Image above: ©Lorna Simpson, still from her film Chess, 2013. All images courtesy of the artist.
Essence magazine writes an article about top-ten natural Black hair products titled Miracle Worker. Website URLs on the topic run the gamut from treasuredlocks.com to blacknaps.org and prescribe a menu of products that sound like a trip to the patisserie; there’s Kinky-Curly Curling Custard, Miss Jessie’s Baby Buttercreme and mmm… Shea Moisture Curling Souffle. WebMd even posts a Q&A about Black hair care and maintenance. The headlining question reading: How is African American hair different? Followed by: Why is it so difficult to style my hair? The Black hair phenomenon underscores an obsession with the “African” of African American hair and you realize what is deemed “natural” actually took a lot more than “nature.” Prominent, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states, “In particular I want to talk about natural Black hair, and how it’s not just hair… I’m interested in hair in sort of a very aesthetic way, not just the beauty of hair, but also in a political way: what it says, what it means.” And so is photographer/filmmaker Lorna Simpson who uses and highlights hair as an omnipresent motif throughout her work.
©Lorna Simpson. (left) Slow Gold, 2013; (right) True Brown, 2013.
Born in Brooklyn in 1960, amidst a mêlée of social change—most notably the civil rights and feminist movements—Simpson’s work culls from our shared history, echoing themes and power dynamics within gender, race and culture and, perhaps most pointed, how these elements combine in our manifestation of memories and creating identity. Simpson received a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1983 and went on to completing a masters program in visual arts at UC-San Diego in 1985. Simpson earned much acclaim in the art world for her large-scale, photo-text work (a throwback to the genre originally popularized by novelist/photographer, Morris Wright). Primarily spotlighting Black females, her aesthetic was a faceless subject—the nowoman that was every woman—dressed plainly in white or black, and standing apart—an outline of a being, fading into the high contrast background. By the 90s, Simpson introduced and played with several motifs: shoeboxes and, most evident, hair. These non-threatening motifs served multifaceted functions; everyday objects used as forceful tools to recreate history, showcase inequity of power and how it shapes our sense of self. Simpson’s shoebox vacillates as a stand-in prop for institutional structures—the sterility of a hospital, a slave auction block or a police lineup. These structures highlight power dynamics in which the subject is disempowered—a thing to be probed, examined and judged for defects and guilt. And, there’s hair—so tied to femininity, an extension of oneself that is ever-malleable, transformative and a means of infinite personal expression. The use of hair, literally or substituted, makes countless reiterations in Simpson’s work, most notably in 1988’s Stereo Styles, 1994’s Wigs (portfolio) and the Ebony Collages of 2013. In the ten Polaroid series Stereo Styles, our female subject has her back to us, showing us varied hairstyles—from disheveled to sleek.
©Lorna Simpson. (left) Reminder, 2013; (right) Chicago, 2013.
The accompanying text, a series of ten words written neatly in cursive, positively equate hair with a perceptive value. We are all these words, but our hairstyle does the dictating. To contrast, Wigs (portfolio) has a scientific air—a taxonomists approach to hair. Each Wigs’ lithograph is printed on felt, giving viewers the added element of texture and self-reflexively draws attention to their sameness. While the wigs showcased differences in style, they are all alterable, disconnected from a true self—beauty defined and dictated by an arbitrary other and consumed by us. Simpson’s Ebony Collages serve as an engaging departure from her traditional aesthetic. Using vintage images from the late 1930s to early 1970s from flea market forays and eBay, she creates mixed-media collages. The glamorous women in these collages are carved out, deconstructed to the likeness of a classic bust sculpture, and stripped of their manes. Vibrant, unnatural plumes of colorful ink washes flow freely, reminiscent of a Rorschach inkblot, replacing their hair. The juxtaposition of women idealized for their beauty of generations past with the modern abstraction of hair alludes to the ever-changing nature and the fluidity of identity. While Simpson’s work may be tuned to “a Black girl’s song,” the melodies and chorus speak to universal human experiences. Her body of work sings songs born of impacting, yet fragmented memories, the dynamics of power, a collective history and what it means to truly find ourselves in society. Hair may be Simpson’s raw material, but just like hair, there’s plenty of volume added.
Text by Melissa Maehara
©Lorna Simpson. Double Portait, 2012.
Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13