Through different photographic techniques, US-born, South Africa-based artist Ayana V Jackson articulates the experiences of contemporary African and African diasporic societies. Her recent exhibition, Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment, explores identity and representation related to black womxnhood.
This body of work, comprised of digital portraiture and stop-motion video, continues Ayana’s powerful oeuvre that sees her at the centre of most of her imagery and questions black womxn represented as delicate, weightless and beautiful, instead of displaying damaging and popular tropes of black womxn as one-dimensional characters, angry or erased from the tumultuous pages of (white) history, to name a few.
“Rather than relying on narratives we think people can relate to or that are situated in a well-established or narrow world view, we should dare to disrupt,” says Ayana, who for this body of work re-enacts history. She confronts her audience and questions the indoctrination of colonialism and its skewed representations of blackness.
What inspired you to work in the medium of photography?
I find the history of photography to be complicit in the construction of race and racial stereotype. Growing up it was the images of Africa and black America that disturbed me more than any real life experiences I’d had.
The disconnect between the dynamism of the black experience that I’d been privy to was not reflected in the media. Later, when I finished my undergraduate studies in Sociology, I realised two things; I am a better storyteller than a social scientist, and I am effective with image making, so I decided to combine the skill sets.
Your family is a descendant of Leah Arthur Jones, a member of the founding family of New Jersey’s first black settlement. How has your heritage influenced your work?
As a family raised up from enslavement, we were tasked with remembering as much as we could because we could. One of the most effective consequences of slavery was rendering the black body worthless, meaningless and identity-less. As a result, injustices against us were justified because we were invisible.
My grandparents were adamant about memorising our family tree, perhaps as a means to remind us that enslavement was not the totality of our experience as a family or as a people.
In a video interview, you speak about your work challenging meaning. In this context, do you view the purpose of all your work as a challenge?
Intimate Justice is perhaps more of a test. Can we see the black body, the black woman’s body as beautiful, fragile and light? Is it possible to see her and not inscribe struggle or resilience on her body? Can she not just be beautiful, delicate, jovial and weightless? If not, why?
Your body forms a major part of your work. What inspired you to situate yourself at the centre of your art as opposed to using models?
Susan Sontag’s On Photography and more importantly, Regarding the Pain of Others changed my life and my practice. I couldn’t articulate my discomfort with certain imagery before reading her. I didn’t trust my impulses before finding her as an ally. Suddenly, I had confirmation that I wasn’t crazy, someone else recognised the same sociopathic public patterns of aesthetic behaviour. So, I decided to disrupt those patterns.
There’s much to be said about the relationship between the viewer and your work. Can you tell us how you explore this with your art?
While I understand the history of art as a language of aesthetics and the aesthetics of meaning, this/that was not my introduction to the discipline. I was always looking for myself in the margins, in the subtext, in between the lines and seeing myself when I wasn’t there. I am speaking to my generation and asking them to be active rather than passive observers. I implore them to question what they think they know.
As an artist, you’re based between New York, Johannesburg and Paris. When it comes to dealing with institutionalised racism, are there any marked differences between the cities?
There are many differences, key among them are demographic, like the differences between voluntary and involuntary migration when it comes to notions of belonging to any given state. If I know no other country than the United States, perhaps fighting for civil rights carries a different urgency, then a French person of Senegalese decent, who perhaps still carries an attachment to or even citizenship in Senegal but lives in America. A person who feels nearly powerless against white supremacy in a country that is majority white might be confused when thinking about issues that persist in a country like South Africa, where people of colour far outnumber the other. So, while white privilege and Eurocentrism may be rampant among them all, the capacity to address/correct this is not uniform, nor is the approach. I have grown to respect this in my travels. — Ayana