Ayana V Jackson’s Dictatorship is one of the first images to strike you as you enter Gallery MOMO.
Walking down into the maelstrom of First Thursday after viewing the opening of Ayana V Jackson’s exhibition of photographs at Gallery MOMO, the Dutch photographer along for the ride remarked that he loved the space and exhibition layout but the images seemed rather narcissistic.
Given that all the 30-odd images were of Ayana herself, both clothed and unclothed, his observation was understandable.
He also said something about looking more closely at the photoshopping but his words sort of trailed off. He sounded disappoined about it, his tone suggested it was not up to scratch.
I disagreed on the narccissim claim though. I had done my homework.
In a great interview with Fierce Latitudes, an online site featuring in-depth interviews and artists’ profiles, Jackson, who grew up in America and now lives between New York, Johannesburg and Paris, explained why the only body portrayed in her recent and current work displayed in Past – Future – Imperfect is hers.
She told the interviewer that when she went to stay in Berlin a friend of hers, Tara Mahapatra, ran a “really lovely” open door Masters Programe at Universitat der Kunst and invited her to show her photographs at their crits.
Having studied sociology, not art, she was apprehensive about subjecting her relatively amateur work to the withering pit of scorn that open art crits can be, but the initial prints she showed of her Full Circle and African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth series were well received and she took more work.
She went on to say: “That was when I first started engaging in critical thought. I began thinking about issues of representation, questioning my position as an American, as a Black person, as a woman. I began to ask myself if and how that subjectivity changed how people interacted with me as my subjects, and subsequently as viewers of the work. There were a lot of very difficult questions that I had to answer in that class.”
The most difficult questions related to her African by Legacy work, a rather naive documentary-style series on communities of Black Mexicans in ‘Costa Chica’ and Vera Cruz on the Gulf side.
She said there was one particular guy who gave her a hard time.
“He tore me to shreds. He said, ‘as a white European man in Mexico, taking pictures of people because they are black, that’s problematic. It’s racialising them’. For him, the fact that my subject was the black body was absolutely racist and, hence, disgraceful. He could not understand it. He also could not understand why I was able to put this work out there. He knew he could not have gotten away with it. I stand behind the project and what I was doing, but there is something valid about that question. That was the moment I began to question my subjectivity.
This awareness, through various twists and turns and South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky’s influence, led to her deciding to avoid the problem of attaching her views and ideas of being more comfortable with her own blackness (and the weight of history it carries) to another person’s body was to use her own image. If she was going to “explore a more personal journey” the ethical option was to use her own body to reclaim the portrayal of the metaphorical black body.
Which answers the narcissim comment, which satisfied the Dutch photographer, a lovely man called Samuel, who had been too busy shooting a sunglasses editorial around Cape Town to have read up the background to the show.
Whatever one’s opinion on the images she creates (and Past-Future-Imperfect is a fusing of a number of individual series of works that coalesce a theme) the fact that she gave serious consideration to what her most emphatic critic had to say, especially when as a black woman with the wrongs of history looming as a righteous force of vengeance, she could have brushed this white guy off as an embittered twerp fearful of the loss of his privilege and shifted her approach accordingly, proves her ability for constructive artistic self-reflection. It is thanks to this ability that her work has shifted from the representational to the metaphorical.
For when I view her images, I don’t see Ayanda V Jackson, even though there are often multiples of her in a single frame, I see reclamation of history, a crippling of stereotype and an non confrontational yet unequivocal communication that blackness, particularly female blackness, contains its own value which is paradoxically both unique and universal.
High regard for Jackson’s conceptual achievement noted, Samuel’s muted criticism of the quality of her digital manipulation needs to be resurrected from the interrupted conversations that typify the buzz of opening night.
Heavily reliant on digital post processing, Jackson’s conceptual vision is occasionally tripped up by technical shortcomings. This is particularly evident in Death, a 2011 image printed to just short of 1.5m by 1.5m representing a lynching. Able Meeropol’s poem Strange Fruit, most famously sung by Billie Holiday, automatically played in my mind as a gazed at it. It is a powerful and symbolic image but its power is diluted by the deep-etched body not hanging. The not hanging-but-floating posture is at odds with the rope around the neck. I understand taking a self portrait of oneself hanging by the neck is difficult and dangerous but it is possible to do it safely, or at least with minimal risk. Get hold of an experienced stage manager. Theatre people have mad skills.
In the equally large Dictatorship the squatting subject is superimposed on a flat background, a technical choice I cannot fathom, as the alternative here was simple to create. Jackson could argue she wanted the bodies to float but even so, I would argue it was an erroneous choice.
Technical issues become progressively less apparent as the work becomes more recent, presumably Jackson becoming more adept at the craft of her art and it remains a relatively minor detraction in a body of work that is impressive in its continuity of vision over five years of producing distinct series that are equally able to be displayed on their own.
Adding to the viewing experience is the exquisite display of the work. As you enter you are almost physically struck with the heavy images from Poverty Pornography and Archival Impulse, moving through the corridor of Leapfrog archetypes to open into her lighter ongoing Dear Sarah series which pays homage to Sarah Forbes Bonnetta. This second large main space also contains the Wild as the Wind series, a reimagining of 19th Century portraits which dovetail Dear Sarah, as does the wonderfully unsaturated To Kill or Allow to Live arrangement which takes the 19th Century photographic movement studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey as a departure point.
Here Jackson is moving away from the weight of history on the black body, moving toward a future freedom and lightness of being and To Kill, which is flanked by the family portrait template of Does the brown paper bag test really exist/Will my father be proud and Prototype/Phenotype, contains the same ambivalence between freedom of expression and the taboo 19th Century psychology imposed on it as it related to female sexuality.
Then the crowning glory of the entire show is in the last shot. Wild as the wind has our protagonist lifting her skirts, transforming the weight of material into wings, or sails. She is airborne, weightless and in motion, flying from the past into a future that contains the possibility of new imperfections. – Steve Kretzmann
Future – Past – Imperfect is on show at Gallery MOMO Cape Town until 14 March 2016.