Halfway through the 20th century, immense social changes were brewing in the United States of America. The Civil Rights Movement surged to the fore and began to yield success little by little. Some of the organizations that drove these changes were dedicated to feminism and others to black rights, but, although successful, the former focused exclusively on white women, and the latter focused on men, ironically making these liberation movements themselves oppressive and discriminatory. In these groups, black women suffered from either racism or sexism, having to accept strict race and gender roles. Hence, black women were rendered invisible, without any effective official advocacy for their rights. For this reason, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded in New York in 1973, focusing on black feminism, although not exclusively — they sought to end racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism in all forms, since they thought that different forms of discrimination were synergistic, nourishing each other.
In consequence, “womanism” was born, focusing on this group of doubly repressed people. Alice Walker, author of the acclaimed book The Color Purple, later adapted into a Spielberg movie, said, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” coining an overarching term for black women’s struggle for equality.
Concurrently, many contemporary artists used their work to advocate for equal rights, and womanism has since had a place in the visual arts. Artists born in the United States, like Kara Walker and her famous silhouettes, and Lorna Simpson, whose work we will focus on, as well as African artists based in the US, like Nigerian Marcia Kure and Kenyan Wangechi Mutu, have dedicated their creativity to fostering social change. All of them focus on identity and the empowerment of black women, representing their defining features as symbols of strength.
Lorna Simpson (New York, 1960) is a standout example, and she has not only resolutely defended women’s and black rights — thus becoming one of the leading lights of feminist and African American visual culture — but also broadcast her pride in her identity as a black woman.
Creating representations of the shared memory and history of African Americans, as well as the feminist movement, she was already considered a pioneer of conceptual photography by the end of the 1970s. She achieved mainstream success in the next decade with works influenced by modernism, minimalism and abstraction, as well as by particular artists and thinkers like Magritte and Foucault.
Her style in the 1980s became more focused and distinctive, often resorting to repetition and the inclusion of text — a technique that had become extremely popular in the prior two decades — and pretty much always starring a black woman wearing a neutral white outfit, creating a striking contrast. These women are not represented in a common manner, and they’re not even in typical poses. In Guarded Conditions, there are six photographs of the same woman in almost identical twisted positions, not facing forwards, but showing her back. The repetition is echoed in the words at the bottom of the pictures: “Sex attacks, skin attacks,” it says several times, emphasizing the dangers black women are exposed to over and over again. In another work from this same period, You’re Fine, a black woman is lying on her side, once again not facing the viewer. The words on the sides advertise a “secretarial position,“ and also include various medical terms. As a whole, the picture and the text denounce the struggle of many black women, forced by their social class and structural discrimination into menial, poorly-paid jobs, working long hours and punishing their bodies. Of course, most people spend much of their lives working, but black women are often forced into a certain narrow subset of low-status employment, merely because they are black women.
Both works feature anonymous African American women, with their backs turned towards the viewer, creating an absence of communication. These women are at the same time both present and absent, echoing their invisibility within a household or society, like the “help”, the maids and nannies integral to Southern families, but at the same time stripped of personality and individuality. They wear straight, loose-fitting clothes, devoid of any eroticism. This is new — in western rhetoric and imagination, black female bodies are traditionally linked to disease, crime, pornography and fertility, lacking independence and self-determination. In the end, all of these unusual and sometimes jarring representational choices made by Simpson create a strange relationship between the art and its viewer, who feels a compulsion to fix something about the work. But this need transcends the pieces, and the viewer realizes it is actually real life that’s in need of repair.
Moreover, the inherent orality of text breaks the silence of the still image. The text is not descriptive, but it has the same conceptual and narrative value as the image, the words reinforcing the photos and vice versa, creating visual stories. This is, according to the artist, very difficult on a certain level to work with, because “one must really have that ear — an ear beyond the words simply being something visual on the page.“
In contrast to the historical demonization of African American features, Simpson celebrates the elements of black identity, focusing on the hair and the skin, which are almost fetishized. Double Negative, dating from 1990, shows four almost-identical pictures of hair braided in the shape of a rope. Curly hair, whether in braids, cornrows or Afros has always been a part of African American identity. Here, however, that distinguishing feature is associated with another inescapable part of their history — the widespread lynching that terrorized African Americans and kept them subjugated and unable to exercise their legal rights all the way from post-emancipation Reconstruction until shockingly recently. Their identity metaphorically becomes that very rope that hangs them, since they are killed just for being black.
Three words accompany the image: “not not noose.” The direct reference to “noose“ confirms the allusion to lynching. The play on words with “not“ and “knot“ simultaneously contains rejection and the undeniable details of this shocking history. This repetitive refrain also recalls the children’s game “Duck Duck Goose,“ but the innocent chase of that game is horrifyingly re-imagined. The absence of the hair’s owner emphasizes the erasure of individuality — people were lynched merely for their identity. However, this absence is also eerily evocative of all the people killed and erased from history. The title completes this brief narration of a huge story —African American women are doubly rejected: first for being black, then for being women.
Hair is precisely the unifying thread between her past works and her present ones. In the series she has made in the past few years, hair is a permutable element. In both 2011’s Gold Heads and 2014’s Riunite & Ice [sic], the artist repeatedly uses a single black female bust —a different one for each series— each time replacing the hair with fantastical elements, such as mountains, clouds, razors or paint. In these works, identity may be challenged by the lack of real hair, but at the same time it’s reinforced by another important factor, skin. These works lack the political denunciation of her previous works. However, they efficiently evoke the great variety of experiences black women go through in life, always with the backdrop of their identity, maybe risking it, but never losing it, for better or worse.
Simpson has experimented with different formats and materials, like video, Polaroid film, wigs and room-dividing screens, always maintaining the strong critical tone that defines her oeuvre. Using image and text, her work always questions cultural shifts, politics, gender, race, power, status and memory, avoiding unnecessary complexity with a very visual and direct style. Her figurative, enigmatic, unconventional style challenges the traditional visual appearance of elements she uses and, at the same time, shatters the dividing line between art and life.