The Viewfinder: An Interview with Zoée Nuage – Elizabeth Sweeney

The Last Supper, Zoée Nuage

Zoée Nuage is a Deaf Queer photographer who lives in Vancouver and grew up on the West Coast of Canada, in unceded Coast Salish territories. Her work focuses heavily on themes of identity, such as deafness, sexuality, gender, language, and imagination, often through visual storytelling and self-portraiture. This issue’s cover image is from her ongoing series titled Solitude. I was first introduced to Zoée’s work while on an award selection committee initiated by the Deaf Culture Centre in Toronto. Nuage’s submission, titled The Last Supper, won first place.


Elizabeth Sweeney: How did you get started in photography?

Zoée Nuage: Photography has always been a part of my life as my mom is also a photographer. I grew up with the camera as a constant presence and we have a long line of photographers in our family tree. I have had no formal training other than a photography course I took in high school, over 15 years ago! I started to dabble with photography then forgot all about it until 2009 when, out of the blue, I decided to buy a camera and start a 365 project, where I took a self-portrait every day for a year. In the process, I fell madly in love with photography and digital manipulation.

Zoee_Nuage_Solitude_Series_8 Zoee_Nuage_Solitude_Series_9

ES: Can you tell me a bit about your process?

ZN: My process starts with an image in my head, sometimes very vivid but at times vague. I then start thinking of ways to make that image come to life, usually by scouting spaces, figuring out costumes and props. I tend to take a large amount of images and then get cozy in front of a computer, going through the photographs and figuring out which ones I want to work on. At times, I don’t do any digital manipulation but the more complex photographs usually involve hours of digital manipulation. For example, my piece The Last Supper took about ten hours of digital manipulation where I merged about 15 images together.


ES: The Solitude series explores those unexpected moments of solitude that are so rare in urban spaces. What prompted this work?

ZN: It started on one foggy morning in 2013 when I was heading out to work. I came across this scene – a space that usually was very busy, if not chaotic, was eerily quiet, and no one was around except for one person in the distance, and me. I couldn’t resist but to snap a few photographs and I was really pleased with the results. I did not originally envision this becoming an ongoing series but there are ten images so far and I’m really intrigued with the idea. The word solitude can mean different things to people, I find, but for me it gives me a strong sense of peace and relief. I tend to assume others would feel the same but I’ve gotten quite contrasting reactions to the images which is always interesting for me to see.

ES: You explore both Queer and Deaf identities in your work. Do you think you identify with one more than the other?

ZN: For me, it is impossible to identify more as one identity than the other. It’s so intertwined for me, but I do sometimes feel stronger in one identity: In general Queer spaces, I am Deaf; in general Deaf spaces, I am Queer.

ES: What is the Deaf/Queer scene like in Vancouver?

ZN: It’s pretty small but slowly growing. I am involved with BC Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf (BCRAD) and we host events, help queer organizers connect with queer ASL interpreters, and through a partnership we also offer Queer ASL courses to our communities. I moved here from Victoria, where I was the only Deaf Queer in the communities I was in, so coming to Vancouver was a huge change for the better. It’s not as big as Toronto, for example, but it’s a great little community that is growing. I’m really excited to see that and be a part of it.


ES: In 2013, The Deaf Culture Centre and Toronto Deaf Film and Arts Festival sponsored a juried exhibit and awards, called the Defty Awards. You won the top award for your piece titled The Last Supper – can you tell me about that work?

ZN: The Last Supper was the last self-portrait I took for my 365 project. For that piece, I wanted to highlight some characters and objects that appeared throughout my project as a way to both reflect on the journey and to say goodbye. Modeling my portrait after the iconic Last Supper made so much sense to me on many levels, especially having grown up around Christian imagery. While my upbringing was largely atheist, my grandmother was a Christian and had a variety of religious imagery in her home, where I spent a portion of my childhood. My mom was (and still is) also fascinated by Christian imagery. I grew up with a sense of appreciation for the imagery (I collect crosses and rosaries myself) and wanted to give a nod toward that part of my upbringing.

I also wanted to play with the gender expression spectrum, as a way to revisit my exploration of my own gender identity throughout the project, and found this composition to be a great way to do this. You will notice that on the far left of the table, the first group of three figures are more feminine presenting, and the second and third groups are more genderqueer and androgynous (or completely outside of the spectrum,  with the creepy masked bird for example); the fourth group on the far right is more masculine presenting. In the very center is myself unclothed, representing a sense of acceptance and resolution to embrace all aspects of myself. I’m very proud of this piece.


ES: It is a striking image, and as someone who rejects the Butch/Femme binary, I really appreciated it. How was the work received within the Deaf community?

ZN: Winning a Defty award and seeing my work exhibited at the Deaf Culture Centre was a dream come true, and it was surreal to go to Toronto to meet other Deaf artists. It was especially interesting to listen to people’s thoughts about The Last Supper. To me the gender expression spectrum is really apparent, but some people saw the piece in completely different ways. For example, one person thought it was a piece about an experience that many deaf people are familiar with, being the only deaf person at a large hearing family dinner. This was not what I was going for but it was definitely something I could relate to and it allowed me to see my piece in a new light.

Unfortunately, shortly after the opening, The Last Supper was removed from the exhibit due to having offended some people for religious reasons. It’s a shame but I have chosen to keep looking forward and use that experience to inspire some new work. If you are in Toronto, you can see my other three prints at The Deaf Culture Centre until the beginning of May.


ES: I remember hearing about that and being really angered that your work was censored. What are you working on now?

ZN: A big part of my life is dedicated to teaching American Sign Language (ASL). I have been teaching Queer ASL courses to queer communities for a few years now, and I also teach at Vancouver Community College and Douglas College. Finding ways to involve ASL in my photography is something I am always thinking about and exploring. Lately, I’ve been focused on teaching so my new projects are progressing slowly. One project is a series focused on memories of important experiences in my life and involves quite a lot of digital manipulation. The other project involves working with Deaf Queer communities. It is happening slowly right now but I am very excited about it and I hope to spend more time working on these projects this summer.


You can see more of Zoée’s work at:

Elizabeth Sweeney is a visual artist, art gallery educator and curator. She has a BFA in Studio Art from Concordia University (2001), a B.Ed from the University Of Ottawa (2005) and an MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University (2012), where she focused on disability art and contemporary curatorial practice. She has worked at The National Gallery of Canada, The Canada Council for the Arts and currently works as the Manager of Public Programs and ARTreach at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery. Elizabeth also teaches part-time at Durham College in the School of Media, Art and Design and frequently guest lectures on the topic of art criticism and contemporary disability arts. In addition, she is a volunteer Board member of Tangled Art + Disability in Toronto and SPiLL, a multidisciplinary Deaf arts organization in Gatineau Quebec. Originally from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, she lives with her partner Anita in Toronto.

Zoée Nuage is a Deaf Queer self-taught artist & photographer who lives in Vancouver and grew up on the West Coast of Canada, in unceded Coast Salish territories. Her work focuses heavily on themes of identity, such as deafness, sexuality, gender, language, and imagination, often through visual storytelling and self-portraiture. A large portion of her visual storytelling uses digital manipulation, something that Zoée has fallen in love with and continues to explore. This issue’s cover image is from her ongoing series titled Solitude.


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