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"Mi Tigre, My Lover," a collection of drawings by Naoe Suzuki currently on display at the Sarah Doyle Women's Center Gallery, explores the complicated relationship between a circus performer and her tigers through the interplay of mineral pigment and graphite on white paper.

Suzuki's exhibit features multiple drawings of Mabel Stark, a famous circus performer from the early 1900s, interacting with her trained tigers.

The drawings are mostly done with mineral pigment, a water-based medium from Suzuki's native Japan. Her work is done on white paper, and Suzuki creates a significant amount of negative space by leaving portions of the paper blank. "I was always really careful about the space between the figures and I always wanted to have a lot of space," Suzuki said. "It's almost like (the figures) are floating in some way."

After reading Robert Hough's "The Final Confession of Mabel Stark," a fictional biography about Stark, Suzuki said she was "really taken" by Stark's "story and her life."

"I did more of my own research, collected some photographs, and eventually, this became a series," Suzuki said.  

In 1909, Mabel Stark left her nursing job to dance in the circus. After a short marriage, she re-joined the circus and a few years later started her renowned cat act with both tigers and lions. Despite the several maulings Stark experienced during her career, she had a deep and complicated relationship with her tigers.

"Mi Tigre, My Lover" works to depict this strange relationship. "There's a lot of mystery around the complex relationship between her and her tiger," Suzuki said. "That's what I was interested in."

The exhibit features both light-hearted depictions of Mabel Stark playing with the tigers, and images of more gruesome interactions that hint at the danger at hand. "There's this sense of love and power there, at the same time," Suzuki said.

"The tigers are the ones kept in the cage, the obvious captives," she said. "Mabel … is a captive too, but captive by her tigers."  

"Her life was consumed pretty much by her love and obsession for tigers," she added.

Suzuki said that having both light-hearted and gruesome depictions side-by-side helps illuminate both the humanity of the tiger and the mortality of Mabel Stark. "There's this allure between them, sometimes a game of play, but also danger," she said.

Though Suzuki's work is usually narrative in nature, "It doesn't always stay one story, one narrative," she said. "I like a more open-ended kind of narrative."

Suzuki said she hopes that the viewers of her exhibit walk away with different impressions and opinions of the narrative. "I love the fact that it morphs. I hope it keeps morphing every time they look at it," she said.

"Mi Tigre, My Lover" is on display in the Sarah Doyle Center Gallery through Oct. 1. The opening reception will be held Thursday, Sept. 16 from 5–7 p.m.


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