PRINT November 1990


SOMEWHERE IN THE INTERSTICES between the much maligned mutability of “pluralism” and the marginalized trajectory of “difference” is the common ground where most artists work. It is baffling to consider that in most art-historical texts, a handful of practitioners represents the industry and ideas of 50 years, while hundreds go unaccounted for—until such time, of course, as they serve the purposes of the commercial or cultural power structure. History, after all, tends to be written by winners. As Lowery Stokes Sims has pointed out, the fictional “other” is little more than a cathartic symbol, and “difference” a detour sign deflecting us from issues of power and control of a narrowly defined, nonrepresentative (art) world.1 If today there is a “reworking of existing cultural frames of reference,”2 it is a movement occasioned by the need to redefine a skewed perspective that has somehow cast more than two-thirds of the world’s people—and their culture—as “minority.”

Taking a look at the recent history of photography and text art, it should not be surprising to find women of color who are involved with this medium, though most books, articles, and general documentation might lead you to believe that only white males have created anything of lasting value.3 Indeed, it is with individually identifying these black women practitioners rather than abstractly acknowledging their existence that problems arise, that the record has to be set straight. In exploring the work of the Americans Lorna Simpson, Clarissa Sligh, Pat Ward Williams, and Carrie Mae Weems, and the Britons Zarina Bhimji, Roshini Kempadoo, Ingrid Pollard, and Mitra Tabrizian, one recognizes not only constructive strategies familiar in contemporary photography, but also the international dialogue their works have with each other, and the extent to which they expand the parameters of photography and text. These are women whose work is, with a few exceptions, well known in black and, to some extent, academic art-world circles, but whose recognition within the larger art community is still minimal although growing.4

The eight artists discussed here all began combining text with photography during the early to mid 1980s. Most had done documentary work and adopted the photography/text format as a method to both delimit and expand the implicit meanings in standard “straight” photography. On the one hand, joining words to the photograph could clarify the reception of the single image, grounding ideology and meaning and leaving less chance for misinterpretation. This approach, of course, also mirrors the way photographs usually circulate in the world: in magazines, newspapers, and advertising, and on television an image is always accompanied by a verbal cue. On the other hand, adding text can also expand the meaning of the single image. Furthermore, the addition of a textual element changes the traditional relationship between the photographer and the subject, forcing the practitioner in some way to explain her voyeurism. At the same time these works challenge the viewer’s customary response. A “typical” family portrait layered with script is no longer seen as a regular family photograph but must be read in a different way, relative to a specific situation; an image of a woman sitting alone in a bucolic field, for example, becomes not a figure of meditation or contemplation but one signifying isolation and danger as directed by the caption below. Implication expands, creating layers and levels of intent; words do not have to allude to pictures nor pictures to words, but can signify ideas outside this framework. These photographers were also drawn to the intrinsic social, almost didactic, function of the format. Because the act of reading expands the time one actually spends with any given work, photography and text do more to engage the viewer as reader/participant.

Of course, shared language and concerns also connect the work of these British and American photographers to that of other women artists. There is an interest in making visible women’s lives and in revealing the range of their experiences as a valid starting point for art-making. In some cases, the commodification and objectification of women may be addressed. In others, strident texts appropriate a “male” voice, critiquing the foundations of authority, much like the work of Barbara Kruger. The female image might be used as archetype—the visualization of an exemplar or transcendent idea—that becomes a vehicle for the investigation of many issues and an instrument not limited to/by discussions of gender. As with Jenny Holzer’s multimedia incursions, the photography and text of these British and American women may be said to be “the realization of the ‘new’ female voice, speaking for women but not exclusively to women; it forces the issue, to be sure, of initiating a feminist practice within the male-dominated culture but not containing it within ‘issues’ that can be conveniently labeled (and thus dismissed) as feminist.”5

Indeed, the work of these artists also speaks to issues of cultural or racial identity. As women of African, Asian, or Caribbean descent living or born in the United States and Britain, they draw on a variety of world views and ethoses. It is often a fragmented existence, described by W.E.B. DuBois at the turn of the century as one lived behind a veil, a life in but not entirely of the dominant/modern culture. Yet it is interesting that the post-Modern condition of the decentered (Western) individual sans “master narrative” has much in common with the quandary in which people of color find themselves in the West. As Stuart Hall has noted, “Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed, I become centered. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes, paradoxically, to be the representative modern experience!”6 The work of these artists thus extends and supplements our understanding of Western culture and cultural practices.

So while the techniques and formal methods used by the photographers here are recognizable, there is something—image, language, reference—by which they make them their own. Self-expression cannot be culled from a “limitless replication of existing models,”7 à la Cindy Sherman, for few exist. And simply recontextualizing found images (as does Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince) will often not get through to an audience including people of color, who have a hard time getting past stereotypes and slurs that still sting from habitual (and current) use. As Angela Davis and Michele Wallace have both pointed out, exposing myth as fabrication does not dispel the myth; the “revelation” simply takes its place next to the fiction as another version of this fiction.8

All of these photographers are concerned with identity and its recreation to some extent, but Kempadoo, Tabrizian, and Simpson in particular confront this issue in both personal and larger cultural terms. Kempadoo speaks about it from a very intimate place. A group of four untitled pieces from 1989 alludes formally and contextually to the reality of the multiple self through the juxtaposition of older black and white family snapshots with more recent color photographs she took herself. Kempadoo’s “self” is composed of a mixture of races—she claims a mixed East Indian, West Indian, Amerindian, and European heritage, but also identifies herself as a black woman—and is one that finds “home”—the site where identity is nurtured—in not one but a variety of places. The pieces are generally composed as triptychs, with two photographic images accompanied by a single panel of text. The words become the mediator between Caribbean and British locales, between the family universe and that of the world. Kempadoo explores ideas of fragmentation and dislocation, attempting through her photographs to build a new identity that might be wholly inclusive.

One piece from the series juxtaposes a photograph of a brown couple in an affectionate pose, who sit on the prow of a boat and overlook a beautiful tropical landscape, with a vintage picture of what appears to be the woman from the first shot, now laughing and seated on a very English heath. The work’s text reads:

I wonder if it is possible to position
myself from both
No one experience
no one history
but from this an identity
in constant change

The work neither attempts to explain the images nor the photographer’s definitive stance but plays with ambivalence and fluctuations in meaning. In a series of black and white self-portraits from 1990, Kempadoo focuses on identity as masquerade. One untitled work presents, for instance, a triple exposure of the artist dressed in African, Western, and Asian garb, accompanied by the text “Who do they expect me to be today.” In this and other photographs, the essential character or substance that identity is assumed to be is shown as fluid, easily interchanged from one situation—or picture—to the next. Identity becomes a disguise, the subtle changes one makes in different company, the various personae one adopts in different circumstances.

Tabrizian’s photographs employ the language and structure of film. Using this familiar and popular visual form she deconstructs “standard” or “given” definitions of sexuality and race, calling into question the power relations that structure our identity and existence. In a black and white series of works from 1985–86 entitled “Correct Distance,” Tabrizian focuses on woman as enigma, re-presenting the femme fatale of ’40s and ’50s films noirs. At once mysterious, charming, and seductive, the femme fatale was up to no good and spelled trouble for any man captured by her spell. Tabrizian twists this stereotypical reading of the ultrafeminine evil temptress and succeeds in offering an alternate and positive vision of these women who appropriate femininity as power.

“The Blues,” 1986–87, a series of photographs Tabrizian made in collaboration with Andy Golding, uses the scale and poses of movie posters, as well as the inflammatory declarative style of their text. Spare interiors bathed in blue light call attention to the melodramatic action of their subjects. Her Way, a detail from one of three triptychs in the series, reveals a bathroom interior with a black woman lying on the floor, dead; the words “See my blood is the same colour as yours” are scrawled on a mirror that also reflects the face of a white man; overlaid text on the lower right provides additional commentary: “He was a man who had all the answers until she started asking the questions.” Such staged scenarios declare the “fabricated nature of the photographic image”9 and the folly of cultural and social categorization. Installed in a gridlike formation, “The Blues” is also reminiscent of a movie storyboard, and recalls the disjunctive, nonchronological narrative found in John Baldessari’s work, although Baldessari’s interest in the banality of our lives is almost diametrically opposed to Tabrizian’s controversial investigations of racial issues and difference. And race is engaged in this work in subtle and various ways. While the staging of each frame seems to be based on the conventions of contemporary espionage films, almost every image has an interracial cast of characters and a text that explores themes of assimilation, acculturation, and difference. The exploration of these constructs extends to Tabrizian’s appropriation, as a unifying motif, of the African-American musical form of the blues. Her use of this musical metaphor is indeed significant, for as James H. Cone has noted, the blues can offer a “perspective on the incongruity of life and the attempt to achieve meaning in a situation fraught with contradictions.”10

Inherent in Simpson’s work is a critique of the formulas of “straight” photography, its prescribed voyeurism, and the patented responses to social disaster or beauty it expects from viewers. Simpson’s pieces begin with gesture. They isolate a movement and analyze the sentiment or attitude that that motion or stance suggests. In the triptych Necklines, 1989, for example, alternate views of a black woman’s neck appear in panels up to five feet high, overwhelming us with their smooth and sensuous curves; but in small plastic plaques below the photographs, words implying the sexual (necking, neckline) are interspersed with those alluding to violence (neckless, breakneck) problematizing the reading of the images as simply beautiful.

In Simpson’s fragmented photographic processions, her generic women are never presented as whole. Instead, the figures insist on their completeness through synecdoche—in which the part becomes a proxy for the total entity. On a formal level these works share similarities with both Eadweard Muybridge’s and Vito Acconci’s photo pieces recording isolated body movements. But whereas Muybridge’s works are purely documents of motion, and Acconci’s texts read as bland operational instructions, Simpson forcefully inserts the woman’s—and particularly the black woman’s—voice and experience. In Five Day Forecast, 1988, a sequence of five torsos with folded arms is accompanied by two tiers of plastic plaques. The plaques positioned above the images designate the days of the work week (Monday, Tuesday, etc.), those below supply an alliterated variety of ways women are misinterpreted in the professional (with inferences to the larger) world. This lower level of text also puns on the honorific for an unmarried woman, “Miss,” so that the five women pictured have alternate identities as “misconstrue” or “misinformation,” and so on.

Simpson has a wonderful feel for language, and she finds inspiration everywhere, in children’s rhymes and the sophisticated innuendo of the blues, as well as in the Conceptual art-language gymnastics of such artists as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. But her work also confronts us over and over again with the black female body as beautiful in itself and worthy of contemplation.11

Weems is also interested in language, not so much in its properties of definition per se but as cultural signifier. Trained as a folklorist as well as as an artist, Weems has found the implications and subtlety of folklore more interesting than text used didactically; for her, it’s an unmediated form of communication that has the ability to speak more directly to deeper issues. A series from the mid ’80s entitled “Ain’t Jokin’” employs jokes as a way to explore how such humorous narratives are used to legitimate the negative treatment of designated groups in a society. There are sexual jokes that allow sexist comments to slip by “in the spirit of fun”; there are ethnic jokes whose protagonists may be easily substituted—Polish, African-American, Jewish—depending on the company you’re in; and as the saying goes, “There is truth in jest.” Weems seems effortlessly to combine the directorial mode of staged photographs with a more documentary/photojournalistic style in her various limited-edition books (produced over the last decade) and multipanel pieces. While earlier photographs focused on an explosive condemnation of race relations and were addressed to changing the minds of whites, newer pieces are concerned with communicating with a black audience.

In her recent book Then What? Photographs and Folklore (Buffalo: CEPA Gallery, 1990), Weems looks at traditional beliefs to show the power and beauty of African-American culture and, offering new readings of old folktales, considers the function of folklore as a way African-Americans have learned to live life in America. For example, one belief has it that if a hat is placed on a bed someone will go to jail. But across Weems’ photograph of this scenario runs the text: “Girl evidently the man plans on staying cause when I got home from work yesterday his hat was on my bed.” On the page facing this image is a stanza from a blues song: “Some got six months, some got a solid year, but me and my buddy we got lifetime here.” While in this case the blues verse might convey the original meaning of the hat/bed conjunction, it might just as well be a comment on the durability of personal relationships as raised by the phototext. Through the language of African-American folk wisdom, culture, and the blues, Weems attempts to locate her own voice, in a present-day extension and reinterpretation of tradition. Like Baldessari’s “blasted allegories,” her texts are “‘exploded,’ pieces and bits of meaning floating in the air, their transient syntax providing new ideas.”12 By questioning what is remembered, the photographer changes contemporary understanding.

Kempadoo, Sligh, and Pollard have all incorporated family snapshots into their work; Kempadoo uses them to piece together a persona, Pollard to rectify history, and Sligh to weave narratives and fables of her/a family. Sligh’s interest in recording her own reality (as distinct from that supplied by the media or by the white, male, megalomaniacal power structure of Wall Street, where she worked as a financial analyst for ten years) first led her from documentary work to her family photos. But in these as well she found only fictive poses that did not convey her history as she remembered it. By collaging and marking the images, wrapping them in her own incantations, she reinvents herself in her own image. Using cyanotype and kallitype processes, Sligh preserves the old look of her family photographs while her practice of cliché-verre and other forms of directorial manipulation insist on the works’ contemporaneity. Handwritten repetition of words further integrates language into the image.

Most recently Sligh has moved into installation with the piece Mississippi Is America, 1990, dedicated to the civil-rights martyrs James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner. Here the photographer used “rediscovered” FBI photos of the three culled from back issues of Time. Three seven-foot strips of these portraits hang from a billboard-scale panel bearing the work’s title, which itself is hung from the ceiling. On the floor underneath is detritus from a car accident—a smashed fender and headlights—and torn fragments of a poem about the incidents surrounding the murder of these three activists that Sligh composed in the style of a civil-rights freedom song. For Sligh this piece is just as personal as her earlier photographs because she lived through and was very much affected by the civil-rights era. Through three-dimensional installation, the photographer feels she further clarifies her intentions for the viewer: to provide a larger and more powerful context within which to consider the murders as signals of America’s persistent (under)current of racial hostility.

Combining personal photographs (family pictures and vacation shots) with traditional views of the English countryside, Pollard questions and reconstructs the concept of “Britishness.” Hand-coloring emphasizes the lushness and seduction of the photographs and is applied equally to the landscape and the black people who populate it, conflating ideas of so-called “natural beauty.” In Pastorale Interludes, 1986, these images provide alternatives to representations of black Britons as rioting ne’er-do-wells. But they also query the “metaphor of individual freedom and transcendence”13 that the English countryside represents by alluding to the violence and isolation faced by people of color living there. “It’s as if the Black experience is only lived within an urban environment,” declares Pollard’s text.

In later works the narrative voice is replaced by the language of tourism. “The Seaside Series,” 1989, is modeled on the intimate format of the postcard; the photographs must be viewed quite closely to pick out the camouflaged black figure. In this work Pollard questions the location of the “other” and contrasts actual physical similarity or material likeness with perceived or socially constructed difference. Through text Pollard further elaborates on this comparison, pointing up the fictive uniformity of travel brochures and postcards directed to a “British”—read white—audience with the reality of a black British presence. Oceans Apart, 1989, is an attempt to see her contemporary image making through the eyes of history, particularly that of the slave trade and Britain’s imperialist legacy. Unpopulated photos of crashing waves and craggy shores take on an ominous quality when paired with vintage shots of a black family enjoying themselves at the beach. Ordinary messages from postcards echo with the pain of separation (“missing you,” “wish you were here,” “keep safe till I see you again”) as we begin to consider them in the context of the dislocations of slavery. Also included in this sequential work are more contemporary (though somehow ageless) images of black people enjoying the seaside, contrasting with the unpictured horrors of history. Framing the piece are two color lithographs that layer historical imagery: maps charting the Atlantic Triangle (the slave-trading route between Africa, the West Indies, and England), colonial family crests, old Scottish currency with portraits of slaves, colonial ships, and “happy-go-lucky” “immigrant” laborers.

Like Pollard, Bhimji and Ward Williams fuse personal and collective history. Through installation and other alternate photographic processes, they attempt to further direct the viewers’ reading/experience of their work. For Bhimji the movement of her photography into space is a way to connect with the larger reality of life itself by including the viewer’s presence as an element of the work’s “performance.” Large, at times grainy photographs hung from the ceiling position us as children in an adult world. Bhimji activates the floor with spices, rose petals, and delicate muslin cloth that has been violated by burning. Many of her texts are abstracted from diaries kept over the years, but the words connect with the broader issues of migration, displacement, and identity. (TOUCHING YOU)—Discovering the history of my ancestors makes my blood purr, 1989, takes the form of an unspoken conversation between mother and daughter, divided by generations and differing perceptions of “self” and “home.” How does one locate the self as an Asian born in Uganda and living in England for decades? As writer and director Hanif Kureishi has said, “‘My Country’ isn’t a notion that comes easily. It is still difficult to answer the question, where do you come from?”14 Graphs included in the piece detail patterns of migration for Asians since the 1940s. Vaguely defined objects connected with “Indianness” (e.g., a buddha’s head, a doll clothed in traditional dress) float in and out of view. This piece, like many of Bhimji’s, is, in the artist’s words, “based on memory, dreams, conversations from East African Indian and English backgrounds. I wanted to use them as metaphors, since I am concerned with not imitating the world, but recreating it.”15

How can we rely on memory with no extant documents to support our claim to existence? If, in the images given, we are pictured as exotic, violent, or victims, then what? Ward Williams sees herself not only as a recreator but as an active part of the chronicle. “I had to DIG for my history but in doing so gained the ability not only to redefine [it], but also to see my role as a participant.”16 Her three-dimensional pieces commemorating Philadelphia’s MOVE tragedy or Henry “Box” Brown might be seen as political because they don’t conform to either “popular” images or to those of broad historical currency. But these, too, are stories, part of the individual tales that reveal the larger issues of a society. For Ward Williams, nonsilver and physically and conceptually constructed photographs better convey her ideative stance. Her installations further define meaning by creating an environment within which the photograph may be seen, thus communicating more of the photographer’s intent—the difference between Ward Williams creating a piece on lynching using “found” imagery (Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock, 1986) and a member of the KKK finding the same image and tacking it up on his wall. The impetus for much of Ward Williams’ text comes from “word-bites”—snatches of language culled from books and magazines, overheard or remembered from family sayings—that she expands on or bounces off.

Michele Wallace has pointed out that women of color fall outside the constructs of Western binary logic.17 In a society predicated upon such oppositions as black/white, male/female, and “universal”/“other,” women of color remain excluded from the either/or formula in which the polarities to white male are occupied by black (as in male) and female (as in white). In the schema of Western discourse, then, women of color inhabit a space of complete invisibility and negation that Wallace refers to as “the ‘other’ of the ‘other.’”18

Much of the photography and text work discussed in this essay has to do with “making ourselves visible,” redefining the image/position of the woman/person of color within the larger discourse. It engages aspects of what the Border Arts Workshop in San Diego has termed “reterritorialization,” a way of locating oneself in the world." Reterritorialization includes recapturing one’s (combined and various) history, much of which has been dismissed as an insignificant footnote to the dominant culture. These objects then become texts of redemption and emancipation. Not simply adaptations of Western codes, they construct and (re)define the record of their makers’ own existence, challenging as well meanings and definitions once thought to be fixed.

Kellie Jones is a curator and writer who lives in New York. In 1989 she was the United States commissioner to Brazil’s São Paulo Bienal.



1. Lowery Stokes Sims, “The Mirror the Other: The Politics of Esthetics,” Artforum XXVIII no. 7, March 1990, pp. 111–15.
2. Gilane Tawadros, LUMO ’89: The Boundaries of Photography, exhibition catalogue, Jyväskylä, Finland: Alvar Aalto Museo, 1989, n.p.
3. Throughout this essay I at times use the phrase “people/women of color” interchangeably with “black people/women.” This is because in Britain “black” has broader racial implications—encompassing peoples of African, Afro-Caribbean, and Asian descent—and is closer in significance to what we mean by “people of color” in the United States. Currently, however, there is much debate in Britain as to the essentialist (inherent, cultural) connotations of the use of the term versus its importance in signifying a shared political oppression. That discussion, however, falls outside the purview of this essay and will have to be taken up in a later article.
4. Lorna Simpson is certainly the most well-known of the eight in the United States, having had numerous solo shows over the last three years, most recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She also appeared in this year’s “Aperto 90” exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
5. William Olander, “Re-coding the Codes: Jenny Holzer/Barbara Kruger/Richard Prince,” Holzer Kruger Prince, exhibition catalogue, Charlotte, N.C.: Knight Gallery, 1984, n.p.
6. Stuart Hall, “Minimal Selves,” ICA Documents 6: Identity, London, 1987, p. 44.
7. Lisa Phillips, “Art and Media Culture,” Image World: Art and Media Culture, exhibition catalogue, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1989, p. 67. The two basic acceptable personae for women of color in the West are the mammy/maid and the prostitute. Betye Saar and Carrie Mae Weems are among the artists who have successfully appropriated these debased models.
8. Angela Y. Davis, “Underexposed: Photography and Afro-American History,” Women, Culture and Politics, London: Women’s Press, 1990, pp. 224–25. Michele Wallace, “Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity,” Heresies 24, 1989, pp. 69–75.
9. Tawadros.
10. James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation, New York: Seabury Press, 1972, p. 116.
11. I would like to thank Lowery Stokes Sims for reemphasizing how Lorna Simpson’s work connects with images of beauty, making a place for the recognition of black beauty on its own terms. See Sims, p. 115.
12. John Baldessari, quoted in John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue, Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 1981, p. 49.
13. Tawadros, “Other Britains, Other Britons,” in Aperture: British Photography: Towards a Bigger Picture, no. 113, Winter 1988, p. 41.
14. Hanif Kureishi, “The Rainbow Sign” (extract), in Fabled Territories: New Asian Photography in Britain, exhibition catalogue, Leeds: Leeds City Gallery, 1989, p. 9.
15. Zarina Bhimji, quoted in Employing Image, exhibition catalogue, Manchester: Corner House Gallery, 1987, n.p.
16. Pat Ward Williams, cited in Kellie Jones, “Towards a Visible/Visual History,” exhibition catalogue, Constructed Images: New Photography, New York: New York Public Library Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundations/The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1989, p. 9.
17. Wallace, p. 69.
18. Ibid.
19. Coco Fusco, “The Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo: Tnterview with Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Emily Hicks,” Third Text 7, Summer 1989, p. 66.

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