Pictured?body politic

2013-09-01 14:00

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Reflecting on the painful history of images that objectify black women, Ayana V Jackson tells Percy Mabandu about her new work and the politics that informs it.

The shoulder-length dreadlocks on Ayana V Jackson’s head have curls that suggest her hair was styled differently before being tied up in its current ponytail.

She walks on Gallery Momo’s driveway with a face that betrays the hunger pains she is nursing.

Jackson is having an exhibition of new photographic works titled Archival Impulse at the art house in Parktown North, Joburg.

This is why we have persevered to make this interview happen.

It’s already lunch hour and Jackson hasn’t even had breakfast. She’s visibly grumpy for it. So, to lift her spirits, we head for a restaurant in Parkview.

This way she can have her brunch – eggs Benedict with wine – while we chat.

Her glass of sauvignon blanc and my cappuccino are the first to join my Dictaphone on the table.

Eased by the first sip, she begins by telling me that 19 of the 22 images that make up the exhibition were created while she was on a residency in Paris from February 2012.

Jackson landed in Joburg this July and has been slowly preparing for this show since then.

The exhibition includes a video projection and photographs.

Drop your chin/ Dress my hair 2013 is part of an exhibition of new photographic works titled Archival Impulse at Gallery Momo in Parktown North, Joburg

It’s titled Archival Impulse and makes use of images culled from various types of archives.

Importantly, the current works feature Jackson taking on the posed roles of black women in notable colonial-era pictures.

The works have their genesis in her earlier work, titled Poverty Pornography.

“I started thinking about ideas of the so-called Dark Continent and images of death, disaster, disease, destruction, and how I believe they are overrepresented in the image banks of photojournalism,” she says.

This is the extent to which Africa has been projected to the outside world, or the West, she says.

Jackson observes that these macabre depictions of Africa and other Third World societies have created a particular type of seduction for the European imagination in ways that are similar to pornography.

“People had this urge to see, but they don’t want to look,” she says.

It’s as Susan Sontag, the American scholar, writes in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, where she argues that “it seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked”.

Jackson looked through popular images reflecting Sontag’s observation, and simultaneously interrogated the participation of black image makers in maintaining the resulting stereotypes today.

In 2010 she assembled a panel discussion of cultural workers to discuss this notion.

It included scholars Thembinkosi Goniwe and Achille Mbembe, and curators Gabi Ngcobo and Khwezi Gule at Gallery Momo.

In her earlier work, the scope was much more general.

The work included, for example, the picture of Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese chief of National Police, executing a handcuffed prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem, a suspected Vietcong member.

It was captured in a 1968 picture by Eddie Adams, an Associate Press photojournalist. Jackson re-enacts the photograph along with others depicting the lynching of blacks in America.

The new work studies portrayals of nude African women.

To explain her interests, Jackson starts by pointing out that photography’s birth date is somewhere around the mid-1800s.

That’s right smack in the middle of European colonial expansion. It means there’s a whole chapter of photography that develops alongside ideas of colonisation, she says.

Hence the first images of Africans coincide with these notions around the conquest of black people.

“Blackness was created in order to define whiteness,” she says.

“They had to create ideas around blackness and the black body in order to justify the atrocities of colonialism and slavery. They had to trick the masses into believing that these people were subhuman and were uncivilised savages in order to get the general consensus to allow these atrocities they were committing to happen.”

Jackson is motivated by the fact that, as she puts it: “I think we don’t read imagery critically enough. The greater purpose of the work for me is to encourage us to read photographic imagery critically and to be able to recognise within ourselves where the seeds of racism were planted ... and bring that all the way into images we are consuming in 2013.”

Jackson’s new work confronts her audiences with naked bodies of herself taking on the identity of historical black women in the mould of Saartjie Baartman.

Though the truth is that Baartman spoke multiple languages, had children and lived on at least two continents, she has been reduced to a shape, let alone a body.

[gallery ids="71653,71654,71655,71657"]

Baartman was hypersexualised and branded “savage” by her European counterparts and image makers.

Jackson points out that the naked village women who are in the original photographs that she re-enacts were hardly sexual.

It was normal behaviour to walk bare-breasted, for instance.

“It was Europe, with its own protestant Christian hang-ups on nudity, that read her naked body in a specific way and went on to promote those ideas through postcards and posters. Hence, these images are still related to current myths of black female sexuality today,” says Jackson.

Her meal is almost finished and she’s much more relaxed.

Returning to her point on a need for critical reading of images, she says, “it’s almost like an alcoholic, once you realise that you have a problem, even if you don’t stop drinking today, you at least know that you have a problem. Even if you don’t stop racialising, at least you are aware when you do it.”

The 36-year-old creative speaks with a diminished Midwestern American twang.

She was born in Livingston, New Jersey, and received her BA in Sociology in 1999 at Spelman College.

It’s a liberal arts women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. The college was founded in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary.

It holds the distinction of being one of America’s oldest historically black colleges for women.

Jackson later studied critical theory and large-format printing at the University of Arts in Berlin.

It may be obvious to read her education as the basis of her ideological sinew. However, there is a historical imperative to address race issues that affect the practices of many black artists today.

Hence, even now, when we may have ended slavery and colonialism, we are left with this cancer of a racialised thinking kept alive by images.

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