PRINT September 1993

Lorna Simpson’s Waterbearer

LORNA SIMPSON’S PHOTOGRAPH Waterbearer was reproduced in 1987 in one of the early issues of B Culture, a progressive black newspaper of arts and culture that was fresh beyond all belief. For a brief moment in time B Culture was the expressive space for everything radical and black—it was on the edge. Of course, it disappeared. But not before publishing a full-page reproduction of Waterbearer.

Carefully pressing my newspaper copy with a hot iron, to remove all creases, I taped this page on the wall in my study, awed by the grace and profound simplicity of the image: a black woman with disheveled hair, seen from the back, pouring water from a jug and a plastic bottle, one in each hand. Underneath the photograph were the subversive phrases,

She saw him disappear by the river
They asked her to tell what happened
Only to discount her memory.

Subversive because it undoes its own seeming innocence, Simpson’s portrait is reminiscent of Vermeer’s paintings of working women—maids standing silently by basins of water in still poses that carry no hint of emotional threat. Yet Simpson’s language brings a threat to the fore. It invites us to consider the production of history as a cultural text—a narrative uncovering repressed or forgotten memory. And it declares the existence of subjugated knowledge.

Here in this image the keeper of history, the griot, the one who bears water as life and blessing, is a black woman. Her knowledge threatens—cannot be heard. She cannot bear witness. She is refused that place of authority and voice that would allow her to be a subject in history. Or so the phrases suggest. Yet this refusal is interrogated by the intensity of the image, and by the woman’s defiant stance. By turning her back on those who cannot hear her subjugated knowledge speak, she creates by her own gaze an alternative space where she is both self-defining and self-determining.

The two containers are reminders of the way history is held and shaped, yet the water that flows from each is constant, undifferentiated, a sign of transcendent possibility, there as a reminder that it is always possible to transform the self, to remake history. The water flows like a blessing. Despite changes, distortions, misinformation symbolized by its containers, it will continue to sustain and nurture life. It will redeem. It is the water that allows the black woman figure to reclaim a place in history, to connect with ancestors past and present.

The black woman in the photograph understands that memory has healing power. She is not undone, not in any way torn apart by those dominating gazes that refuse her recognition. Able to affirm the reality of her presence—of the absent him whose voice, unlike hers, might be listened to—she bears witness to the sound of the water and its meaning for her life. Hers is a portrait of serenity, of being, of making peace with oppositional history.

—bell hooks