Learning to Read an Image: Ayana V. Jackson’s “Archival Impulse”

Posted on October 02, 2015, 11:10 am
16 mins


In the late 19th century and early 20th century, European photographers were traversing the southern hemisphere and creating the first photographs that would inform the “fiction of Africa”—a fantasy of “savages” and safaris. Human Zoos in Europe brought this fantasy into 3-(degrading)-dimensions, and to this day the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent is frequently reduced to visions of bare-chested women bearing baskets beneath acacia trees.

Meanwhile in America, newly freed blacks were attempting to form communities in the segregated, violent world of Reconstruction. Throughout the country, but especially in the south, black men were being rounded up to be used as prison labor in conditions every bit as harsh as the plantations—sometimes even more dangerous. Also in the south, lynchings became a form of entertainment for entire communities, complete with photos and postcards to document the smiling white faces and dangling black bodies.

That heinous history between Emancipation and the Civil Rights Era is a lacuna for most Americans. Those who do not wish to be implicated in crimes of the past or admit to present privilege are actively rewriting (and whitewashing) that history, casting perpetrators as exceptional within the populace—or even as redeemers—and projecting erroneous identities onto minority populations today.

It does not require a legacy of slavery (and a civil war fought to preserve it) to fracture a society with racial hierarchies. Such specters of diaspora loom in every colony and colonizer, often without the pretense of desiring a “melting pot.” Racial purity is openly called for in parliaments and streets around the world. In all cases, even regarding the construction of national identities (many of which are relatively new), the use of images as propaganda has been key.

Countering false narratives thus requires better image literacy. The trouble is getting people to look in the first place, but artist Ayana V Jackson’s portraiture has such dignity, compassion and, at times, sensuality that it lowers the defenses of those who won’t confront the sins of the father’s. They might not immediately or consciously take effect, but to spend time with her layered and carefully staged self-portraits is to open oneself up to mercy and empathy.

A collection of these portraits are on display at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, a 2013 series titled Archival Impulse. (The name comes from art historian Hal Foster, who posits that by addressing and re-creating the archive, one can reveal how it was fabricated, exposing its artificiality and allowing new, deeper readings.) Jackson began on this series in earnest after she encountered a 2011-12 exhibition in Paris titled The Invention of the Savage. The photography in it was a paragon of propaganda, archives of material documenting human zoos and staged exoticism in Africa (for European consumption).

Archival Impulse follows Jackson’s research in these archives and the Duggan Cronin collection. The series also continued a process begun during a residency in 2010, when she shifted from documenting others to using her own body and costume. In each portrait of that series, Leapfrog (a bit of the other) Grand Matron Army, Jackson crouches in a leapfrog position attired as an historical black, female archetype, from a deliberately unidentifiable pre-colonial woman to an eighteenth-century slave to a reconstruction era matriarch, on to the Harlem Renaissance, black power movements and afropolitan chic. It is the Reconstruction era figure that one sees most prominently in Archival Impulse.

“The grand matron [archetype] is fashioned after a photo I have of my great-grandmother, who was an educator,” Jackson explained in conversation at the gallery. “I became fascinated with that character because she’s existing in the nineteenth century after slavery but before Civil Rights. Her character is one we rarely interact with historically.”

Jackson is an American (originally from New Jersey) who divides her time between Paris, Johannesburg and New York City. She knows better than most how perceptions of blackness vary around the world, that in other countries the identification of “black” might be incorrect, and is never monolithic. However, blackness in general means one thing fairly consistently throughout the world: the inability to enter a room and exist on one’s own terms, without being the target of preconceived notions.

In the states, non-black social and racial identities become contingent based on one’s response to blackness, and this causes discomfort for those whose identity is otherwise taken for granted (i.e. a white majority). Part of the minority experience is to be faced with this discomfort all the time. It’s a discomfort that no one wants to face, and to avoid it, people who may not be blatant racists may still long for “a simpler time” or some other insidious code for segregation. Laid bare, they would demand that all members of society sacrifice valuable aspects of our humanity so that the majority (and the system it upholds) need not be disturbed by its own cruelty.

There is of course nothing simple about that. Nothing was ever simple. Not anywhere. On a more primal level, Jackson also points out the base gratification one may feel in objectifying the other, the pornographic impulse. At its darkest, this tendency manifests as the spectacle of minstrel shows and lynchings. Jackson faces all of this head on, so it is a wonder that her work does not come across more melancholy than it is. She could technically make these images in any studio with the right lighting, but instead she pursues settings where the queries and aesthetic reconstructions that she is making feel most relevant. They are more conducive to honest work. Most of the portraits in Archival Impulse were made in Johannesburg, Paris and Morocco (near Casablanca).

“Just being in Paris made me want to pursue that subject—just being a black body in a city like that, dealing with the different ways that my body was being read. As American, as black, as foreign,” Jackson says of her movement between cultures. “Most of the world is at a loss in how to deal with this subject. When I first started traveling and having interactions with people who were making assumptions about my character that had nothing to do with my own experience, I was at a loss in terms of how I could confront or contradict these assumptions without coming across as angry or accusatory. There was this overall sadness that I couldn’t walk into a room and not have these things assumed.” Her ultimate goal: “To enter on my own terms, on my own being—for that to be the base and not something I have to work toward in every interaction.”

This is just one reason why it is necessary for her to put her own body into the work, the mental and symbolic space where it is up for scrutiny. In doing so, she can also embody multiple possibilities from one work to the next, or in a single portrait, where her form is repeated as a group. Even more importantly, she does not repeat the error of the photographers to whom her work is a retort.

“I couldn’t use a model because there would be no intervention in the work. Part of my thesis deals with these faced but nameless women whose bodies were put out for speculation as specimens. In dealing with that kind of activity, that photographic history, to just do it over again would offer no intervention. And in cases where I find the interaction between model and photographer to be violent, it would be enacting that violence on another woman’s body. If I am to create this body of work and have this criticism, then I have to put myself in the position to bear that.”

“When you see a photograph of an African in the middle of the nineteenth century that shows a semi-nude woman, what does that conjure up for you? One of the things I realize early on was that at a time, it was pornographic to look at a white woman’s breasts but to look at a black woman’s breasts in the nineteenth century, it was almost anthropological. Whether or not people sexualized the black female body isn’t the point. The point is that it was allowed, whereas the other body that [for the ruling white majority] looked more like one’s sister or one’s mother or oneself had to be protected. There are two different readings of two different bodies in the same context, and what does that say about where we are right now? How have been taught to think? How have been taught to see?”

In her subtle way, Jackson is retraining the eye of her audience to more honestly evaluate documents from a period of time that has been rather ignored not in spite of its importance to racial issues, but because of it and how painful the truth is. It is not just a didactic process, though. Jackson’s fills in the blanks and “expands the map” of global perceptions of blackness, but she makes images that are objectively beautiful and tender. Whereas the art of protest is often as fiery as it is ephemeral, Jackson’s work abjures dogma and of-the-moment identity politics to express the transcendent human behind it all.

This even applies in the case of the most disturbing work shown at the gallery (in its enclosed dark room). Titled “Death,” it places Jackson at center, nude and standing peacefully—viewed at a distance. In fact, it depicts the aftermath of a lynching, but the photo has been altered such that the setting (an actual former plantation, with the manor and slave lodgings visible in the background) has been manipulated and solarized until it is a pale, ethereal filigree of white and lilac vegetation. The noose is white, too…

It’s a polarizing piece, one that might be mistaken as an explicit protest (or worse, “shock art”), but it is more complicated than that. Jackson is excited by the potential of global protest movements (specifically tied to #BlackLivesMatter) and she has attended public events, but she speaks for herself and her own philosophy first. Above all, she notes that the fire of protest and revolution may not always be motivated by healing.

“Whether we are part of the protest movement or part of the perpetration, I get a sneaking feeling that we don’t want out of it. There’s a pleasure in fighting. There’s a pleasure in perpetrating a crime. That’s something I wanted to replicate in [“Death”]. There are moments when you can look at it from a distance and it will look something like a Venus de Milo, a pieta. But at some point you are actually confronted with the actual terror of it.”

Unless it is censored, that is. Before making its way to Seattle, it and other works from Archival Impulse were shown at WSU this year. “Death” was placed such that most anyone walking through a corridor would be confronted with it—but it was surrounded with screens that forced one to navigate into a smaller space with it. When Jackson visited the university for a lecture, the screens were removed, and it was only because someone remarked about it to her that she was made aware of this curatorial adjustment. When she left, the screens went back up.

It’s disturbing that in a place of learning an inquiry the most challenging image was covered. It’s the very sort of obfuscation that Jackson is critiquing in her work, so at least it proves how necessary her work is. Officials speaking to Jackson explained that it was censored because it might trouble new students. Bureaucracy exists to uphold systems and bury conflict under procedure, so that doesn’t come as a surprise—but what a cowardly excuse from an academic institution, and what a perfect example of a society that has put petty peacekeeping over intellectual rigor and honesty.

It is all on display with due grace and reverence in Seattle. I highly recommend spending time with it firsthand, because I could spill thousands more words on this subject, but as Jackson’s whole practice reveals, pictures are a language all their own, and we are still learning to read.

Archival Impulse is on display at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (608 2nd Avenue) through October 24, 2015.


T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.