction for change. As an artist who mainly engages with the still-image, I am reminded daily that this medium was not created for inclusion. It symbolizes a tool of class, power and position. When photography became more accessible and color film was introduced to the middle class, the chemical process used white skin to calibrate images via Kodak’s Shirley Cards. This meant that darker skin tones appeared washed out, grey and inhuman. This was another subtle reminder that Black people and other racialized folks outside the realm of “normal” did not belong. The industry’s change was not spurred by the realization that their product or process was racist. However, the change stemmed from a need to satisfy commercial photography for realistic photographs to sell chocolate and wooden furniture. Property, objects and prosperity were revered over the idea of a Black person’s ability to engage in accurately capturing their image.

In this series, the Shirley Cards are deconstructed to gestures using fragmented body parts (feet, face and hands), wooden table legs, white satin gloves and pearls. The title references the idiom “not to have a leg to stand on” meaning one’s argument is without evidence or merit; this characterizes the ideology of white supremacy. It is nothing more than a fickle fable however the tale persists to impact our society. The images utilize elements of abstraction and fake objects and are paired with a single-channel video installation which explore the appropriation of Black culture.

As we are challenged by various calls to action to disrupt and dismantle frameworks of white supremacy and colonization, will our impetus to change be motivated by social consciousness or will we continue to only support causes we are able to financially capitalize.

Farihah Aliyah Shah is a lens-based artist from Bradford, Ontario. She holds a BFA in Photography with a minor in Integrated Media from OCAD University. Using photography, video and sound installation, her practice has a discourse with photographic history and explores identity formation through the colonial gaze, race, connectivity to land, and collective memory. Shah was the 2019 recipient of the John Hartman Award. She currently is a member at Gallery 44 – Centre for Contemporary Photography and Women Photograph an organization that advocates for Female Identified and Non-Binary photojournalists. Shah has exhibited internationally in Asia, Europe, and North America.