Lorna Simpson: The Absence of Color

Portrait, 1988

The 1980s will go down in history as a time that American’s were finding their true voice. Women, LGBTQ, communities of color, and women across the nation were demanding to be heard amidst the bullhorns of Reaganomics and conservative politics. The now-famous -pop art style of the ’80s that was signature to artists like Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat depicted the various social issues of the time visually captivating images that utilized repetition as a technique or drew viewers in with their bold color palettes. These artworks and the artists themselves were making bold statements about the world we live in and made us ask questions. Somewhat on the outskirts of the (pop)-ular Pop Art movement were many African-American photographers making art that dealt with the obstacles of navigating race, gender, and sexuality in America.

At the forefront of that effort was Brooklyn based artist Lorna Simpson. Her work, similar to Baltimore based artist, Zoe Charlton ‘s work deals with debunking stereotypes concerning black men and women. Where Charlton is masterful with her pencil art, Simpson uses black and white photography to deconstruct the images of black women in order to show their many layers. In the absence of flash or color, the viewer focuses on the moment in which the subject exists with pretense.

In doing so, Simpson concludes there is nothing more “magical” about a black woman than in any other woman. Yet by honing in her in this way with out overly pronounced bosoms and backsides, she was able to draw attention to the sensuality in the mundane that is her body. She too, like every other woman is that—a woman in her many facets.

The intimate image the artist captures is a sharp contrast to other artist that seek to explore the black woman in another way. For example, Kerry James Marshall’s untitled work Beach Towel displays a very vulnerable and seductive black woman on a beach towel in a backyard. Of course, we are also this representation as well. Or a revelation if you will. 

All of these images challenge the ongoing conversation of how black women and their image show up in the world. 
For more information on work by Lorna Simpson visit: lsimpsonstudio.com

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima Revisited

Being a black woman in the world is a multi-dimensional experience. However, the variance and diversity is what is so enticing. There are many contributing factors that shape our experiences and we come to embrace the notion that we are not a monolith. However, it is the color of our skin that can determine how we are viewed in the world. That is the unifying experience.

When Betye Saar was assembling this piece, she mentioned that it was a quiet protest. When you look at this piece does it speak loudly or softly to you?

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Wood, Mixed-media assemblage, 11.75 x 8 x 2.75 in.

Betye Saar

African American assemblage artist Betye Saar often used stereotypical and derogatory images such as the black female image of the “Mammy” to invoke symbols of empowerment and positivity. Many people see the image of mammy and it stirs up the ugly and uncomfortable parts of American History, black female sexuality, and its pervasive depictions in art, media and culture.  The conversation surrounding black female sexuality often presents the black woman in an oversexualized state such as the Venus Hotentot, or in an asexual one, like the contented Mammy image. However, in the “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” one of Saar’s most famous works; mammy is juxtaposed against a smiling Aunt Jemima in a way that feels eerily co-conspiratorial between the two generational versions of the same woman. These images are uncomfortable to look at.

The Image of Mammy

Mammy is known to be the kind, loving and devoted mother figure who is happy in all of her roles of suffering. However, Saar’s work shows us a deeper laugh this is ultimately on an American society that has strived to strip black women of their agency and turn them into hidden figures. The mammy is a caretaker, a domestic, but the gun yells for your attention. Listen up! Look at us! The rising of the black fist up from the balls of cotton, can be seen as a call to action for mobilization and empowerment. The compelling visual of the discontented white baby captured in the womb of the ultimate mother, mammy, speaks volumes to the constructs that make up the foundation of our society. From the womb relationships are formed and mammy is the birth mother of the nation in the traditional American south.

In an interview with the Visionary Project regarding the Liberation of Aunt Jemima Saar states,” I wanted to do a work about a woman to make my protest feelings heard through this piece.”[1]

            I believe that Saars achieves her goal of protest for women of color, and of women that seek to be free of the hegemony that has suppressed their womanhood for centuries. Her work was very important in challenging images that define black culture and womanhood. Visiting Lecturer to the Savannah College of Art and Design, Catherine Morris, also felt that Saars’ work was an important part of feminist art history, and included her work in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition: “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85.”  In answering the important questions facing black female artists at the time Morris states “The question was, do you align yourselves with the black power movement and deal with sexism in that context? Do you align yourself with feminism and deal with racism in that context? There is always a battle to be fought.”[2]

True to the battle being fought, we can look at the image of both Mammy and Aunt Jemima to know that not much has changed.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

[2] Miranda, Carolina. “How the black radical female artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s made art that speaks to today’s politics,” Los Angeles Times, 2017. Accessed 28 April 2020 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-black-radical-women-caam-20171228-htmlstory.html

[1] VisionaryProject “Betye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Filmed March 2010. Youtube video 5:30. Posted March 2010. Accessed 28 April 2020. https://youtu.be/MvJvyFBcvD4

[2] Miranda, Carolina.How the black radical female artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s made art that speaks to today’s politics,” Los Angeles Times, 2017. Accessed 28 April 2020 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-black-radical-women-caam-20171228-htmlstory.html

Heal Thyself With ART

It is coming up on the two year anniversary of the date that my daughter was diagnosed with ATRT. ATRT is a rare form of a brain cancer that is found mainly in children and has a very poor prognosis. It is extremely aggressive and as I said it is extremely rare. You either have a genetic disposition or bad luck. My daughter was the latter case. She was three years old when she was diagnosed in November of 2015. She went on to have had 18 beautiful months of life after her diagnosis some in the hospital and a lot out of the hospital and with her family. However none of it without a lot of worry and anxiety and pain. Sadly, she passed away at home on August 4, 2017. As you can imagine for a mother who lost her only daughter very recently this is still a journey, however, this is not a tormented one at all. I am not broken. I am however, different.
This post is not about that in a sense. However, it is about the magical mystery of self healing if you are open to it. Her life, her journey, and our journey together as a family is what compelled me to start this blog. Helping a child fight cancer I imagine is very different than helping an adult. My daughter wore her princess dress all through her treatment, never complained, and was generally all smiles. She taught me a lot about courage and living life to the fullest. She taught me about facing life with a smile even in your darkest circumstances.
I was the only one to hold her when she was having her final moments. I would not have had it any other way as her mother. Holding her in my arms I could tell that the child that I knew her as had left a very long time ago, and that she was all spirit in my arms, and so much of that spirit was going back and forth between her and I. It was flowing back and forth and during that time she was filling me with everything.
I noticed that even a child, a very small human being goes on to the other side alone. They come in to the world alone and they go out alone. What I am most comforted by is that she did not suffer at all. In that very moment there was not any fear to be had, only love.
In the days leading up to her passing I had spoken to her and gotten many things off of my chest. I would encourage anyone to do this if they have a sick child. I asked for forgiveness. If I had failed her as a mother in anyway. I ran down the whole line. All the small and big things I could remember and she would squeeze my finger. When she stopped squeezing I told her I loved her and we would always be together and she could go. She didn’t go immediately. Don’t let doctors or Hospice or anyone rush your loved one off either. They know with the Divine when they are ready. My daughter is with me. I feel no brokenness. Her mission with her family is being carried out. I honor it every day. She was a truly creative soul. Before Calais passed away I made art casually. I also made it with the kids at school or with Calais and her Art therapist. I love the work of the Art therapist. I think what they do is very special. Now I make art like she did every single day and colors fill my home. Art is such a huge part of my healing. Art is life. It does not take a lot to grab a pad a paint brush and let your subconscious go to work for you and begin to create. I encourage you to create. Hang that art on your wall. Spend 30 minutes each day drawing. Spend 30 minutes each day doing a craft and filling your house with colors and seeing the change that shaping your environment with art does for your well-being. That is what this blog is about. That is what my daughter’s legacy is about. She was ahead of her time for such a small child and she lived and breathed art and creativity and left all of that behind with us. This is something that I want to share with you. Send me a photo of what you are doing. What inspires you? What you are working on? Grief and Loss can be a new beginning not the end. It can open the door and be a portal to your loved one for open communication to the divine to explore purpose, healing, community, closure. The portal here is art. From there you may go on to do other things. Find a local Art Therapist if you can and start connecting. If you cannot. You will find things here as I build my daughter’s foundation. Let’s connect. Let’s hold space for each other. Be well together. Let’s continually lift each other up in love. Until next time.

Chiara