Bodies Into Language

An Essay by Bibi Abdulkadir

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The invitation to write the accompanying essay to contextualise The Self-Portrait Exhibition consisting of thirteen Black female photographers led me on a deeply reflective and cathartic quest of inquisition. The art of photography possesses the special and unique capacity in mirroring reality through the lens of the artist. Intrinsically I returned to ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison and the idea that ‘images inform the creation of personal identity’ and that therefore, ultimately self-portraiture can be seen as a conscious exercise in existentialism, a realm of photography that has historically excluded Black women. Declaring this exhibition directed by a fellow Black female photographer in her own multifunctional creative art space, in itself a radical departure from the norm. The weight of this responsibility carried me through the study of each image as I set to explore the nuances of identity played out on both the metaphorical and literal canvas. The stories portrayed in each of these portraits engender truth because they are told by the artists creating them. I approached this essay with the same honour, as I held phone calls with each artist one by one. To document, archive and further supplement the representation of Black life. Throughout this process, a refined appreciation of how self-portraiture alters the way in which we see ourselves became a constant, as I embarked on a mission to transform these bodies into language.

The diversity in photographic genre in the exhibition was one of the first elements of the show to strike me, spanning a long way towards providing a remedy for the oversight in the lack of merit Black female photographers have received throughout history. Whilst on my call with Ronan Mckenzie, she shared with me that strength was a large part of her identity, an allegory we see distinctly framed in her self portrait of three simple yet distinctive silhouettes. This led me to question the origin of our strength. A question Mckenzie so easily answers through her aptitude for movement. In the first image, the artist grounds herself, rooted, anchoring her arms behind the small of her back, looking upward with eyes closed in a moment of private reflection. Through each succession there is a growing seraphic effect, affirmed through further contorting her body, whilst deliberately tensing her muscles before a white background that centres her the nucleus of the image, ‘An often disregarded colour’ she tells me, although in these images the colour brown heeds above all others. A key detail in this self-portrait that honours the link between history and creativity are the books carried atop her head exclusively by Black female artists she admires symbolising the interconnectedness of Black womanhood through the prism of those who came before us. Mckenzie carries both literally and metaphorically, the bodies of work from her contemporaries; Liz Johnson Artur, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Zanele Muholi and Joy Gregory; an artist included in the exhibition.

In a moment of unalloyed serendipity, I learnt that Gregory was not aware of the role her works played in Mckenzie's self-portrait, a revelation I hope to catch on opening day. At first glance, Gregory’s self-portrait allures with ubiquitous synergy bridging the gap between subject and spectator with an immediate affinity. The intimacy of the black and white subject demands a kind of sedulous attention that you afford to things you have loved once before. No stranger to self-portraits, Gregory’s image has lived for 29 years yet trenchantly, the message is unmistakably palpable today. Concentrated in a soft frame, surrounded by an opaque blackness, the subject of the image is not entirely clear. I imagined it to be the back of her neck, a part of the body I render susceptible to vulnerability. During my conversation with Gregory, we began to discuss ‘the hyper-vigilance that is formed as a person that is othered’ in the context between a time when surveillance cameras were beginning to be used and where we are arguably at the mercy of algorithms today. A rather prescient concept considering the rise of racism in the use of Black people’s health data, and the wider issue of privacy; a pestilence of systemic racism. In this way, Gregory divulges the intra-societal dynamics, embodied.

‘We Are Everything’. The explicit words projected over Tori Taiwo’s naked body in her self-portrait addresses the fight against anonymity with a tenderness and urgency. Shooting herself at her ‘most stripped back and natural she has ever been’ emerging from darkness, there is a moment of stillness. ‘We Are Everything’ etched 22 times fading down a tight but loosening column of her chest whilst portraying a look that suspends an all over quietness. Taiwo’s play with light and shadows brings an overdue correctness to the myths of black womanhood in three words, ‘We Are Everything’. A capturing moment of blackness illuminated. A similar sentiment felt through Amaal Said’s graceful self-portrait that she says ‘forced me to reckon with my own image’. Said carries her head with an upward confidence, softly behind a select number of blooming eucalyptus stems. For not by a matter of coincidence, eucalyptus has traditionally been harnessed as a powerful analgesic with an ability to awaken the spirit, a symbol of the immense sense of healing that travels through both this image and through the entire exhibition.

The theme of nature repeats in Christina Nwabugo’s self-portrait titled ‘SEED’, depicting herself with a vulnerable openness, both her arms up, gently suspending a bouquet of yellow flowers before a yellow backdrop. Taking me back to a special quote from a favourite book of mine ‘Wild Seed’ by Octavia E. Butler, ’As I am. As I would always be if I did not age or change myself for others. This shape flows back to me very easily. Others are harder to take’ (E. Butler, 1980). Words that speak to me on the cultivation of wholeness, something Nwabugo accomplishes so beautifully through her use of colour and movement. The colour yellow is characterised by warmth and happiness connecting to the essential humanity that is uncovered so honestly. Tino Chiwariro also incorporates flowers, tenderly balanced on the head; a common practice in her homeland Zimbabwe that she tells me she has been away from for twelve years. Conceptualising her image from childhood memory through a reanimate reinterpretation. Although traditionally, the practice of head carrying uses heavy objects, Chiwariro’s decision to use dried flowers was a dexterous celebration of femininity and strength personified.

Honesty was a recurring chord throughout this show, seen so acutely in Adama Jalloh’s self-portrait shot in the mirror; a large window for a backdrop, placing an imagined closeness between subject and spectator. Jalloh and I’s conversation focused mostly on the importance of archiving, ‘images to look back on’, preserved in the portraits ability for telling a deeper truth, one of identity. Jalloh looks squarely into the mirror with a permanence that drives the lives of the artists that precede us into contemporary relevance, revealing the intricacies of identity that society’s stereotypes aim to conceal. Something Denisha Anderson did not shy away from in her self-portrait that meets you with an unapologetically autobiographical narrative. Typical of her conceptual photography, Anderson’s self-portrait exists on several panels simultaneously. Divided into four black and white film images juxtaposed against one set of three polaroids in colour, Anderson walks us through the ‘learning and unlearning’ beauty of her self-discovery. In the first four images, Anderson situates herself in her bedroom (where she independently developed and scanned the images too), meeting herself with a warm and tender gaze that seems to grow in depth through each succession. She incorporates the Jamaican flag in one the images, set behind her visionless body carrying a dish welcomingly, a proud ode to her cultural identity, neighbouring the polaroid images that are arguably an ode to her identity of womanhood. There is a ritualistic temper that accompanies the repetitions in Anderson’s self-portrait; a ritual mastered, or in her own words ‘discovering myself in completion’.

There is a deep red gravity in Lucie Rox’s portrait that for a brief moment, warps your perception of space and time; a grey collage that just about fits her eyes, nose and mouth, three of the bodily senses. The collage however teared in two possess a cosmic ability to stand still, the two elements existing harmoniously together in the galaxy of discovery. Allotropy is defined as ‘the existence of two or more forms of the same element’; a term Rox says has shaped both her identity and self-portrait, linking to her mixed racial identity that permeates through her work with the use of distinctive shapes and colour coming fragmentarily to life.

Within this celestial sphere comes the portrait of Olivia Lifungula titled ‘Watching Stars Without You’; a title inspired by Des’ree’s ‘Kissing you’. A befitting reference considering the fantastical production of this shoot, with the help of her four longtime collaborators and friends creating a new world of nascence. Lifungula positions herself on a platform of moss giving the illusion of a throne connecting all the way up to the crown of her hair, decorated in a stellar costume of pastels, synthesised. A concept evoked ‘from the idea of a Black Juliet’, radically rejecting the structure of whiteness shaping the desirability of women. In contrast, we see a sharp simplicity in Christina Ebenezer’s self-portrait of herself sat so confidently with a portion of her lower body out of frame; there is a sudden break in the vast negative space surrounding her that demands immediate attention. Ebenezer’s encapsulation is a statement to her presence in the industry combating the myth of black subjects in photography confined by the walls of urbanism, dismantling the connotations of a monolithic Black existence as this exhibition accomplishes, one self-portrait at a time.

Jennie Baptiste shot her self-portrait on her living room floor during the February month in lockdown. In an intimate reflection of her time in isolation, she stretches out her arm earnestly towards the camera to take the picture that she says portrays ‘an essence of my personality’. An arresting depth in a stolen moment captured in the zoom of her eyes unveils an inescapable confronting of the self, executed so beautifully in a moment of candid self-expression during a time of universal uncertainty. Portraying an emotion best understood through the words of Bhanu Kapil’s ‘How To Wash A Heart’, ‘This is titration: A few moments to feel like a complete human being’ (Kapil, 2020). A testament to the power of self-portraiture and its remarkable ability to break through the walls of quarantine.

The cinematic mystery of Ejatu Shaw’s portrait caught me in a frozen inhale, sending me to a still moment in time where discovery was possible only through the unravelling of this compelling story of otherworldliness. The tenderness in this image captures the evincing reflections of a spirit in transit expressed through a soft melancholic longing. Lightness and darkness coexist in a hypnotic harmony as we travel through the elements. Shaw tells me that this image was shot in her grandma's room in Sierra Leone. Surrounded by a puzzle of suitcases, she stands feebly, gazing through a window of blinding light, her eyes in a deep enchantment while her skin glistens with sweat, giving the illusion of the portrait heating before your eyes. During my call with Shaw, I learnt of the deeply personal context behind the image and the cathartic process that led her to a ‘journey to closure’ following bereavement. Beneath the surface of pain in this portrait is a foundation of strength through family and lineage in ‘finding her own place in the world’.

Through the transformation of bodies into language, these self-portraits serve as a surrogate for the orphaned archives in the history of Black female artists reanimated. In appreciation of the value of archiving, representation and an inward reflection, that requires looking backwards and forwards in complete synchronicity only possible in the present, this exhibition essentially acts as a life line that preserves the spirit of black womanhood unquantified.