It wasn't until adolescence that Phoenix-based artist Cherie Buck-Hutchison realized she had spent her youth in a cult.
As a young girl, Buck-Hutchison was raised in an ultra-conservative religious family. Within this society, women were prohibited from all official positions of leadership: teaching, baptizing, planning — even working as parking attendants. In response to this harrowing experience, the artist presents a powerful body of work in her photography exhibition “Conjuring the Consecrated,” curated by Nicole Royse, at Bokeh Gallery at the MonOrchid. Through careful digital manipulation, her photographs capture the isolation that women suffer under patriarchal traditions, while simultaneously imagining a better future for these, and all, women.
Buck-Hutchison recalls how her eyes slowly opened to her unique situation. “It kicked in when I saw things on TV — '60s riots, Martin Luther King, JFK, Vietnam — as a child and the protest marches, black power and hippie movements as an early teenager,” she says. “All the questions I asked were answered — by my family, friends and the church — through a very particular religious perspective: The world is ending and these things must occur as prophesied. It is God's will.”
The artist sifted through decades of slide images of her family vacations (which, she points out, were all trips to religious conventions and ceremonies). Like an early episode of Mad Men, we see dresses nipped at the waist with full skirts, horn-rimmed glasses, knee-high socks, and shiny Mary-Jane shoes. The imagery is deceptively idyllic, and the viewer soon realizes that something is deeply wrong. The women and men in Buck-Hutchison's photos exist as if on different planes, creating a tense confusion.
In a twist, the artist has digitally manipulated these images, stitching them together to create haunting prints as she juxtaposes scenes from her personal history. In fact, she invents a new narrative – an alternate reality in which women assume leadership roles. In various works, her aunt “teaches at Sunday school;” her grandmother “turns the Sunday talk into an art history lesson;” her mother “facilitates a pubic reading of the secret book of elders.” These narrative titles lend the stories a note of truth, as if they actually occurred. The women in these images thrive in their leadership roles. Alas, they are all fiction.
The artist's blending of images results in a dreamlike quality, like a fading memory. She calls her creation the “magical Southwest of the future, where women enjoy the same religious privileges and responsibilities as men.” (That the term “magical” is used to describe a potential future for women in leadership roles seems more sardonic than defeatist.)
Buck-Hutchison points out that the struggle for equality in a Western democratic society is difficult to compare to the human rights abuses faced by women internationally. But the marginalization and dehumanization of women in the Western world persists through the dismissal of women’s voices and policing of their bodies.
It takes immense fortitude to live in this world as a woman, let alone a woman who is fighting for progress. Imagining a world free of archaic patriarchal traditions might in fact require some kind of alchemy. Thankfully, for Cherie Buck-Hutchison, the future is female.
"Conjuring the Consecrated" will be on display until February 28 at Bokeh Gallery at the MonOrchid, located at 214 E. Roosevelt St. in Phoenix.