Emma Amos is a noted African American female artist with a wide variety of talents, from painting to printmaking to photography and weaving. Usually pulling from multiple media for her works, she incorporates a unique dynamism that spans several genres of the art world. Starting at an early age, Amos grew up in Atlanta in the 1940s and attended Antioch College in Ohio for art, the London Central School of Art for her certificate in etching, and then attended New York University and earned her BA in art education. Though that was the end of her official studies, she also worked as a designer/weaver for Dorothy Liebes at a textile manufacturer, which helped hone her skills for weaving and textile design (emmaamos.com).
Amos, being both female and black in the white-male dominated art world of the 1960s, continually fought for recognition from the art community. She has been quoted as saying “’For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act’” (Farrington 3). Through her perseverance in working on printmaking with artists such as Robert Blackburn and her acquaintance with muralist Hale Woodruff, she became the only female member of the prominent Civil Rights art group, Spiral, alongside well-known black artists such as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis and Charles Alston (Hotton 24). Although the group fell apart in 1965, the ideas presented there had a large impact on Amos’ work and the growing notion that the status of minority could be an important and influential location, impacting in positive ways the Civil Rights movement (Farrington 4). Though not willing to define her art as “black art” she did believe that ethnicity played an important role in the artistic process and not something that could be ignored or brushed aside.
As Amos explored different mediums, she continued to weave, she called herself a “closet weaver,” because it would have been looked down upon by those in the higher art circles. Weaving was traditionally a feminine art, and at the time it was not considered much more than a craft as opposed to an art form. Later, she began to delve into photography and started to incorporate photos into her paintings. “’I love the irony of photography,” she says, continuing on to say that combining painting and photography provide a way of manipulating memory (Farrington 5-6).
Because of her work with so many different methods, Emma Amos tends to cross the line between ‘high art’ and ‘low art,’ and often quite deliberately. By the incorporation of textiles, photos, printed pages, and other media into paintings, she blurs what was once a hard line separating fine art from craft. This merging has become a part of Amos’ signature style—and there is also a distinct parallel here with her own life. Amos blurred the line drawn by society that resisted both black and female artists in the world of art, by being both and still integrating herself into that sphere.
Stars and Stripes, a piece completed in 1992, is a relatively small work composed of photograph incorporated into an oil painting on paper. The two together present a roughened depiction of the American flag, with the photograph tinted blue and occupying the upper left quadrant of the artwork to represent the “stars” and the rest of the piece filled by finger-painted stripes of red and white that number more than 13 (the exact number is hard to determine because of the lines, but it is approximately 22 whole and partial lines). The subjects of the photograph are a group of African-American children staring solemnly out of the plane of the picture and gazing directly at the viewer. The posture and facial expressions of the children range from baleful to slightly angry to confused; none look happy. The style of clothing and the car in the background places them temporally as somewhere around the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, though it may have been taken either slightly before or after this period. The use of finger-painting is symbolic here because of the literal shaping of the flag by human hands. It gives the work an immediacy and a general roughness that speaks to human imperfection, which can be further reflected upon as the imperfection of American ideals and values because of the shortcomings of society that are yet to be overcome.
In this work, Amos takes a quintessential American symbol of pride and hope and freedom and transforms it into an image of frustrated dreams, pointing out the harsh contrast between the “American dream” and the “American reality.” The stripes of the flag, instead of being pristine and straight, are blurred and bent, painted crudely at varying widths and with a large X swiped onto the middle of the image, through the stripes of the flag as if cutting it. Combining this imagery with the sullen children that are both the literal and figurative “stars” of the piece points out the irony of the American dream by showcasing figures that are embedded in the national dialogue and yet still unable to achieve the goal of equality. The fact that they are children, symbols of innocence and optimism, yet already downtrodden and robbed of their possibilities, makes the wrongness Amos is trying to convey doubly apparent. This flag, then, becomes a marker of the failure of this ideal, and an inversion of the traditional history usually touted by the idyllic American flag—similar, in some ways, to Chagoya’s “reverse anthropology” idea, though much less surreal in her depiction of social wrongs.
The theme of this course has been to examine the idea of critical diversity in the United States, how it is (or isn’t) represented through art, and how the idea of diversity and its representation has changed over time and artistic movements. Our exhibition tries to tease out and highlight an idea of diversity on the periphery, the diversity of those we might lump together under a term of “other” and haphazardly call diverse for lack of a better understanding. The goal is to delve deeper into the visual space of that term to show different layers of diversity, especially from the perspective of those considered to be “on the edges” of society, and to encourage viewers to actively engage in works that inhabit a different dimension of what might usually be considered a commonplace assumption or stereotype.
Stars and Stripes looks specifically at how the US has handled diversity in the face of the American dream, and the paradox of the myth of the American dream and how it relates to the myth of the “center” of society. For if there are fringes, and others, theoretically there must be a center where one locates themselves. Emma Amos points out the failure of the American dream from the eyes of African American children, representative of the oppressive history of African Americans throughout the history of the United States. It brings up the injustices, as well as the measures that have been made to rectify those wrongs. Whether or not they have been fully resolved is a matter that the viewer must deal with individually.
Societies are not defined by their similarities to individuals within that particular society or culture, but by the differences of those considered to be outside of it—the borders or boundaries. What is other (outside that boundary) is not fully understood, and as such is lumped under broad generalizations that are generally derogatory. The idea with this show is to question those assumptions and open up a dialogue among the viewers about just how they ascribe to the generalizations of “other,” where they draw a line of demarcation, and if it is possible to get rid of the line altogether.
“Biography | Emma Amos.” Emma Amos/ Artist. Web. 07 Nov. 2012. <http://emmaamos.com/about/bio/>.
Farrington, Lisa E. “Emma Amos: Art as Legacy.” Women’s Art Journal 28.1 (2007): 3-11. JSTOR. Web. 4 Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20358105>.
Hotton, Julia. “Emma Amos: Woman of Substance.” Black American Literature Forum 19.1 (1985): 24-25. JSTOR. St. Louis University. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2904468>.
El Regreso del Cannibal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal) is a somewhat surrealist series of prints by Mexican-born artist Enrique Chagoya. The work itself is made up of eight connected pages that combine classical imagery from the Aztecs, modern American pop-culture, and stylistic elements from the Spanish Renaissance to comment upon the “cultural and psychological consequences of a collision between worlds that spans more than five hundred years” (Greeley 5). He uses the juxtaposition of these ideas to create satirical images that play off of stereotypes of culture, both Mexican and American. Chagoya’s works are not strictly social satire but what he terms “reverse anthropology,” reimagining histories primarily dictated by the victorious cultures and the military powers—and from the perspective of this artist, Western culture has long cannibalized other cultures, defeating them militarily and appropriating aspects of the conquered society for their own use (Hickson 15-16).
Born in Mexico City in 1953, he grew up with a Nahuan nurse who introduced him to the sympathetic side of the Indian culture in Mexican society. He talks about being raised around, and interacting with, the “’parallel experiences’ of disconnected culture,” saying:
We used to go for picnics to the pyramids of Teotihuacán… [where] my dad’s family is from. And then we were going to [Catholic] church. At the same time, I grew up with Mickey Mouse and Superman and all the comics. All the American programs from the sixties and seventies were translated into Spanish (Hickson 13).
This peculiar interaction with and exposure to the range of often-contradictory cultural norms combined with his growing interest and involvement in social movements (the Tlateloco Massacre and the Halconazo, as two examples, which were dubiously reported on by the Mexican media) led him to study political economics at the Universidad Nacional Autonóma de Mexico (National Autonomous University of Mexico) (Hickson 14). Following this, in 1977, he moved to the United States. But the power that the Mexican government had to control the outflow of information shared through the media helped shape Chagoya’s reverse anthropology ideas in his work.
American pop-culture also features prominently in Chagoya’s work, springing from the early exposure to the icons in Mexico as a child. It is simultaneously representative of the ubiquitous and domineering nature of American commercialism and the parallels of cultural and physical authority. It also serves to draw attention to the differences between American and Mexican stereotypes, despite the different temporal boundaries. Much of Chagoya’s oeuvre is defined in part by the absence of linear time, which rather than making his art more muddled, throws into sharper relief his main point—that history is constructed and subjective. He questions the historicity (historical actuality) of the past and the present to try and get the audience to rethink their perceptions of the historical record, and from a different point of view.
This specific work, El Regreso del Cannibal Macrobiótico, is a color lithograph woodblock print constructed in the form of a codex, the traditional Meso-American way to record histories (Basilio et al. 164). The paper used is amate, a paper made of fig-bark also used by the ancient indigenous peoples in and around Mexico, and is read from right to left like the Aztecs, as indicated by the dot and dash numbering system that was also used by the Aztecs. This, more than as a cultural element, is significant in that only about 22 codices survive from the libraries of the area, because of the mass burning of all the libraries by the Spanish soldiers and priests as they made their way through the land.
Because of this almost all knowledge of the Aztec written language was lost. Chagoya sums up this piece as his own re-imagining of what could be, in terms of the lost codices: “Since from this perspective history is an ideological construction, I decided to invent my own account of the many possible stories - from Cortez to the border patrol - in my own visual language. I mix pre-Columbian mythology with Catholic icons, American comics and images of ethnic stereotypes” (Yale). He juxtaposes imagery such as the anatomical drawing of a bust, perhaps an Aztec sacrifice, with the color print of the Virgin Mary placed where the heart would generally be located within the chest of the image. He brings in issues of border control and immigration, and parallels Aztec sacrifices with the blood of Christ in successive pages within the codex. Dying Aztec deities are placed within classical Christian architecture, and Aztecs are depicted in classical Greek and Roman styles, or even Renaissance-style prints. Everything within these pages is inverted in some way to show how the people in Mexico have been and continue to be ignored, obscured, or violently superseded by Western ideals. He does, however, offer his alternate-historical ending with the indigenous as the hopeful victors, in the last two panels with the indigenous cannibals chasing the boats into the water instead of running away from them, fiercely defending their territory, and then in the final print with Superman getting knocked out by the skull rendered in Indian style.
The upcoming show deals with diversity in attempting to look at the world through the eyes of those on the edges of society, rather than from the perspective of the center. Ethnicities and cultures, generally speaking, define themselves not through the similarities that bind them together but in their difference from ‘the other.’ It is by the boundary that they are defined, which makes the center difficult to identify. But there is always the other, and the point of this exhibit is to put into perspective the view of that other, no matter how the viewer perceives that boundary within themselves. This amazingly complicated and multi-layered piece is showing the marginalization of both ancient indigenous and modern Mexicans by contrasting them with ubiquitous and ‘centralized’ American figures such as Superman; it is also contrasting the traditional codex format with the bright, cartoonish colors and bold lines reminiscent of comic strips.
The powerful imagery renders the “center” (in this case the Western culture and American commercial figures) as an uncomfortable and ostentatious place to be, and it draws stark attention to the plight of the modern people in Mexico—and the domineering attitude that American/’Western’ culture adopts toward them even still—through the representation of the suffering and domination that the ancient indigenous people had to endure. This example of reverse anthropology in El Regreso del Cannibal Macrobiótico is at once an offering of a new interpretation of history and a reflection of current social dilemmas in the hopes that now, with more awareness, what happened in the past will not happen in the present or the future, that cultures will not cannibalize each other as they have so often throughout the world. Thus the title, The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal, in this context is not so much a simple representation of the inversion of past events, but a warning to the viewers of the destructive power of cultural domination.
Basilio, Miriam. Latin American and Caribbean Art: MoMa at El Museo. New York: El Museo Del Barrio, 2004. Print.
Hickson, Patricia, ed. Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia. Des Moines: Des Moines Art Center, 2007. Print.
“Poetics, Politics, and Song.” Yale University Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2012. <http://www.library.yale.edu/aob/Exhibition/chagoya.htm>.
Lexi Glassman ARTH 4107: The Museum and the Object Exhibition Essay #2 Although it has been ten years since Lauren Greenfield’s provocative collection of photographs, “Girl Culture,” was published and displayed in galleries across the country, it has remained a powerful visualization of the conflicting influences of consumer culture on femininity in America in the 21st century. Greenfield pairs photographs from an assortment of her previous journalistic and creative assignments with interviews from some of the girls pictured, ultimately achieving an evocative medley of views of—and perspectives from—the lives of contemporary American girls. Seen by over 600,000 people since it’s opening, “Girl Culture” has served not only as a exhibition in art photography and cultural commentary, but also an educational tool for young people in America. Through her forays into the private lives of young women—both celebrity and unknown— across a spectrum of racial, socioeconomic, and geographical lines, Greenfield examines the commonality of the young, female experience in America. The raw and sometimes shocking photographs in “Girl Culture,” illustrate moments of anxiety, egotism, comfort and competition as girls struggle to attain their own personal goals of fulfillment. From a four-year-old in lipstick and a leotard to a Las Vegas showgirl, the individuals represented in Greenfield’s photographs have been inundated with a preoccupation for self-image, status, notions of beauty by our society’s often shifting, highly demanding standards. Following her interest in the female body as a canvas for expressing these difficult dynamics in the lives of young women, Greenfield artfully and aptly executes photography—an especially appropriate medium to investigate the role of image and identity in our culture. Along with “Girl Culture,” many of Greenfield’s projects in both photography and cinematic direction have been critically acclaimed and celebrated by an international audience. Expanding from her beginnings as a photojournalist for National Geographic after graduating from Harvard in 1987, Greenfield has regularly featured work in many prominent magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, Time, Vanity Fair, People, The New Yorker, and others, since 1991. In addition to her art photography, Greenfield’s latest and most electrifying work has been in mixed-media photographic collections, such as “Girl Culture,” and documentary pieces drawing from her photography. Greenfield has directed four films, and implemented the mixed-media method in a variety of highly engrossing projects in cultural anthropology: Greenfield’s “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood,” and “THIN”—a photo-exhibition piece as well as an HBO documentary—about the lives of a number of women at the Renfrew center, a residential facility for the treatment of severe eating disorders in Florida (LG website). Greenfield’s most recent film, “The Queen of Versailles,” which follows a billionaire-family when their construction of the largest single-family home in America is halted by the economic downturn of 2008, won the U.S. Directing Award from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (wiki). “Girl Culture,” however, remains to be one of Greenfield’s most profound pieces of documentary photography. One particularly compelling photographs and interviews in the collection, “Sheena tries on clothes with Amber, 15, in a department store dressing room, San Jose, California,” exposes the secret-rituals and private moments of scrutiny that almost every woman has experienced in America: trying on an outfit in front of a mirror. Paired with the interview of fifteen-year-old Sheena, the photograph portrays a brutally honest look into the life of a teenager trying to make sense of her body, sexuality, and social status. In the image, Sheena, the so-called “most popular freshman girl” stares intensely into the mirror off-camera, pushing her breasts up and together to create more cleavage in her belly-top, while her friend Amber looks on from a fitting-room bench. Sheena wears heavy makeup—lip-liner outlines her dark lip gloss, dark black eyeliner and shadow drench her eyes—a process she says she will re-apply at least three times every day (“Girl Culture” interview). Sheena smokes cigarettes, drinks heavily, and is a self-stated bisexual. Apart from her rebellious personality as shown in her interview, Sheena is depicted in Greenfield’s photograph to represent an extreme of modern female identity. From the perspective of the camera, this fifteen-year-old girl gazes at her own unseen reflection with intense self-deprecation, pushing her breasts together with her hands as her friend and the viewer look on. The complexity of gaze implemented by Greenfield through the composition of the photograph lends a deeper and more profound relationship between subject and viewer; our perspective of Sheena, as viewers, stands in direction opposition to Sheena’s critical view of herself. Our gaze is not met by the subject’s eyes, but deflected onto her own—and her friend’s—judgmental view of herself. This matrix of gaze, and with it, a calculus of female desirability, self-acceptance, and sexuality, alludes to the constant dynamics of pressure, both self-inflicted and from society, on young women today. It is possible that Sheena is just as critical of herself as any other person is of her; both the drastic routines of beautification outlined in her interview as well as her hardened look at her own reflection would suggest this. Her unemotional exhibitionism is characteristic of the new feminine identity. In Greenfield’s afterword to “Girl Culture,” she writes, “The performance and exhibitionism…seems to define the contemporary experience of being a girl” (Girl Culture). However, how do we, as viewers, enter into the equation of perception and judgment of said exhibition? Furthermore, how does our opinion, formulated solely from gaze, play into a feedback-loop of self-judgment? That is to say, how do the values and semiotics of our consumer-society steer girls into a sexualized, expensive conception of beauty, and subsequently, how do society’s standards exponentially increase already fragile insecurities in young women? These issues are confronted through Greenfield’s play of subjectivity and gaze in her photograph. According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Cornell professor and author of the book “The Body Project”—a key theoretical influence on Greenfield’s work on female body-image—writes that Greenfield’s photography serves as an attempt to deconstruct the illusions that make up our reality (Girl Culture). “Sheena” is a piece that pries into the private moment of a young woman experiencing the anxiety and pressure that millions of American women feel every day concerning their body and image, both inside and outside the fitting room. Of her own work, Greenfield writes, “the female body has become a palimpset on which many of our culture’s conflicting messages about femininity are written and rewritten” (Girl Culture). Greenfield transforms the female body into a canvas, and the camera as a documentation of how this canvas is marked for women throughout our society. Perhaps the next step is to shift our view from the bodies of girls and towards the society that inculcates them throughout the most crucial period of their development.
ARTH 4107: The Museum and the Object
Kamrooz Aram: “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations”
Kamrooz Aram’s drawing, “From the Series Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” introduces a unique and important framing of our exhibition’s discussion of stereotyping and the interaction between the margin and the center in America. Aram’s piece, and contemplation of his work as a whole, lends a complicated yet informative perspective to our collection. Departing from other pieces in the show in medium, form, and subject matter, “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” completes a complex narrative of how we may begin to reconcile questions of diversity through art in today’s America.
Throughout his career, Aram has dealt with issues of “self-Orientalizing,” or the tendency of Islamic Artists living in the West to feel pressure to compartmentalize themselves within a “Oriental” tradition as a means of dealing with social and cultural issues. (*Firstenberg Interview*) Born in Shiraz in 1978, Aram has lived in the United States since age eight. His Iranian heritage plays a role in his work, both thematically and stylistically. Since receiving his MFA from Columbia University in 2003, Aram has showcased his work in a number of solo exhibitions at reputable locales, including Mass MoCA, LAXART in Los Angeles, and others (*ART DUBAI Interview*) Although he was trained and educated in Western schools, Aram’s work engages in Eastern iconography and imagery. Cultivated and nourished by his insatiable interest in the Persian Rug market in New York City, Aram appropriates Islamic geometric patterns and imagery into his drawings, paintings, and collages. By decontextualizing this traditional iconography, Aram seeks to emphasize our reliance on context to provide fluency in visual culture. Kamrooz Aram, through his drawing “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations,” successfully challenges the viewers’ perception of Middle Eastern iconography within the context of Western Art, while simultaneously interrupting the binary of “East versus West” that we so often yield to in Western Art History and moreover, in society as a whole.
Excelling in various media including painting, drawing, and collage works, Aram has proven his skill through constantly evolving style; his painting contrasts harshly with his drawings in both form and method. Both media, however, contribute to Aram’s overarching engagement in iconography as a means to complicate the viewer’s perception of the very images they encounter in his work through shifts in context. How does one appreciate and understand the American Bald Eagle, a quintessential symbol of American patriotism, when Aram’s depiction of the bird is taken from an amalgam of a scientific illustration of a hawk and the falconry images from a book celebrating Sheikh Zayed? How do these symbols, turned iconographic through constant repetition, serve a purpose in Aram’s work, and furthermore, how dependent is this iconography on context?
The drawing “From Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” points to these questions and poses many others. Acquired by the H.F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in 2008, this drawing comes from a series of the same name. Relatively small in scale, measuring at 13 x 10 inches, and with the figure itself taking up only a condensed portion of the page at center, this drawing is far from the virtuoso display of aesthetics seen in Aram’s bold paintings. It does, however, still engage the viewer with its fine-lined penned detail. While Aram’s paintings are each carefully planned out and worked over in the studio, his drawings—such as “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” come about exclusively in his home in a more organic fashion. Aram admittedly never draws in his studio, preferring the intimacy and immediacy of his home to spur the drawing process. (*Firstenberg interview*) He works on his drawings either the moment he wakes up or right before he goes to sleep at night, and does so without any sort of plan for the design of the piece, calling this process his “ritualistic form of visual thinking” (Firstenberg Interview). This element of spontaneity informs the organic nature of his drawings, while his ritualistic method ensures that strong themes and imagery in his work will likely perpetuate. Both of these assumptions come to fruition in “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations.”
The first thing we notice in “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” is the small bust of a man, seen in profile, at the center of the drawing. With his face turned to the left and his eyes straight ahead, this mustached figure dawns a turban-like headpiece and thick side-burns of dark hair underneath. Shaded with cross-hatched fine pen lines, the portrait appears to be floating in infinite space, detached from both body and context. The dark ink of the pen contrasts sharply from the bare white background of the canvas. The man himself appears to be concerned as his vision stares intently ahead, leading the viewer to notice the subtly-shaded purple and orange geometric pattern occupying the negative space of the drawing. Although the pattern is not loud or domineering in composition, it spans more of the page than the figure itself, concentrated directly in front of the man’s eyes at its epicenter, and expanding out into a faintly-exploded blue. The addition of subtle geometry and color enhances and complicates this compositionally simple drawing. In traditional Islamic art and culture, geometric patterns and tessellations are a significant and evocative religion motif; the constant repetition of the pattern suggests infinity, or closeness to the divine. Who is this man and what is his relationship to the divine? Further, how does Aram’s title of the piece, “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” inform our understanding of this figure?
Perhaps, it has been posited, the man in this drawing, as well as other figures represented by floating-heads in the series “Mystical Visions,” are Sufi figures, or educated teachers of Islam’s mystical strain. They vaguely reference the Iranian tradition of illustrated religious text—specifically miniature painting—of the 13th-15th centuries during the Illhanid Period (MetMuseum). Is the man in “Mystical Visions” a Mullah, a spiritual teacher of Islam? To the unfamiliar eye, perhaps, Aram’s use of the exaggerated turban and Middle Eastern-looking man could also be perceived as the stereotypical image of an Islamic extremist, a figure of ambivalent standing in the United States. This complicated imagery is not accidental on the part of Aram.
The artist knowingly depicts a somewhat controversial image and identity in “Mystical Visions.” This work raises the question of how we stereotype and compartmentalize Eastern culture in the West, and how these perceptions color our understanding of art and visual culture. Furthermore, being of Iranian descent, Aram purposefully introduces heavy Islamic iconography in order to explore the dependency of said images on context. In an interview with Lauri Firstenberg for his exhibition at MassMoCA in 2006, Aram expresses his distaste for the contradictions of geometric forms within the Western context, and they way that what is considered a sacred motif in the East is denigrated to the label of “decorative” in Western art. In an interview with Art Dubai, Aram laments, “I wish there was another word other than “decorative” that we could use to describe patterns” (Art Dubai). Recognizing a parallel between the commodification of Persian rugs, a prime example of how patterns in Islamic art have come to be perceived as “decorative” in the Western market, and the way in which painting has become highly commodified luxury-good throughout the 20th-21st century art world, Aram seeks to tease out the contradictions between Eastern and Western art by bringing this problematic language of binaries to light in his work. Aram’s “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” suggests a hybridity of culture—a conception of Art as an acknowledgement of the heterogeny of both East and West, over the homogeny of either.
The title’s allusion to the Allan Ginsberg poem “America” is perhaps the most telling interpretation of Aram’s work; “Mystical Visions and Cosmic Vibrations” is, first and foremost, a piece of American Art. But how does Aram’s art, much like Ginsberg’s poetry, both strengthen and criticize our understanding of what it means to be American? As an artist in the United States with ancestry in the Middle East, Aram capitalizes on his Western training and global vocabulary to remove himself and his art from the easy distinction of central or other, West or East, and instead finds his voice in this refusal to simply identify.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960, African American artist Lorna Simpson gained prominence in the 1980s for her photograph-and-text works that confronted and challenged the traditional views of gender and race regarding their relationship to memory and history (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uANWRutUk8). Inspired by historical representations of the African American woman, Simpson used this subject to explore the ways in which gender and culture influenced the experiences of life in a post-Civil Rights and Black Power America, but also an America beginning to navigate the social landscapes of state-sanctioned multiculturalism. During the 1990s, she experimented with the medium of her work by taking large multi-panel photographs (still accompanied by texts) and printing them onto felt. The effect created a richness in depth, tonality, and composition—qualities that have come to characterize Simpson’s diverse oeuvre. Backdrops Circa 1940s, which was created in 1998, proves no exception (Figure 1). Through the visual elements of contrast and fragmentation, Backdrops Circa 1940s provides a compelling lens to grapple with the constructs surrounding black femininity and agency. Simpson ultimately demonstrates that the African American woman—from ordinary to famous, from past to present—continues to struggle for proper representation, and thus, a true identity. As a subject of the periphery, she is constrained by the mainstream cultural controls of the center.
Backdrops Circa 1940s forms a powerful diptych that establishes a dialogue for contrast. Two vintage photographs, probably purchased by Simpson at a flea market or on eBay (as, she notes, was the method of collection for a group of 1957 images), comprise the composition: the photograph on the left depicts an unknown, ordinary African American woman whereas the photograph on the right depicts the famous, Hollywood African American singer, dancer, and actress, Lena Horne (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByelVkCvsA4). In 1933, at the age of 16, Horne began her stage career as a dancer in the chorus line of Harlem’s Cotton Club, a white-only patron night club that, ironically, featured many black musicians and guests including Nat King Cole and Langston Hughes, to just name a couple. This role, in addition to appearances on Broadway and a tour with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, propelled her to numerous small song and dance numbers on the silver-screen throughout the 1940s. Shortly thereafter, Horne became the first African American performer signed to a long-term contract by a major film studio. Horne experienced another major breakthrough in 1943 when she starred as the leading role in the all-black musical Stormy Weather (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCG3kJtQBKo). From her personal interracial marriage to white composer Lennie Hayton to her public success of being one of the first African American actresses to work on both sides of the color line, Horne appears to have overcome the racial injustices of the time. This, however, is not the case. Similarly to the African American woman who occupies the left photograph of Backdrops Circa 1940s, Horne faced constant prejudices and racial practices in a segregated society.
A stark contrast exists between the obscured history of the unknown, ordinary African American woman and the detailed history of Lena Horne. Highlighting these histories, as well as the visual differences between the two photographs that form Backdrops Circa 1940s, stress the struggle for representation and identity of African American women. At the base of the left image, Simpson’s text reads, “…seated in photographers studio, circa 1940s.” These words, of course, describe the subject above: a twenty-something-year-old African American woman, who, surrounded by nighttime props, sits on a box ready for her picture to be taken. She wears a simple frock, but attempts to dress it up by adding accessories, including earrings, a bracelet, and a bow. This woman has most likely seen many of Horne’s Hollywood performances, and she aspires to be like her—even if this means only embodying a glimpse of her glamour—through a professional photography session. Here, in the studio, it appears she can control the representation of herself, of her identity. This unknown, ordinary African American woman may, for a moment, think of herself as beautiful and as powerful as Lena Horne. Although, as the text on the right, “…standing while singing on film set, circa 1940s,” suggests to its subject above, even Horne struggles to assert her power. On stage, Horne must transform into character, into someone else, and therefore, she losses herself, her identity. In this context, her elegant off-the-shoulders gown and dramatic makeup propagate, not luxury, but ultimately the choices of another. Whether standing on stage or seated in the studio, the degree of autonomy surrounding the African American woman seems as carefully calculated and constructed as the stars that occupy the backgrounds on these backdrops.
The initial contrasts in histories and appearances portrayed in Backdrops Circa 1940s quicklysubside to reveal similar social plights in attempting to exercise black femininity and agency. Breaking down the whole composition into contrasting diptych parts and then breaking down these diptych parts into fragmented forms, allows the viewer to better understand how the body and narrative of the African American woman becomes furthered objectified. Sliced by the sharp crescent moon, the woman on the left turns into an upper-body fragment and a lower-body fragment divided by the moon’s unified shape. The moon sports a menacing smile that consumes the foreground of the photograph and seems to put the African American woman “in her place” in the background. She remains secondary to its presence, its whiteness, and perhaps even its masculinity, and thus, the portrait turns from personal to exploitative. A similar unpacking of narrative and body occurs with Horne on the right. Confined to the lower right corner of the photograph, Horne is split in half by the picture plane, as the viewer only sees the right side of her upper-body which, even then, by scale, proves subservient to the vast negative space of the background. She has been strategically cut from the frame, just like many of her song and dance scenes from films when they aired in the South. Essentially defaced, attention directs itself from her face to her single, open hand (quite different from the single, closed fist of Black Power) that rises from the base of the picture plane. Cuffed by a shimmering bracelet, the accessory rapidly changes from fashionable to fugitive, as it calls to the shackle and chain imagery of slavery. The fragmented body essentially becomes a backdrop onto which the struggle of representation and identity regarding the African American woman of the past, present, and future may be played.
At first glance, Lorna Simpson’s Backdrops Circa 1940s comes across as an innocent work, simply pairing two similarly styled Hollywood-esque photographs. However, upon further contextual and visual analysis, it is evident that the work confronts the repression of black femininity and agency by challenging a history of racial and gendered norms, from the 1940s to today. Simpson’s choice to use a diptych established an arena for the two vintage photographs to speak to each other, producing a narrative that underscored their similarities through contrast. The unknown, ordinary African American woman and famous, Hollywood star Lena Horne form a distinct visual relationship. Their fight for control over their own representation and identity pervades in the discussion of female fragmentation and form. How the unknown, ordinary African American woman in Backdrops Circa 1940s advocated for her racial and sexual freedom, we will never know, but that of Horne we do. At the age of 80 she eloquently reflected on her career, but more importantly, her internal representation,
My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.
Figure 1: Lorna Simpson, Backdrops Circa 1940s, 1998.
Works Referenced and Recommended Readings
Brooklyn Museum. “Exhibitions: Lorna Simpson: Gathered.” http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/lorna_simpson/. Accessed November 4, 2012.
Cotter, Holland. “Exploring Identity as a Problematic Condition.” New York Times, March 2, 2007. Accessed November 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/02/arts/design/02lorn.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1352815332-phvLqh9S8zydsX9FPZd2OQ.
Harmetz, Aljean. “Lena Horne, Singer and Actress, Dies at 92.” New York Times, May 10, 2010. Accessed November 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/arts/music/10horne.html?pagewanted=all.
Harris, Thomas Allen. “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographer and the Emergence of a People.” USA Projects. http://www.usaprojects.org/project/through_a_lens_darkly_black_photographers_and_the_emergence_of_a_people. Accessed November 4, 2012.
Rogers, Sarah J. Lorna Simpson: Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1997.
Salon 94. “Lorna Simpson Biography.” http://lsimpsonstudio.com/biography.html. Accessed November 4, 2012.
On February 15, 1937, LIFE magazine ran a feature story on the record-breaking floods that swept through the Ohio River Valley in late January and early February that same year (http://life.time.com/behind-the-picture/the-american-way-photos-from-the-great-ohio-river-flood-of-1937/#1). The article focused on the structural damages and social despair that gripped one of the hardest-hit areas of the natural disaster, Louisville, Kentucky. A half-dozen photographs taken by the photographer (and Cornell University alumna) Margaret Bourke-White accompanied the spread, its most seminal photograph titled The Louisville Flood (Figure 1). Similarly to Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (http://watch.thirteen.org/video/2053414842/), Bourke-White’s The Louisville Flood remains an iconic image of the Great Depression, embodying an era that began with the stock market crash in 1929 and ended with the onslaughts of World War II in 1941 (Figure 2). Though Bourke-White would go on to become the first female war photojournalist, capturing poignant photographs of ravaged cities and Holocaust victims, it is her work completed here, at home in America, that brings forth a powerful narrative surrounding the intersection of class and race. The Louisville Flood explores the dichotomies of white and black, rich and poor, and their respective relationships to the American Dream through the visual lenses of scale, tonality, and gaze. Ultimately, in The Louisville Flood,Bourke-White challenges the “imaginary ideal” of the perfect white, middle class nuclear family by starkly contrasting it with the “real periphery” of the struggling African American community.
Immediately after photographing the second presidential inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on January 20, 1937 in Washington, D.C., Bourke-White boarded a plane to Louisville on assignment for LIFE magazine to document the immense flooding that had devastated the area. From western Pennsylvania to southern Illinois, small towns and large cities drowned in astonishing waters with river levels rising as high as eighty feet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swdlzhjjgPQ)! By January 27, nearly seventy percent of Louisville was underwater, forcing approximately 175,000 individuals from their homes to relief shelters. One of these shelters, operated by the American Red Cross, was located near the intersection of 13th and Broadway: the very spot of Bourke-White’s The Louisville Flood. A broken breadline set against a blaring billboard provided a compelling composition for Bourke-White to challenge American economic and racial conditions.
The Louisville Flood divides into two strong horizontal registers with the blaring billboard occupying the top two-thirds of the photograph and the broken breadline occupying the bottom one-third of the photograph. The strategic camera frame used to capture this image emphasizes a hierarchy of scale: the detailed, larger-than-life depiction of the white, middle class family looms over the anonymous, compact mass of the struggling African American community. While the former actively drives ahead into an imaginary world of rolling green hills, the latter passively waits behind one another in a graphic reality of natural disaster. Unlike the white family who may steer its own direction and control its own destiny, the African Americans must depend on the food and water provisions of the relief shelter to simply stay alive. The white family, essentially representing the greater ideal of Americana, races down onto and compresses—or one may even claim oppresses—the queue of African Americans. The father-mother-son-daughter (and even pet terrier) unit embodies the American nuclear family, as outlined by countless hegemonic institutions, including magazine publications and advertising agencies. Produced by The National Association of Manufacturers, thousands of billboard scenes, like this one, aimed at spreading hope across the United States by advocating the American Dream and claiming, “There’s no way like the American Way!” However, as Bourke-White demonstrates in The Louisville Flood, these notions of autonomy and prosperity remained out-of-reach for many marginalized groups, specifically African Americans.
Besides scale, tonality—or the layering of dark and light or black and white—adds to the formal and symbolic agency of The Louisville Flood. Literally and figuratively, white characterizes the top and black characterizes the bottom of this composition, suggesting the very social stratum between these two groups regarding class and race. The shiny windshield, front hood, and rearview mirror of the car reflects and repeats, and therefore strengthens and propagates, the construct of the white, middle class nuclear family as the desired American vision. Set against a white stripe in a patriotic banner, a second slogan reads in bold capital text, “WORLD’S HIGHEST STANDARD OF LIVING.” Though this statement was intended for the white family pictured on the billboard, this background subject blurs with its foreground counterpart and ironically shifts the text’s reading to the African Americans. The United States may provide the “World’s Highest Standard of Living” for some, but clearly, not for all. The pearly-white smiles on the billboard sharply juxtapose the dark despair of the breadline. Light and dark, like white and black, stay in their respective visual registers and ultimately their respective social realms in The Louisville Flood.
Lastly, Bourke-White comments on the economic and social inequalities between class and race by capturing a spectrum of gazes in The Louisville Flood. While the white, middle class family looks optimistically outward, eyes consuming the vast and limitless horizon before them, the African Americans predominately direct their gazes to the periphery of the picture plane, to the physical relief station down the street and not to the imagined “American Way,” or American Dream, floating above them on the billboard. The African Americans cannot imagine a better future because they must concentrate on surviving the hardships of the present. A sense of desperate immediacy fills their countenances: one man, with his brim pulled low, anxiously glances over his shoulder; a woman, who clutches a basket, stares desolately into the distance; and then there are the children—a young boy and adolescent girl—who, unlike their white parallels on the billboard, will likely grow-up too fast because of harsh economic realities and racial injustices. Through the careful study of gazes, the impersonal repetition of overcoats and hats that comprises the breadline breaks down to reveal complex individuals with raw emotions.
When Margaret Bourke-White arrived in Louisville in January 1937, she was given the key to the city before starting her work. Little did she know that decades later, her photographs would continue to unlock and open a dialogue surrounding the dichotomies of white and black and rich and poor. It is with little wonder that later creative geniuses, like the acclaimed musician Curtis Mayfield, employed the work of Bourke-White to continue to challenge the construct of the American Dream and its relationship to the underrepresented. Mayfield’s 1975 album There’s No Place Like America Today appropriates a mirror-image of The Louisville Flood for its cover (Figure 3). One of its hit songs, “Hard Times,” reads,
…Havin’ Hard Times in this crazy town
Havin’ Hard Times there’s no love to be found
From my body house I see like me another
Familiar face of creed and race and brother…
These lyrics spoke directly to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, but easily find root in and translate to Bourke-White’s The Louisville Flood. At its core, this renowned photograph criticizes the “imaginary ideal” by championing the “real periphery.” Until we acknowledge and appreciate underrepresented classes and races, the collective visual conscious of America will remain incomplete.
Figure 1: Margaret Bourke-White, The Louisville Flood, 1937.
Figure 2: Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.
Figure 3: Curtis Mayfield, There’s No Place Like America Today, 1975.
Works Referenced and Recommended Readings
Bourke-White, Margaret. Portrait of Myself. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.
Carner, Bill. “Louisville’s 1937 Flood: A 75th Anniversary Exhibition.” The Owl: A Newsletter for Employees of the University of Louisville Libraries, February 2012. Accessed November 2, 2012. http://owl.library.louisville.edu/2012/Owl0212.pdf.
Casto, James E. Images of America: The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Currell, Susan. The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure on the Great Depression. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.
Kozol, Wendy. LIFE’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Journalism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
McGovern, Charles F. Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.