February 9 – May 17, 2024

The Exhibit

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Behind the Lens

Authentic Self

In 2008, Michigan-based artist Jeffrey Augustine Songco established the Society of 23, a project that would become the ultimate conceptual base for the artworks he creates to this day. The Society of 23 is a mysterious brotherhood of 23 gentlemen all portrayed by the artist himself. The project began with artistic ways to document the simple elements of a group of people and its organization — the names of each brother, their portraits, the group’s important symbols and color schemes, digitally manipulated self-portrait photographs of Jeffrey’s multiplied ‘selves’ interacting with each other, and references to the artist’s own experiences within a college fraternity. As an American, Jeffrey finds a similarity between the development of America as a society with its complicated history and amendments and the content of the Society of 23’s own non-linear narrative.

As the Society of 23 developed and increased in scope, Jeffrey began creating intentional interior spaces for his private performances-as-brothers through the use of installation art. Within these installations, Jeffrey invites audiences to physically experience and explore the objects and spaces that help to inform and define the brotherhood’s identity. By allowing the audience into the private space, the fictional brotherhood becomes something more real. Several installations have been exhibited throughout the USA including “Let’s Dance America!” (2016) at The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, “Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room” (2017, ArtPrize Nine Installation Category Juried Award) at The City Water Building in Grand Rapids, and “Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room” (2021) at Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

This year, Jeffrey graciously invites audiences into an intimate setting as the Saugatuck Center for the Arts plays host to the eagerly awaited 2024 iteration of Mr. Society of 23. Based on the competitive sport of beauty pageants, the artist provides non-members with an overview and behind the scenes experience of the annual event through the media of photography, video, performance, and installation art. From rehearsals and preparation to the evening’s final coronation, the exhibition captures the physical labor and emotional rollercoaster of the contestants enduring the spectacle of pageantry for the title and pride of Mr. Society of 23.

Known for its controversial nature, Jeffrey shifts the beauty pageant from its outdated focus on unrealistic image standards to an appropriated space for underrepresented communities. At its core within the context of America, the Society of 23 is itself an underrepresented community composed of Jeffrey’s own gay and brown body. In their 2018 article “Big, Bakla, and Beautiful: Transformations on a Manila Pageant Stage”, authors Emannuel David and Christian Joy P. Cruz argue that the pageant stage is “a platform for advocacy and a space for transformation”. By documenting their experiences as judges at a plus-size beauty pageant in an urban poor neighborhood in metropolitan Manila, Philippines, David and Cruz describe a six-hour long production of determined contestants who deliver wildly entertaining performances filled with “verbal and visual messages” that “advance the interests and goals” of the contestants as individuals and members of various communities. By publicly sharing their bodies as “valid and valued” to a crowd of about five hundred attendees, David and Cruz remind us that “a beauty pageant is never just a pageant”. In an act of double transformation, Jeffrey transforms his body into the multiple fictional brotherhood pageant participants who then transform themselves on the pageant stage towards a greater and higher standard that only the brothers are capable of evaluating. 

At the SCA, audiences can discover the variety of scenes that go into the making of the Mr. Society of 23 pageant. From the banality of brothers rehearsing the opening number dance to the spotlit moment when a winner is announced, Jeffrey takes the audience on a journey through a culture that is both obviously strange and oddly familiar. Through the considered use of negative space within the exhibition, the artist also invites audiences to fill that space with their own bodies and perform their own transformations against a colorful and sparkling backdrop. By using performance, repetition, and competition, Songco brings awareness to our interests in belonging to a social group and the demands required of us to be accepted not only as a member but as a potential public representative of the group.

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