airport_transferbarbathtubbusiness_facilitieschild_activitieschildcareconnecting_roomcribsfree_wifigymhot_tubinternetkitchennon_smokingpetpoolresturantski_in_outski_shuttleski_storagesmoking_areaspastar
Sign In
Image courtesy of Joana Ricou
Image courtesy of Joana Ricou
Save to wishlist

Joana Ricou: Self Portraits And Belly Buttons

Picture of Jordan Hanson
Updated: 23 December 2016
Brooklyn-based artist Joana Ricou wants to know what you’re made of – literally. Inspired by cutting-edge research in microbiology, her art installations, ‘self-portraits’, and paintings aim to explore the multiplicity of human existence, with our identities and our physical and metaphorical boundaries. Her art resolves the duality of art and science, and in doing so, reveals our dynamic, evolving, ever-changing selves. We delve into Joana Ricou‘s life, and her life’s work.

Originally from Portugal, Ricou moved to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University, graduating in 2004 with a B.S.A in Biological Science and Arts. The program allowed her to split her time between the laboratory and the art studio, and this became the impetus for her unique scientific aesthetic. In 2009, she also received an M.S. degree from Duquesne University in Multimedia Arts.

Much of Ricou’s work relies on a reinterpretation and exploration of self, and how our identities can be manifested and affirmed in ways we never expected. Her ongoing project, Surface Markers, chronicles the objects people carry and wear on a daily basis. While the photo series showcases items we all seem to carry—wallets, cellphones, and keys—it also reveals objects that have deeper meanings and histories, reminding each of us of our own individuality.

Surface Markers | Image courtesy of Joana Ricou
Surface Markers | Image courtesy of Joana Ricou

Ricou explains the driving force behind her art on her website, describing it as an interest “in the idea that we each are many—and that from moment to moment, we shift, split, merge, cooperate, compete with or ignore ourselves.” She draws inspiration from her predecessors including Alina Szapocznikow, a Polish sculptor, and Kiki Smith, a printmaker, sculptor and drawer. Both of these artists boldly defied the conventional understanding of the body as being a stable, unified entity, creating art that showcased the assorted and variegated aspects of the human body and consciousness.

Ricou builds on the work of Szapocznikow and Smith through science, working closely with researchers and scientists in order to investigate questions of identity and self in her own art. In Other Selves: An Artistic Study of the Human Microbiome, Ricou created ‘living portraits’ out of human microbiomes (a collection of microorganisms found on the human body that includes bacteria, fungus, mites, and algae essential to our physical health). After collecting swabs from her environment as well as her head, face, and hands, she let the samples grow in an incubator. The results were a visual representation of her other, unnoticed self; this self we often forget is there because it is so difficult to see with the naked eye. Once she photographed her personal microbiomes in petri dishes, she collected individual samples of microbes and let them multiply and regrow in a controlled environment until they became ‘living paints,’ which she used to create a ‘living self portrait’.

Image Courtesy of Joana Ricou
Image Courtesy of Joana Ricou

Her Bellybutton Portrait Series builds off her work with microbiomes by asking participants to swab their bellybuttons to create their own portraits. The results bridge the divide between science and art, allowing the objective collection of scientific data to become something much more personal and evocative, as each participant is asked to create a specific representation of one’s self.

Bellybutton portrait no.9. Photograph 2013 | Image courtesy of Joana Ricou
Bellybutton portrait no.9. Photograph 2013 | Image courtesy of Joana Ricou

Among other projects, Ricou also drew inspiration from Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells, the first immortal human cell line derived from Lacks, an African American woman who passed away from cervical cancer in 1951. HeLa cells have played an important role in the development of polio and HPV vaccines. This has had the unfortunate consequence of obscuring and negating Lacks’s humanity. Ricou attempts to rectify this through a series of portraits based on the two blurry photographs of Lacks still in existence, ultimately serving as a reaffirmation of her identity.

Henrietta Lacks no. 3. Oil on Wood. 20x20. 2013. | Image courtesy of Joana Ricou
Henrietta Lacks no. 3. Oil on Wood. 20×20. 2013. | Image courtesy of Joana Ricou

Ricou’s works defies boundaries. Her commitment to the pursuit of both science and art has led to her work in science-art and education and her collaborations with the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Science Center, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. In 2005, her painting was featured on the cover of The Journal of Neuroscience, serving as a testament to the way she embraces her varied interests, using science to enlighten art, and vice-versa.