THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Two powerful exhibitions featuring black female artists kicked off the fall art season in River North. “How Do You See Me?” at Catherine Edelman Gallery and “Things Are Not Always What They Seem: A Phenomenology of Black Girlhood” at Carl Hammer Gallery both offer a space for these strong artistic voices to be seen and heard. The artists in both shows come from a variety of artistic backgrounds, but an overarching theme of black identity is present in all the works.
Vanessa German’s “Things are Not Always What They Seem...” features large sculptures of various figures built out of collected objects, plaster, and string. Each stands erect, like saints in a cathedral. Their pieced-together nature recalls African power figures and Haitian voodoo spirits.
Vanessa German, Notes on the Absence of Sacredness: How Little Black Girls Die, mixed media assemblage, 2018. 77 x 30 x 18 inches. Courtesy of Carl Hammer and Pavel Zoubok galleries
German’s sculptures have something to say. They stand perched atop piles of wood and chairs, using any means possible to get the viewer’s attention. Each character, though small in stature, is at eye level with the viewer. The sculpture titled Notes on the Absence of Sacredness: How Little Girls Die holds out a black porcelain child as glass jewels stream from her eyes like tears. It is paying homage to girls forgotten by a broken system; black girls who are found dead in the streets and overlooked because they are deemed to be too lost or too dangerous.
German is a self-taught artist working in mediums that run the gamut from performance and photography to video. Her mother was a fiber artist, which shows in German’s ability to practically weave with objects. Her works are carefully curated in a way that illustrates the concept of phenomenology and connects it to something almost spiritual. There are layers of history and experiences that create consciousness, just as these statues are layered and organized.
“How Do You See Me?” at Edelman Gallery puts the viewer on the spot. These artists join in a collective question and begin a powerful dialogue. There are physical and metaphorical layers of history and material that permeate through each piece, creating their own sort of phenomenology.
Not unlike German, Alanna Airitam layers history in her photographs. In an interview, she talks about walking through museums full of painted portraits in gilded frames: “It feels like they are looking down at me.” Her portraits do not judge. The subjects offer up flowers and fruit. Saint Lenox holds a large bouquet of flowers as the light carves out intricate lines along the red cloth of her turban. It is reminiscent of Jan van Eyck’s red turban in Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?). The photographs juxtapose themes from the Dutch Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance. Both art periods emerged out of war and social upheaval.
Alanna Airitam, Saint Lenox, 2017. © Alanna Airitam.
Courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery
Unlike the cold gazes from historical paintings, the subjects in this project are welcoming the viewer. The details of the skin are rich and textured and the lighting spot on. However, the photographs are displayed on top of a piece of damask paper. The pattern detracts from the beauty of the photographs by flattening the images and giving them a feeling like they are floating on a computer desktop.
The physical layering of photographic elements in Endia Beal’s project is a great device for creating implied layers of perception. The women in Beal’s photographs stand in their homes against a backdrop depicting the setting of a corporate office. The background is a photograph of a hallway in the Yale University administrative office where Beal once worked. The women are dressed in their best business attire, prepared for an interview in a corporate office.
Beal is a formally-trained photographer with an M.F.A. from Yale. During her time at that institution, she found out that, in the office she worked in, her hair had become the topic of conversation for several of her coworkers. As part of her graduate studies, Beal created a body of work called “Can I Touch It?” in which she invited those coworkers to approach and touch her hair. By putting those people on the spot, she is turning the tables and troubling their perceptions.
Beal’s is not an isolated incident, but one that is emblematic of a subtle but pervasive dysfunction in the corporate world including institutions as renowned as Yale University. The work featured at Edelman Gallery unifies Beal’s experience with those of some of her students. The photographs are accompanied by quotes from each woman on the topic of corporate America:
“As a black woman in corporate America, straightening my hair should be MY personal choice. Why is it okay for me to come to an interview with a weave in my hair and be accepted, but not with my Afro? It’s not right. We want to be accepted just the way we are.”
In this photograph, Kennedy stands, facing the viewer. The corporate backdrop lines up with the edge of a framed picture. The hand of Adam from the Sistine Chapel reaches out to touch, not the hand of God, but the hair of a black woman.
Medina Dugger gives a different perspective on hair. “Chroma” is an homage to Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere's series documenting the unique hairstyles and head wraps of Nigerian culture. The original series consists of two thousand black and white images. Dugger, having moved from California to Nigeria in 2011, began exploring the same hairstyles now updated with the availability of modern supplies.
Dugger creates an expert palette of colors in each image. The technical prowess of her editing shows the signs of a commercial photographer. This complements Ojeikere’s portraits, also created in a commercial style. Her lighting and printing of the images are done with a keen eye. Duggar adds color both with the thread used in the hairstyles and with the backgrounds. There has been some post-production manipulation of the hair and background colors. The result of her careful editing is a color palette both modern and precisely balanced.
The compositions have simplicity to them, as though they could be found on the wall of a hair salon. Those that diverge from the original series are more interesting. Aside from the color palate, the project itself is a bit soft-spoken, especially in contrast to the other projects in the exhibition.
These two shows are compelling because they are unafraid to address the viewer. Identity comes to the forefront as the artists represent their subjects with generosity and admiration. The tone of each piece directs the viewer to consider the subjects on their own terms, not dictated by fear or fascination, like the judgments of corporate America or the negligence of its justice system. They will not be quiet or relax their hair or any other part of their being. Their voices must resound in collected disorder “until justice rolls out clear and sharp for all of our daughters.” [from Love Poem for Nia Wilson #1 by Vanessa German.]
How do you see me?
Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior St., Chicago, IL 60654
Vanessa German—Things Art Not Always What They Seem: A Phenomenology of Black Girlhood
Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 N. Wells St., Chicago, IL 60654
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is “The Feeling is Mutual.
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