These Photographers Use Staged Portraits to Create Truthful Visions of Black Identity

Daria Harper, Artsy, April 13, 2020
While drastically different from Deana Lawson in her approach, the American artist Ayana V. Jackson explores a similar central theme: the body as a conduit for reconstructing Black identities. In her work, Jackson addresses historical representations of the Black body, especially the iconography of Black slaves in the 19th and 20th centuries. Based between Johannesburg, New York, and Paris, Jackson explores conceptions of race in a global context throughout her images. Analyzing the crucial role that photography plays in the construction of identity, Jackson said that she aims to “broaden the map of Blackness” with her work. She uses ornate costumes to visually mark the eras she references, and works with natural lighting to mimic early photographic setups.
For about a decade, Jackson has almost exclusively featured her own body in her photographs. In Labouring under the sign of the future (2017), Jackson photographed herself draped in a thick skirt and petticoat, her body juxtaposed with a stark black background. Her legs are completely hidden by the heavy fabric; the bottom half of the frame is blurred as she jumps and lifts the skirt in a swirl beneath her. Jackson used a blurring effect in many of the images in her traveling solo exhibition “Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment.”
 
“‘Intimate Justice’ was born out of a certain amount of frustration—personal and emotional,” Jackson recalled. “A lot of Black Lives Matter things were happening and I felt very weighted and emotionally raw. In a way, I wanted to experience lightness and joy and pleasure.” The collection was also inspired by Jackson’s belief that we need to see more moments of pleasure between Black people in images, both in the present and uncovering those from the past. “What does it mean to perpetually be a slave or a servant? There has to be moments when you’re a lover, when you’re a mother, when you are experiencing your own pleasure,” she said.
 
Brielmaier echoed Jackson’s motivations around excavating untold Black histories. “I feel like we’re now at a stage as people of color, and especially as art practitioners, creatives, cultural workers, where we can fully embrace and interrogate and explore the nuances and layers that exist when we think of Blackness globally,” Brielmaier said.