Womanist tackles race, gender and class

2010-08-03 09:25

“I don’t call myself a feminist, to do so would propose that I must

­accept that women don’t already hold power, which feminism is supposed to

­reclaim,” contends artist Ayana Vellissia Jackson during our conversation at

­Gallery Momo in Joburg, where her work forms part of an ­exhibition entitled

New African Photography.

Her work hangs alongside that of Seimon Allen, Sammy Baloji,

Patricia Driscoll, George Mahashe and Andrew Tshabangu.

Jackson’s confident swagger underlies her sophistication. She’s

bringing sexy to high ­discourse and she knows it.

Not too long into our ­conversation we agree that “good looks do

affect how women are excluded or received” into spaces, and even how easily or

difficult their personal struggles unfold.

Jackson says: “I’m the ­fourth-generation graduate in a lineage of

women.” She explains that she “came from a family where I never felt that women

were ­powerless even when they fell into gender roles”.

She was born in New ­Jersey in the US and holds a ­sociology

­degree. Her art developed from social ­documentary photography.

She is also ­interested in how African-Americans have ­become the

primary ­identity symbol for the black Atlantic ­experience even though they

only form 2% of black people in the Americas.

So the history of this polemic in

representation ­also filters into her new work.

Though Jackson’s work ­interrogates the politics of both race and

gender, she expands the discourse by focusing on ­issues of class too.

Jackson has put ­together a series of images entitled ­Leapfrog (a

bit of the other) Grand ­Matron Army.

This photographic work-in-progress

presents the ­female body in “conversation with ­different archetypes, child’s

play, allegory and myth”.

In these images, Jackson crouches like a frog while assuming

­different feminine archetypes across class and other divides.

For example, as a 1970s Black Panther activist which references

Angela Davis – complete with afro and Nehru-collar shirt.

The ­images go further

and allude to masonic traditions and social clubs for black people.

The Santaría priestess’ ­archetype unify all ­indigenous female

spiritual leadership.

Though Santería is a ­religion of West African and

­Caribbean ­origin, the work connects it to sangomas and women as guides across

the world.

The frog is a playful motif, but “it also alludes to women’s strong

thighs, sometimes used to attract men”. And so sexuality for ­survival as an

element of power is brought in here.

But the leapfrog movement “is also about being able to see over

obstacles”.

Jackson is also very particular about how language is used.

She says: “We have to be ­deliberate with words. I’m not a

feminist, I’m a womanist and that does not mean I’m ­foregoing my power.”

» New African Photography is on until August 7 at Gallery Momo, 7th

­Avenue, Parktown North



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