Lorna Simpson (born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York) is an African-American conceptual artist. She combines different mediums to deal with contemporary issues such as identity, race, gender and stereotypes. Here we will focus on one piece of hers I saw at the Tate Modern (London) this year.
Twenty Questions (A Sampler) (1986) is made up of four identical circular black-and-white photographs of a Black woman’s head seen from behind. Texts accompany the photographs. The faceless and bodiless female has dark skin, dark hair and wears white clothes. There is no clue of who she might represent socially or economically. We can only imagine as a viewer who/what it might represent making us interrogate what first interpretation comes to our mind. Is it a way of identifying who we are or who the black woman is ? This absence of face deceives us as the photograph does not act as it is supposed to : to show. Thus our ”meaning-making” delivers what Simpson could be waiting for, the result of a ”mainstream media’s discourses surrounding race” (Laurie A. Rodrigues, 2012) and in this case the representation of the Afro-descent Woman in the Western world.
As in Carrie Mae Weems works From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-1996) with the circular presentations and Slave Coast Series (2003), Lorna Simpson pairs her images with charged words. Simpson adds a cue in the title giving a type of protocol for reading her piece. “Twenty Questions” is a spoken game: One person has to choose an object that will be the answer and the others ask questions receiving then a “yes” or a “no” as hints. “Sampler” seems to be a reference to a piece of cloth embroidered with sampling of needlepoint designs. (American Federation of Arts, “Lorna Simpson. A Resource for Educators” p. 20) Lorna Simpson is playing with our meaning-making (Rodrigues).
The five captions (white texts on black tiles) are: IS SHE PRETTY AS A PICTURE / OR CLEAR AS CRYSTAL / OR PURE AS A LILY / OR BLACK AS COAL / OR SHARP AS A RAZOR. We can either define this woman as ”clear as crystal” or ”black as coal” or any of the other captions. The limits of those Western standard metaphors do affect how we are able to describe the Black Woman. The hair takes a prominent place in each photograph and is also known to play an essential role in Simpson’s bodies of work. In Twenty Questions (A Sampler) the combed straightened Afro-hair triggers our interpretation and interrogates the hegemonic perception of the black female body in the West through its analysis and classification of the latter.
In Twenty Questions (A Sampler) the denial of any identity to the woman can be linked to the slave experience. Black women were also seen as ”sexual surrogate, human breeder and unviolently ungendered commodity” and to this day the mass media still inspires itself from those stereotypes commodifying their body. The four circular photographs and the possibility that this woman can be unaware that we are looking makes the images look like keyholes. As a form of power the voyeuristic viewer looks and judges from afar covering the woman/women with whatever the description that satisfies him. The Black Woman is looked over in a distance and not seen as a reality, a complete human being, an individual.
American Federation of Arts, “Lorna Simpson. A Resource for Educators”. American Federation of Arts. 2006. P. 20. Web. 7 Apr 2016. http://www.afaweb.org/education/documents/Simpson_resource_packet-final.pdf
Belisle, Brooke. "Felt Surface, Visible Image: Lorna Simpson's Photography and the Embodiment of Appearance." Photography & Culture 4.2 (2011): 157-78. - Photography and Culture | Taylor & Francis Online. Routledge, 27 Apr. 2015.
Brown, Caroline A. "Introduction." The Black Female Body in American Literature and Art: Performing Identity. New York: Routlege, 2012. 1-12.
Rodrigues, Laurie. "Seeing Immanent Difference: Lorna Simpson and the Face's Affect." Rhizomes 23 (2012), Rhizomes: Issue 23. 2012. Web. 20 May 2016. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue23/rodrigues/rodrigues.html
Schwasbsky, Barry. “Showing, Saying, Whistling: On Lorna Simpson and Ahlam Shibli.” The Nation, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 7 Apr 2016. http://www.thenation.com/article/showing-saying-whistling-lorna-simpson-and-ahlam-shibli/
Stange, Raimar. “Lorna Simpson” Frieze. 9 Apr. 2014. Web. 7 Apr 2016. http://www.frieze.com/article/lorna-simpson-de