Who is Lorna Simpson?
Lorna Simpson is an American Postmodernist photographer and multimedia artist. She is best known for her conceptual photography, first gaining prominence because of it during the mid-1980s. In her work, Simpson addresses issues of identity, gender, race, representation, difference, history, and memory, taking from her own personal experiences and from conversations with others. Simpson depicts and interprets these themes in symbolic or allegorical ways through the use of form, the body, figures, space, objects, and narrative. Race is the one theme that spans across all her works, with emphasis on the experiences, perception, portrayal, and stereotyping of black women.
Lorna Simpson Biography
Lorna Simpson was born on August 13th, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York to a Jamaican-Cuban father and a black mother. As a child, she was “immersed in the arts”, with her parents often taking her along with them to artistic and cultural events. This had a large influence on her decision to become an artist. As a teenager, she started her artistic training by taking short art courses at the Art Institute of Chicago when staying with her grandmother during summers, and she later attended the High School of Art and Design in New York City, where she was introduced to photography and graphic design. Simpson then obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography at the School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1982; she had become more interested in photography and the history of New Wave cinema during her studies there. While she was a student there, Simpson had taken an internship with the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she first saw the work of Charles Abramson and Adrian Piper and met the Conceptual artist David Hammons. These artists inspired her to explore her racial heritage in her art.
After graduating, Simpson traveled to Europe and North Africa, developing her documentary photography skills with a series of street-life photographs inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roy DeCarava. It was then that she became more aware of the limitations of the genre and began to question the “objectivity, veracity, and authority” of documentary photography, especially as she became more aware of the 19th-century use of documentary photography to detail the supposed biological differences between black slaves and white people. As a black woman, this disillusioned her with the assumed impartiality and unbiased nature of documentary photography.
This inspired Lorna Simpson to begin her experimentation with photography, which started before she graduated in 1985 from the University of California, San Diego with her Master of Fine Arts in visual arts. By the time she graduated with her MFA, she was already considered a pioneer of conceptual photography. While pursuing her graduate degree, Simpson focused more on performance and conceptual art, studying under teachers such as the Conceptualist Allan Kaprow, the performance artist Eleanor Antin, the filmmakers Babette Mangolte and Jean-Pierre Gorin, and the poet David Antin. Her education under these teachers led to her signature style of ‘photo-text’, the combination of narrative text with photography that reexamined the viewer’s relationship to photographic imagery.
Lorna Simpson’s Artistic Style
Her photos often include full-figure black women, whose identities are hidden from the viewer by obscuring their faces in various ways, or close-ups of black subjects’ body parts. The photos are often accompanied by ambiguous text that must be given meaning by the viewers. The ambiguity of both the figures and the text allows viewers to project themselves, their experiences, and the experiences of their communities onto her work, thus giving it a universal quality. Nevertheless, the text included in her work can suggest a narrative; reference stereotypes, historical, and contemporary events; and imply that certain actions have taken place.
By the late 1980s, Lorna Simpson had started displaying her work in solo exhibitions, and in 1990, she was the first black woman to exhibit at the international arts festival, the Venice Biennale. This awarded her greater status and led to a series of solo exhibitions and international residencies and displays. The early 1990s saw Simpson’s work turn towards addressing gender and sexual identity, alongside race. Around the end of 1992, Simpson started to create work without the human figure, focusing more on aesthetic issues that still included an interest in the body, but also added sex and class to her dialogue of race. It was during this time that she also started to work more with video installations. By the 2000s, she moved further into film, performance art, and video. During the 2010s, Simpson started to exhibit multimedia paintings, sculptures and reworked previous collages made from vintage magazines like Ebony and Jet by adding watercolor and ink swirls.
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Inspired by the COVID-19 crisis, Simpson started a new series of collages in March 2020. These collages “express a more intimate response to wider political concerns” and topics such as longing in this time of social distancing.
Lorna Simpson’s examination of race and gender through the interaction of image and language in her art deconstructs stereotypical notions of femininity and gender and re-contextualizes historical inaccuracies to assert the identity of black Americans as more than stereotypes. These two aspects of her work are important in regards to her portrayal of black women and black femininity, as black women have been historically critiqued in terms of white European standards of beauty and taken advantage of sexually during periods of colonization and slavery.
Lorna Simpson Major Works
Guarded Conditions is made up of six images, all of which depict the same black woman from behind, who wears a plain white dress and black flats. She stands with her arms behind her back, with her right arm supporting her left one from below. Her left hand is held in a loose fist. In each image, the woman’s position slightly shifts, and some panels are slightly misaligned. Above the images is the work’s title. Underneath them are twenty-one plaques, eleven of which say “SEX ATTACKS” and ten of which say “SKIN ATTACKS”. Each phrase alternates with the other. It is clear that this work examines the universal discrimination that black women face because of their visibly intersectional identities. Lorna Simpson directly calls attention to the racism and sexism that black women face through the capitalized phrases beneath the work. The woman can represent black women and their universal experiences, as she is unidentifiable from behind. Often, those who are part of marginalized groups have similar experiences based on their specific shared identity. The wording of these phrases, in relation to the images, also seem to consider the gaze, one that considers both gender and race. The capitalization of and use of “attack” in the phrases imply that societal views and attitudes towards races and genders outside the preconceived norm of white and male are violent in nature, that they cause real harm to those labeled as “other” in these categories. Therefore, black women, who are labeled as “other” on both accounts, are subject to twice the harm.
Despite these connotations, the woman’s posture and position of her left hand can be read as defiant, as she resists and endures the hardships caused by society’s long, historical prejudice against both women and black people.
Outline is made up of two panels with black backgrounds. The left panel shows a black and white photograph of a braid positioned to form three sides of a rectangle and has a black plaque saying “back” in white lettering. The right panel shows a black and white photograph of a black woman’s head and torso from behind. She has short hair and wears a black dress, and a black plaque listing the words “lash/bone / ground/ache / pay” in white is placed over the right side of her torso. A connection between the word “back” to the braid and the view of the woman from behind could lead to the assumption that the braid belongs to her, as a braid is fully seen from the back. However, it is unclear as to who the braid actually belongs to. The words on the plaques can be read from left to right or right to left. The words and their symbolism can change depending on the identity of the viewer. By taking these factors into account, it is clear that the work’s composition “pushes [viewers] to examine deep-rooted conventions, habits, and assumptions” about black women.
The combinations of words made when reading from left to right can be associated with stereotypes of black people, and therefore black women. “Backlash” can refer to violent reactions towards things black people have done, especially black women, as they are heavily criticized for their physical features and behavior among countless other things. “Backbone” can allude to the stereotype of black women being ‘strong’. Black women are often not seen as important or as anonymous, which is what “background” can address. A “backache” is often brought on by physical labor and can be tied back to the hard physical labor that slaves had to endure. “Back pay” refers to wages that employers owe employees, which can hint at a power imbalance and gives suggestions of reparations for slavery. When read from right to left, the combinations of “‘lash’ a ‘back,’ ‘pay back,’ and ‘bone’ of a ‘back’” can also be connected to the same circumstances. Because the woman is facing away from the viewer, they are forced to categorize her based on her race and by using the available words, invoking these stereotypes. At the same time, because she is anonymous, categorizing the woman is impossible.
Another aspect to consider when looking at the braid and the woman’s short hair is the relationship between hair and the Black community, as well as the one between hair and gender. There is the widely known ‘good hair/bad hair’ debate, which stems from slavery. ‘Good’ hair was hair that was closest to white hair, which is straight and long, while ‘bad’ hair was black people’s natural hair. Now, however, ‘good’ hair can refer to “unprocessed and natural hair, or… any flattering style, regardless of length and texture”, and ‘bad’ hair can refer to any stylish updo. When taking gender into account, short hair is seen as less feminine and can be worn to “subvert feminine ideals… appear professional… or to communicate sexual orientation”. The shape of the braid could indicate that black women are forced to conform to white standards of femininity and beauty, which are seen as the ideal standards of beauty in America.
New is a single-page collage made up of a black and white image of a black woman cut out from an old Jet or Ebony magazine and pink and black ink in place of the woman’s hair. The woman also wears a striped blouse. Coming from outside of the frame are the arms of a white woman, whose hands hold the black woman’s head at an angle. She too wears a striped blouse.
By the way the white woman holds the head of the black woman, she appears to be inspecting her. As previously mentioned, conventional beauty standards are based on white ideals of femininity and beauty. This includes an emphasis on light skin, thinness, and long, straight hair. The stripes on the women’s shirts can be seen as a nod towards these beauty standards. The white woman’s traditional-looking blouse has thin stripes that are far apart, which could be a reflection of the societal expectations of ideal women to be thin, white, and consistent in their appearance. The black woman’s blouse has thicker, denser stripes, which could reflect the reality for a lot of black women: having fuller physical features, darker skin, and coily hair that is seen as less desirable and less professional by these typical beauty standards.
Yet, despite these racialized feminine norms, the ink appears to make up the black woman’s hair and turns it into a sort of headdress. It floats upwards, free from and defiant against these racially biased constructs.