Discussing the role of photography in belittling and rebuilding a community with photographer Ayana V. Jackson. We speak to Jackson about post colonial perceptions, identity and over-sexualisation of the African female body.
She sat gallantly at the small circle table, covered with art books, as the white walls surrounding her proudly displayed her empowered, and at times nude, self-photographed female form. The varying body positions each referenced a time when a woman of African descent was denied the right to tell the story of her own body. In repossessing her body, contemporary artist Ayana V. Jackson contributes to changing the long-standing narrative that has oppressed, over-sexualised and fetishised the African female morphology. Her interpretation of past photographic works further contributes to a new positive narrative that allows women of colour to reclaim and redefine their bodies and their minds. Evoking understanding in diverse cultural spaces, Jackson recalls the past in order to construct a more progressive future, as well as understand the questionable and at times disheartening present.
“This is a cliché but they always say you can’t understand your present or future without understanding your past,” she says. She emphasises the importance of knowing history because of the weighing impact it holds in the present. She uses a popular culture example to capture how the past directly influences the representation of the African female form. “For instance, I look at a hip-hop music video from the 1990s and even less than five years ago, black women booty-shaking was something horrible…they were sluts and hoes. Years later, Miley Cyrus is twerking and there are all-white workshops at the gym on learning how to twerk. I am not able to understand why twerking is bad behaviour for black girls and acceptable behaviour for white girls.”
In her research, Jackson found that this reaction to something as simple and as traditional in African culture dating back centuries, specifically dancing while winding your waist, has been criticised by European communities for centuries on women of colour and suddenly celebrated when performed by a white woman. Jackson says, “There is a reason for that and it has to do with the fact that there has always been this expectation of the hyper-sexualised black female body, tracing back to Sara Baartman, the Venus Hottentot in the late 17th century and how she was paraded around Europe because of the size of her behind, making it acceptable to witness the body of a black woman in a certain way, and establishing the supposed carnal nature of blackness.”
As an artist advancing equality, Jackson believes that anyone, regardless of sex or ethnicity, owns the right to twerk if they desire. The problem lies in whether one person twerking is perceived differently to the next.
what is expected in my white counterpart is met with shock in me
“There is nothing wrong with that particular movement on a black woman or a white woman, but when I want to understand why they are judged and criticised differently I need to understand the history, so I have to go back. And the risk of not going back is that to believe that now suddenly everybody can twerk – and it’s still not the case.”
These biases do not solely exist in regard to the physical form, but can transcend flesh and often seep into how an individual’s intelligence or capabilities are perceived. She explains how when she is in cultural spaces with her peers, other artists, she often finds herself having to explain characteristics pertaining to her competence when her white counterparts do not. When her multilingual ability is met with surprise and shock, the multilingual ability of her white peers is expected or conventional. “In a way, it does not allow the black woman to be cosmopolitan…when what is expected in my white counterpart is met with shock in me,” she says.
Her work since 2011 reclaims and reconstructs the stereotypes associated with blackness. Her tools: photography and her body. She says, “My very first solo show when I started using my own body in 2011 with my gallery in Johannesburg, Gallery Momo, was absolutely terrifying because it was quite different for the work to include my likeness. For the first time I was dealing with both: my thesis/my subject matter/my idea, and my body.”
“It’s important to revisit what we understand to be fact and history and knowledge, because then we realise that a lot of what we learn has an agenda associated with it,” she says.
In her most recent work “Archival Impulse”, she wanted to determine how history and photography influenced ideologies that still exist today. She adds, “I wanted to re-examine the relationship between the history of photography and its intersection with colonialism, and highlight the fact that a lot of the images that come from that period of time were used to justify the movement from Europe into the Americas and Africa –there was an agenda.”
The historical photographs described by Jackson were rarely candid. In the 19th century, white male Europeans constructed each image to dehumanise the natural owners of the land, to justify pillaging continents for their wealth and natural resources. In her photography, Jackson uses her body to re-enact these compositions, shedding light on how what is often considered historical fact is in many cases fiction.
“I want to draw attention to how a lot of these colonial images are a fiction and were written and composed in the minds of white male Europeans in the 19th century. To me, that is the only way I can get out of that shame, out of that insecurity with my body and regain my dignity and my strength and my story.”
Jackson uses the example of the half naked-women often selected by the West to represent Africa. Though some African tribes in the 19th century traditionally wore bare-breasted dress, many tribes did not. Yet the image chosen to represent the entire continent was often of bare-breasted women. An important fact that was often ignored even in keeping with that representation was that these women were not sexualised in their communities. It was the norm, even if bare breasts were and are still overly sexualised in Western societies.
“For me, I found this kind of association of bare-breasted women with hypersexualised female bodies to be problematic because having spent time in rural areas in two dozen African countries, it is not particularly sexual to be outside with your breasts bare, nursing children… No one in some remote part of Kumasi is sexualising that woman; it is the European perception that drew that parallel as inappropriate.”
To understand why bare-breasts were perceived differently in Europe and in Africa, it is important to again revert to history. “I’m Catholic and was raised Catholic and my grandmother would turn over in her grave if I was to completely denounce Christianity, but when you grow up with a Judeo-Christian upbringing, beginning with Adam and Eve, nudity is associated with evil, savagery, un-civilisation or ungodliness and these sorts of bizarre associations subconsciously colour what we see. I think the European preoccupation with our nudity, with our bodies, with our breasts says more about them and how they think and how they were socialised than it will ever say about that person they photographed or that community or village or tribe.”
In each context, Jackson’s work is perceived differently. She says that in South Africa, many people felt that she was digging up pain that they would rather have left buried, whereas in Lagos, when she exhibited at the 2013 Lagos Photography Festival, she found a different response. She says, “On several occasions I was told by Nigerian women that [the work] was emblematic: women power, black power. People didn’t even want to engage in what I was talking about in terms of violence, death, disease and dictatorship, they were like ‘Yeh yeh yeh…she looks strong! We know, but it doesn’t matter; this is what that means to me now.’ In a way, it felt like they were saying we’re past that, we’ve attached our own association and narrative to it, which is all I can really hope for.” In a country like the United States, where so many artists have explored the historical implications that impact people of African origin today, the response is also different. She explains, “So there is appreciation for it, there is love for it, but it doesn’t have the same kind of everyday response in a place like Paris, where to use the term ‘race’ is racist, where people don’t feel comfortable discussing [race].”
“I do my best not to speak for a whole community but I can tell you about my observations in everyday life. In places like Berlin and Paris, where to discuss race is considered racist, you see a reluctance to address difference or to discuss difference.”
In a world that is increasingly globalised, more and more people are of diverse ethnicities and cultures. Embracing and understanding one’s diverse cultural composition is crucial in establishing a healthy identity.
“When I meet someone in a black body in a Eurocentric time, I find it kind of problematic to not identify with, or address or include one’s continental Africanness if one is capable. I think it reinforces the idea of white as normal and everything else as not…to shy away from acknowledging blackness or Africanness as part of your identity, is, in a way, a tool of white supremacy.
“Even mathematically, it doesn’t make sense for the ‘neutral’ to be European; it’s a lie, and for us to live the lie is a symptom of colonial mentality, or a colonised mentality.”
“Every time I make a body of work, I more than fail in my own eyes and that’s how another body of work comes about,” Jackson says. Though, while she may see failure, the heavily emotive dark reds, greys and blacks in the photographic series that illustrates the repossession and denouncement of the tainted documentation of billions of people of African descent can only perceived as a success.
In a recent body of work, Jackson says, “I ask if the opera is relevant to our community and what happens if we try to see ourselves within the thematic?” This particular idea was inspired by South Africa’s national gallery, which was built during apartheid and to an extent symbolises the colonisation or Europeanisation of the country. Many South Africans in the cultural milieu have discussed changing the programme to be more African and completely ridding the stage of opera classics like Puccini’s La Bohème or Verdi’s Aida – although these stories illustrate universal human situations that could be acted by a person of colour or a white person. Twenty years after apartheid, Jackson will dive into the complex cultural dilemma:
“I don’t believe in increasing binaries so this work is not an exercise in black versus white or East versus West or formerly colonised versus former coloniser.”
In her recent works, Jackson employs her own body as a tool to explore her thesis, which feels deeply therapeutic for herself and for society. “I am trying to claim my dignity again. It is very much me trying to claim my breasts back, claim my body back, claim my subjectivity – and by ‘my’, I mean as a person who inhabits a black woman’s body anywhere in the world. All the violence that has been put upon us through things like photography is real and I am still living through it.”