Artist Ayana V Jackson explores the vulnerability and strength of black women

In a painting-like image titled Tignon, New Jersey-born artist Ayana V Jackson sits almost at a right angle to the camera. She is dressed in 18th-century garb, a shawl almost completely covering her torso, revealing only the button line of her garment. Her gloved hands are folded atop her thighs, right above left, drawing attention to her bone-straight posture.

The title of the life-size print refers to her headdress, a turban wrapped around her head and crowned with a flamboyant hat, its train tracing her back as it reaches for her waistline.

The tignon, the result of Louisiana’s late 18th-century laws, was the centrepiece of edicts prescribing the dress code for women of African descent, be they considered distinctly African or mixed enough to pass for white.

Considered a marker of inferiority to limit their competitiveness with white women, the women on whom the tignon was foisted soon subverted this device, elaborately styling their tignons and turning them into symbols of allure.

“Often, women would just throw on a hat and keep it moving,” says Jackson, contextualising the image.

Part of a solo exhibition, titled Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment, of mostly digitally retouched images at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg, the editioned 2015 Tignon print has been repurposed to form part of Jackson’s layered look at the idea of weightlessness.

“I am certain that strength and endurance are part of our legacy, but I am just as convinced that it is not the entirety of our experience,” she writes in the press statement about her show, which opened on July 27 and runs for a month.

The inspiration for the exhibition comes from friend Shatema Threadcraft’s book, Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic, which became Jackson’s reading material as she settled into a residency at the Nirox Sculpture Park in Kromdraai, outside Johannesburg, earlier this year.

“In there [the book] she talks quite a bit about the absence of the ability of the black woman’s body to nurture their loved ones and themselves because of the precariousness of the slave trade … So even things like infanticide would find their way into being an act of mercy and an act of nurturing.

“I thought to myself: while that is very true, I imagined that there must have been these stolen moments in which you could find ways within your bondage to be free … kind of like the jumping of the broom, which was a marriage ritual that comes from the [American] South.”

In this sense, the cover of Threadcraft’s book, which features an image created by Jackson titled As Wild as the Wind, speaks almost literally to this idea and segues neatly into the artist’s assertion that the Intimate Justice exhibition is “a rounding out” of her approach to what she terms memory work.

For one, Intimate Justice is replete with images Jackson has created herself, as opposed to her predominant approach of interrupting the racist history of photography by inserting herself in iconic yet problematic photographs. In a 2011 image titled Dis Ease, from the exhibition Poverty Pornography, a naked Jackson Photoshops herself into Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer prize-winning picture, embodying both the vulture and the unnamed Sudanese girl.

A statement about society’s hunger for images of the poor and unclothed, Jackson’s rendering of this image becomes all the more important when one considers the range of emotion the original has produced. For instance, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar invested more than a decade figuring out a shrine to the same photo, a structure he eventually titled The Sound of Silence.

This time, Jackson turns her gaze homeward, stepping back a little from “fighting photography with photo-graphy” and instead turning to her experience as an African-American woman to soften the stereotype of the “all-enduring” black woman. This time, classical paintings occupy the focus.

Lucy, a print referencing Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’Une Negresse, forms part of a still-in-progress triptych, in honour of the scores of women butchered by 19th-century gynaecologist and torturer J Marion Sims. An image of Jackson, retouched to a painterly texture, retains the ambivalent seductive pull of Benoist’s painting, but the undertow of Jackson’s framing demands us to know who “Lucy” is.

Still, there is an interrupted sombreness to Jackson’s manipulated photo, as if she has just unstrapped her bra after a hard day of labour.

Portrait d’Une Negresse was a controversial painting in that it came at a time when there was a denial for the black body to be rendered in a way that is beautiful. There is an audacity that this painting even exists,” she says as she prepares to install her work at the gallery in Parktown North.

Anarcha, the other accompanying image, is disquieting in that it refuses a straightforward reading. Anarcha’s spotted back, uncovered to the
crest of her gluteus, evokes scars and welts, calling to mind the widely distributed carte de visite images of a man sometimes referred to as “Whipped Peter”. The man, who escaped to freedom, became something of a poster boy for the American abolitionist movement. Here, too, she references from multiple sources.

Anarcha’s spots, conjoined with her pose, convey for Jackson the idea “that one can be strong in one situation and be vulnerable in others”.

This duality runs through Intimate Justice, with costume and movement meeting to provide commentary on the American black experience.

It is in Faux Cul — a photography, sound and video installation that includes collodion wet plates, sound collage and multichannel video — that Jackson’s exploration of costuming reaches greater heights, referencing, at once, the history of photography, Sarah Baartman’s dehumanisation and Europe’s complicity in pathologising and then appropriating Baartman’s physique.

Faux Cul, a stop-motion video, is soundtracked by a freak-show song sourced from a 1980s documentary on Baartman. Jackson says that a 1947 Life magazine article links Baartman to the history of the bustle — a whalebone frame or padding worn by Victorian women to exaggerate their buttocks — but there “isn’t full-on proof” of the theory’s veracity.

“I think it is in the poetic nature of art that I can kind of pose that question,” she says. “Because, regardless of whether or not it is intentional, you have this one body that is looked at as freakish and problematic, but then that whole kind of appropriation happens within that silhouette. So how am I now, as a black woman, kicked out of that?”

The piece’s lyricism lies in its cross-Atlantic tentacles, expanding the discursive reach of the conversation about the commodification of the black posterior. It aims for a lightness, which it achieves by being a pitch-perfect period piece, thanks to the use of the collodion process.

Asked whether she believes her oeuvre, in particular Intimate Justice, fosters any meaningful dialogue across the black world, Jackson is circumspect, in particular about any United States-South Africa dialogue. “As black Americans, we don’t talk of South Africa as our ‘ancestral home’, but the experiences of Jim Crow and apartheid are quite similar …

“It’s been important for me to acknowledge and create space for the differences as opposed to trying to collapse us into the same [thing], because I think that there is something very important in being able to flesh out the differences.”

She says her previous attempts at “embodying Africanness”, as she does in the series Archival Impulse, have been criticised in South Africa, even by white people, who she thinks opportunistically used the moment to “assert their Africanness” over her.

Read in this context, her work Iqhiya (seen alongside Tignon) seems like a tentative attempt at this cross-Atlantic dialogue, highlighting Jackson’s outsiderness, a position that she says has been crucial to her progress in the art world. In Jackson’s case, fragments often provide inspiration for new work and directions, and perhaps Iqhiya is one such a loose end.

Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment runs at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg until August 27

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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