Adad Hannah didn’t have a traditional upbringing. As a child, the artist spent his time touring Europe with his family while performing experimental theatre.
“We would busk. I learned math counting money in a hat,” he said.
But there was one aspect of his childhood that really stands out. Hannah remembers a certain photo that hung on his wall when he was a child. The photo, or rather newspaper clipping, showed his grandmother painting a portrait of his mother, who, at eight or nine, was sitting stock-still in a chair, posing. The photo was taken in a military base in Alaska in 1953, 18 years before Hannah was born, where his grandmother lived while his grandfather served in the U.S. army.
It’s this photo that sparked Hannah’s latest exhibition, currently featured at the Koffler Gallery. Three Generations is a video-recorded tableau vivant – a medium that Hannah specializes in.
Literally, a “living picture,” a tableau vivant is a way of recreating a photo using live actors. Hannah, a Vancouver-based artist, spent months remaking every detail of the newspaper photo, from the dress his mother wore to the brush his grandmother used. In some ways, the very nature of tableau vivant poses a challenge.
“It’s a complicated process to restage something. It’s a lot of work for a simple outcome,” Hannah said. “When the initial photo was taken, it was one photographer. But I really explode it and make it into a bigger production. I have someone make a dress that matches the dress my mother was wearing. I have to do casting for the models. I’m taking this instantaneous moment of a snap shot and expanding it into a video.”
The exhibit also features an interview with his grandmother and collages of family photos made by his mother, Barbara Txi, both elements Hannah is proud of.
“(This is) also about my grandmother becoming an artist,” he said. “I could see how happy she was to be part of this.”
While Hannah’s art explores a variety of topics, he’s been working on a series of family stills since around 2001.
“It’s very different,” he says of using personal photos as the inspiration for his tableau vivant. “I don’t think it’s better or worse. It’s more challenging in a way. You feel like you’re putting yourself out there.”
Hannah prefers tableau vivants because of the questions the art poses.
“By making these videos, I enable this conversation about photography and history and the way photography freezes a moment,” he said. “I always want people to think, to kind of get pushed back into thinking about themselves.”
For his Three Generations exhibit, Hannah hopes to inspire discussion of a different nature.
“There’s also this family history element, and we all have completely different and unique histories, but there’s also this kind of overlap,” he said. “Family photographs are the most prevalent genres of photography and, counter intuitively, they’re the most generic in a way. My photo album of my family isn’t so different than yours.”
Adah Hannah: Three Generations runs at the Koffler Gallery, 180 Shaw St. Toronto until June 8. It is part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.