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A new portrait art exhibit is challenging biases by forcing audience to face their judgements

Who Made You The Judge is on display now until Sept. 1.at cSpace

Who Made You The Judge is located on level one of cSpace in Marda Loop until Sept. 1. // Julie Patton

Whether people intend to or not, they make judgements.

Strangers are often based on their appearance, but until you know their story, your perception may not change.

That’s why a new art exhibit in cSpace is testing its viewers’ judgments.

Who Made You The Judge is a collection of portraits that highlight race, gender identity, sexual orientation, addiction, mental health, physical disability, and more.

The exhibit tests the audience’s conscious and unconscious biases by presenting large portraits of everyday people. However, attached to each portrait is a biography.

Your perception of the person is challenged upon reading the biography and you are forced to face the judgement you made.

The person behind the exhibit is XOX Unknown, an anonymous painter in Calgary.

XOX Unknown

A little over seven years ago, XOX Unknown began painting portraits. They had previously painted in high school, but never thought of it as a career they could pursue.

However, when faced with some major health concerns, they picked the brush up and began to paint as a form of meditation.

After painting numerous portraits of rock stars, they realized their talent could create something more meaningful.

“Since I was a kid, I've never really understood why some people are treated differently for no reason,” they say.

“I thought, ‘OK, how can I put my passion for other people and my painting abilities together and somehow make a difference?’”

It was then that the concept of Who Made You The Judge was born.

The portraits

Two-and-a-half years ago, XOX Unknown began working on the portrait collection.

They began by searching for diverse people on social media, figuring that if people were willing to share their stories online, they might be interested in participating in the exhibit.

“To my surprise, I didn't get any no’s. I got a few people ignoring me, but I didn't get any no’s,” they say.

They tried to keep most of the subjects Canadian but ended up using two individuals from the US.

Learn more about yourself

Using reference photos, XOX Unknown would paint portraits for each person over a background of words that described them. They then wrote a biography for each person to give more context.

“I’d like people to look at the portraits and notice what they think and feel. Then look at the [descriptive] words and see how that little bit of information can change your perspective. Then getting to know somebody's story [by reading the biography], that's where we all connect,” they say.

They hope that every person who views the exhibit will learn a little more about themselves and how they judge others.

“If you take the time to read the words and to read the story, you're like, ‘Oh, I can connect with this.’”

More to come

The current exhibit features 10 portraits, but XOX Unknown plans to continue creating more.

“I don't have anybody from the deaf community. I don't have anybody with a chronic illness… I don't have a gay person. I don't have a Two-Spirited person. There are so many more people that are out there,” they say.

The showing in cSpace is not their first exhibit, as they had previously done a pop-up. It also won’t be their last, as they hope to continue showing the collection as more portraits are added.

Additionally, XOX Unknown has created coffee table books that display the portraits and tell the story of each individual. Since the portraits are not for sale, the books allow people to bring the exhibit home while also providing funds to create more exhibits in the future.

XOX Unknown’s goal is to take the exhibit across Canada and make a difference through their work.

Why the anonymity?

Like the people from the portraits, XOX Unknown does not want to be judged for things out of their control.

“I don't want it to be about me,” they say. “This whole thing is about other people and their stories and amplifying diverse voices… But also, I don't want my artwork to be judged by who I am.”

Although they are a talented artist, recognition is not what they are looking for. The entire exhibit is a passion project.

“It's a natural thing for our brains to quickly categorize things, it makes it easier on us day to day… And so, the whole point of it is not judging a book by its cover.”

The display will be set up until Sept. 1 on level one of cSpace.

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