Photographer Interviews

Ayana V. Jackson Confronts Racism With Recreations of Historic Images

December 4, 2015

By Brienne Walsh

The term “archival impulse,” first coined by the art historian Hal Foster in an essay in the Fall 2004 edition of the art journal October, can be applied to any artist who mines documents and objects from the past in order to transform “excavation sites” into “construction sites”—or, in other words, to create a more balanced and fair-minded history from a biased past. In her series “Archival Impulse,” photographer Ayana V. Jackson, who splits her time between Paris, New York and Johannesburg, is concerned with reconstructing the history of black bodies as captured by white photographers and photojournalists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “I’m reclaiming the legacy of those images,” she says. “I’m attaching new meaning to them.”

In the series, which was on view at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle this fall, along with a related series, “Poverty Pornography,” Jackson recreates images of nude African women, starving children and colonial servants she culled from sources such as “Human Zoo: Invention of the Savage,” an exhibition she saw at Paris’s Quai Branly museum in 2011; and the Duggan-Cronin archive in Johannesburg, an extensive collection of photographs of migrant workers and “natives” in South Africa taken by an Irishman who worked for the DeBeers diamond company at the beginning of the twentieth century. She uses herself as the subject, taking self-portraits in her studio using natural light and the timer on her camera. To adjust her poses to match the original subjects, she reviews the images sent from her camera to her computer in between takes. To make group shots, she clones images of her body in Photoshop and collages them over backgrounds—often these are travel landscape shots she took in Rwanda, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco and Paris. She describes her work as performance rather than portrait-making. About her decision to use only her own body, she explains. “I want to draw attention to the content rather than the individual.” Also, she fears that if she worked with models, she would be re-creating exactly what she is critiquing: the exploitation of another person’s body for social commentary.

Jackson, who received her B.A. in sociology from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1999, and took courses in photography at the University of Art in Berlin in 2005, creates strange, uncanny images that jar the viewer. In “Devotees and Demons (2012),” for example, she stands in the center of the frame—wearing the white dress and straw hat of a Victorian-era missionary—at the surreal apex of a pyramid of dozens of nude self-portraits. The original image is of Alice Seeley Harris, the English missionary and documentary photographer, standing amongst a group of semi-nude schoolchildren in the Congo in the 1890s. Seely’s image was intended to shed light on the horrors of slavery in the Congo under King Leopold II of Belgium. Though it was intended to raise awareness, it operates within the colonial lexicon of “otherness.” Harris is not one of the children—in her pure white dress, at the top of the mound, she is, on many levels, symbolically dominating them.

“What is the Alice Seeley Harris photograph telling you?” Jackson asks over the phone from her studio in Johannesburg. “This was one of the first images a European may have ever seen of an African body. Look at how the missionary is clothed, and the ‘savages’ are unclothed.” She pauses. “Now, look at my image, and tell me, who is civilized, and who is savage?”

Jackson’s point that black bodies in photographs have historically been relegated to the realm of “savage”—and in turn, “sexual,” “pitiable,” and “primitive”—comes across strongly, and evokes outrage. The effect is similar in “Dis Ease (2011),” in which Jackson recreates Kevin Carter’s famous 1993 image of a vulture watching over a starving child in southern Sudan, using her nude body in the positions of both the bird of prey and the preyed upon; and “Diorama I (2012),” which shows the artist assuming the position of a white-bearded anthropologist, as well as the nude Andaman children he is studying, from a photograph taken in 1869.

In Jackson’s images, there are no “others”—there is just the artist, and the discomfort in seeing a black woman pose in a manner that, even today, could be considered exploitative.

The power of Jackson’s images lies in that point of discomfort. She refuses to let the visual legacy of racism, slavery and oppression remain in the past. This commitment is especially important in her adopted homeland of South Africa, where she has kept a studio since 2007. “In South Africa, there is a rising generation that for the first time is experiencing freedom,” she said. “When I look at them, I see that they are like my father’s generation in the United States—he was born in 1951. He had to participate in the Civil Rights movement. A lot of people are fighting for that here now.

“I’m watching a place become itself,” she adds. “There’s a need for someone to deconstruct the stereotypes and misunderstandings. A need not only in South Africa, but also around the world. We are still trying to understand the original sin of racism.”