Ayana Velissia Jackson is a photographer and video artist who makes amendments to a traditionally one-sided history of race and gender in photography. In her practice, Jackson positions her body as subject in order to create a new time/space in which she may interrogate tropes of the Black body in photography. Her recent Cape Town exhibition at Gallery MOMO, Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment, is a visual dialogue that speaks to ideas of race, gender, pleasure, escapism, and creating monuments for the Black femme in history. Jackson’s photography is not only a questioning of what it means to be a subject, but also a question of the photographer: what happens when the eye of the “othered” or “erased” becomes the director?
Wild as the Wind, 2015, Archival pigment print. All images courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
Jessica Lanay: Your photography is an active interrogation of time and space. Your previous series Poverty Pornography reminds me of the visual investment the Western World has in seeing the suffering Black body. What is the focus of Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment?
Ayana V Jackson: Well, the literal and figurative jumping point for this series and the exhibition is a piece that I did called Wild is the Wind that was made while I was in Paris in the summer of 2015. It was in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests and grand jury results were coming in. I remember feeling completely paralyzed; I felt stuck and I had this desire to feel unstuck. So, I decided to do these movement studies, where I was literally in the courtyard jumping around. Intimate Justice, the title, comes from my friend Shatema Threadcraft and her book Intimate Justice. Between that particular instance of me wanting to see and feel weightlessness and movement in the face of injustice and reading Shatema’s book which is about the Black female body politic, where she is listing injustices against the Black woman’s body—I felt this need to address that further, and that is how the exhibition came about. I needed, in myself, to find space, and air, and lightness.
Demons/Devotees I, 2012, Archival pigment print, 112 x 112 cm
JL: Do you think that context of the times changes the ways photographs are consumed? Or that time will change how your photographs are viewed?
AVJ: Definitely. There is a work in [my series] Archival Impulse called Demons/Devotees that is based on that photograph of Alice Seeley Harris where she is standing on that mountain top with all the children. When I saw the photograph of Harris I was disgusted, but what also struck me was how differently anyone looks at that image now. All of that discursive symbolism in that photo leads to the idea of her as a savior and the children as savage. Now, for the most part—well, in Trump’s America, who knows?—I think that most people would look at that photograph with a sense of frustration, suspicion, or anger. I definitely think that context and time have everything to do with it. And with my work, it is the same. I am quite curious, in 50 years, how my work will be discussed. There is a part of me that hopes that it will be rendered meaningless. I would hope that there is a generation that comes about that doesn’t understand why it would be necessary.
How sweet the song, 2017, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 119 x 109 cm
JL: When I look at your photographs they look as if they have been taken with 19th century cameras. What is the process like for creating photography like this? What it is like to photograph yourself in movement?
AVJ: It isn’t as exciting as one would think. First time it happened it was completely random, I was going for a stop motion image, and somehow it happened between the time of day and the exposure. But, it kinda just happened and so when I went to make the new ones I had a sense of how to control it. It is a combination of shutter speed and motion. I was a gymnast—if you watch tumblers for example, you have to isolate parts of your body in order to create certain kinds of movement. There was a lot of me trying to jump and still myself in mid-air while moving the skirt at the same time. And pacing myself in terms of the timer. There are milliseconds that make the difference in how the photograph ends up. I shot the new stuff in Paris this spring and it was really hot and I was dressed in all these clothes. At one point one of my legs seized up because I am also landing on the same foot every time—it was extremely physical, but I liked it. It is like dancing. I like the idea of these women in free space, in jovial and playful space.
Lucy, 2017, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 70 x 110 cm
JL: In Intimate Justice, you pose to hint towards some famous images of women in art history. Examples are Lucy, pointing towards Portrait of a Negress by Marie-Guillaume Benoist, and Anarcha pointing towards Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingre’s painting The Bather. What relationship are you seeking to establish between these famous images and your poses?
AVJ: Those are pretty much my exact reference points, definitely with Portrait of a Negress, but also with The Bather. I was also thinking of the back of the whipped man [Gordon] that was an illustration and there is another one of a woman as well and they are in the same position. There is a part of me that wants to change the meaning of those images and those illustrations. From what I understand about Portrait of a Negress is that there was this incredible scandal with that painting having been rendered: because she rendered a Black woman with the same kind of beauty and artistry that she would render her more aristocratic clients. The outrage that that painting evoked, for me, was also something that needs to be addressed and corrected. I wanted the works to be a bit familiar in that sense. It was a bit of a test in terms of my audience and whether or not they can accept this rendering: is it possible to see the Black woman’s body as simply beautiful, as light, as free, as not in pain, as not suffering? Can one actually absorb this imagery purely as beauty as opposed to some kind of mimicry of something that is denied the Black body?
Clip from Compared to What, from the Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment series
JL: Can you describe for us the mental and emotional process you go through when you are photographing yourself? How are your feelings and the final product related?
AVJ: All of the work comes from an emotional space. Pretty much every new work is me working through something that was left open-ended or problematic in the artwork from before. The ground zero would probably be the Leapfrog series which came out of a traumatic experience that I needed to work through. I began to work through why I felt the need to do that and then these other projects came through. It’s in the conceptual phase of the work that I am most emotional, where I am figuring out how to address what was left untouched. With To Kill Or Allow to Live it was also the same day that I made Wild is the Wind. In that one I decided to be more specific and talk about injustice and the justice system. The blindfolding had to do with Lady Liberty and the time piece had to do with the recurrence of this rather than justice. In the photograph I was, in a Matrix-type way, dodging these bullets of injustice and ultimately surrendering with my hands up. The moment of creation is oddly uninteresting; the emotions essentially come back once the work is up and in the defending of the work. It is hard to undo that. What I want the work to do has not happened yet. I am still working from a place of pain.
Anarcha, 2017, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 70 x 110 cm
JL: What does it mean for your body to inhabit the imaginary frame of Black women who have become important to history such as Lucy and Anarcha, the enslaved experimental subjects of surgeon J. Marion Sims? Or Nina Simone’s Saffronia? Is that healing for you?
AVJ: It definitely is healing for me. And the more I get to spend time with them the more I am soothed by them. Whether they are real or imagined there is a part of me that is giving these women a moment that they deserved. There are these imaginary beings that are there, they are energies. With Lucy and Anarcha though, I am thinking through monuments when I was making those works last year on a residency. There were all of these protests about monuments and where are the monuments to them?—there are statues of Sims all over the country. I started off working with the actual speculum, I don’t know where it is going to go, but I was thinking of monumentalizing these women. I made Saffronia at the same time, but I could not work with Betsy [another subject of Sims’] at the time for some reason. Stepping into these women, embodying these women, and giving face to these women is a form of homage.
Saffronia, 2017, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 130 x 100 cm.
JL: Do your photographs suggest a relationship between humanity and unseen leisure?
AVJ: Mostly, when I am thinking about leisure, I am thinking about the right to leisure. Again, back to Poverty Pornography and Archival Impulse, I suffer to see the Black body that is not at work or laboring. The right to have leisure is a human right. I do see a relationship between the two. When you are worked to death, when you are worked like an animal, there is no space for that. There have to be these stolen moments. Being enslaved, in terms of the Black American experience, is not the totality of our being. This work is about the future, not the present. It is my plea to humanity. It is too late for me, even if I woke up tomorrow and all of the injustices against the Black body were to somehow be eradicated, I would somehow still have my memory of my relationship to the injustices. The gravity of it still hurts my heart. In a way it is too late for me and those of us living in a racialized society, it is too late for us as well; it is all about the future.
Moments of Sweet Reprieve, 2017, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 130 x 100 cm
Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment ran from July 27–August 27, 2017 at Gallery MOMO, Cape Town.
Jessica Lanay is a poet and short story writer from the Florida Keys living in Pittsburgh. Her work can be found in Salt Hill Journal, Tahoma Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Fugue and The Common.
(Image at top: Ayana V. Jackson, Labouring under the sign of the future, 2017, Archival pigment print on German etching paper, 119 x 109 cm. All images courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO, Cape Town)