I’ve been hit upside the head this week by a handful of contemporary photographers who demonstrate the power of photos to move us, teach us, mess with our heads, and motivate us. Having seen Andrade’s rue de Rosiers exhibit at the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Judaïsme, and Graeme Williams’s “Frames of Change” about South Africa after apartheid, I caught the last day of two extraordinary exhibits at Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries: American Lorna Simpson’s first European retrospective, and Israeli Palestinian Ahlam Shibli’s huge and staggering exhibit, “Phantom Home.”
It is hard to imagine the vast investment of energy, time, and money these exhibits represent. Yes, I will talk about these artists’ moral and political commitments, but let me linger for a minute on the post-shooting phases of these projects. For someone like Lorna Simpson, whose work some readers may know as intense, provocative visual commentary on race, gender, and sexual categories largely in the United States, it is all about the details. But also, her projects are big. They require big walls and big galleries. They often require gathering materials — old photos, postcards, gold paint, wigs, and so on — from lots of different places, and then deciding how to alter and arrange them to tell the story she wants to tell. Words are integrated into the arrangements of visual materials. They are not slapped together. There is precision in how the frames are assembled and then how the exhibit is hung.
For Ahlam Shibli, it is not just the number and size of the prints that we are talking about, but the energy it has taken — this may be true for Simpson as well — to withstand numerous political attacks from all sides due to the content of her photographs and her word choice in describing some of their subjects. She stands in the ranks of those artists whose recognition puts her on the receiving end of contestation and revulsion and anger.
As an old feminist, I will also say straight out, so to speak, that it is thrilling to see such a hefty institution as the Jeu de Paume selecting and lifting and hanging and supervising the work of two very political woman artists. Yes! I don’t know if the art world mimics the rock and roll world, or vice versa, but it was a very long time before concert promoters could handle the idea of two women on the same bill.
However, the Jeu de Paume does have a terrific track record of “out there,” provocative shows, and of exhibiting women artists. Last September I visited an amazing retrospective of the photographs of Eva Besnyö, about whom more later, I hope.
In fact, Ahlam Shibli’s controversial work at the Jeu de Paume did touch off a storm of protest. She refers in her photo captions to Palestinian suicide bombers as martyrs — using the language of the community she photographs in that series — and, well dear reader, you can imagine that the Jeu de Paume was asked in no uncertain terms to take down that show. The museum’s response was to post little bits of cardboard saying “Warning!”– then, in effect, the museum takes no responsibility for the language. Shibli has written all the captions, and the photos and the captions are integrally related.
The controversy was reported in the press, of course, and one critic damned with faint praise and righteous commentary when he argued that though the language is inflammatory and bad, the photos are not all that important or good, so who cares?
Huh. Let me beg to differ. And I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Lorna Simpson’s show is a retrospective, arranged roughly (not totally) chronologically. She began primarily as a photographer, but with a conceptual bent, and moved quickly into using multiple media to express her ideas and create her world. I first learned of Simpson from the innovative A World of Art, a new kind of textbook including video episodes, written by my Oregon State colleague Henry Sayre in the mid-1990s, and now in its seventh edition. The first video hour — not currently available to the non-textbook buying public, gosh darn it! — featured Simpson working on one of her very large-scale projects. Her agency, Salon 94, offers an excellent biography of Simpson.
Simpson’s work is still and even more conceptual and abstract. She uses the concrete images of buildings and parks, and snippets of dialogue on cardstock, to bring those landscapes to life. Here is “The Car,” 1995:
The accompanying language imagines among other things what or who is in the car.
Simpson also uses large, repeated images of partial bodies, black bodies, with words, to evoke white perceptions of those bodies, or to sketch the stories that put those bodies into white eyes. Here is “Waterbearer,” 1986:
This is not the end of this image. She offers a series of photographs of this woman’s front, repeated with slight, ever so slight, shifts of crossed arms, to suggest through pose and language that every day of the week the woman’s story has been misunderstood.
Simpson also uses photographs and paintings of hair – a flashpoint in African American history both before and after 1865 – to query identity and perception. Now she works also with video, offering series of gestures on various screens, serially overlaid and slightly out of sync with each other. She acts in many of her own videos, a role that she acknowledged makes her uncomfortable but that in a way echoes her introduction to the arts, as a child ballet student in New York City. In fact, Simpson appears throughout her work. The work involving human images is generally staged, with the exception of the content of some of the found pieces. The buildings, cars, and natural settings are sectored, blown up, and reassembled, so that for the viewer the effect is an odd combination of confrontation with the monumental and entry into a slippery, shadowy phantom world (yes, I choose that word deliberately to echo Shibli’s exhibit title).
In an interview with Aperture to mark the opening of this exhibit, Simpson remarks that photographic departments when she was pursuing her BFA and graduate training were “very narrow,” photography being a medium that “went in a frame, was kept to a certain scale, and didn’t have text or any other element.” As she started out as an artist, she found the most support from institutions that “didn’t insist on the separation between genres.”
Her work is less accessible but no less passionate and powerful than that of Shibli. Ahlam Shibli puts herself in contested communities, some of which she is identified with and some less so, and also puts herself into dialogue with the inhabitants of those communities. The judgment of journalist Reid Singer that Shibli’s photos are “unremarkable” is itself remarkable. The impact of her photographs is in large part that she had to be present, and close (like the Johannesburg photos of Graeme Williams), to get these views. Moving away from the series showing Palestinians at home with pictures of their slain or suicide-taken brothers and fathers, we can look at a deeply moving series showing children living in Polish children’s homes. The very dailiness of their activities, and their groupings — their obvious love of each other and their comfort with their supervisors, despite simple and rather stark surroundings — takes us into their lives. They are shown cuddling, doing homework, eating dinner, lounging on couches. This is where they live. This is home. The program does not explain the collection’s title, “The house starves when you are away,” but it does not need explanation when accompanying these photos.
Here is the title photo from that series: two children posing with the statue at the entrance of one of the homes she photographed.
In this large show there are many series, and the series are generously represented. Another photographic project that required the friendly collaboration of the subjects is called “Eastern LGBT.” It pictures individuals from mostly Middle Eastern nations dominated by religious conservatives whose cultural politics do not allow lesbian, gay, and transgendered people to live “according to their sexual preferences, or to inhabit the gendered body in which they may feel at home.” So they have migrated to European cities in order to find home in their own bodies.
A more complex and ambitious series is “Trauma,” involving multiple layers of cultural alienation rendered by cultural convention. In June 1944 resistance fighters in the town of Tulle (now Correze), France, rose up against the Nazi occupiers and were viciously punished with hangings and deportations. In the next two decades residents of the same town fought in French uniforms against colonial rebellions in Algeria and Indochina. This series, as understated as the Polish orphanage series, shows residents of Correze in their homes, showing Shibli their photographs and memorabilia of these traumatic events, and also at ceremonies of remembrance at the town monuments.
Both artists speak FOR and speak FROM. They also both speak WITH — Lorna Simpson seems to speak with parts of herself, and with others through experiencing their positions by taking them herself. Ahlam Shibli has one series that poignantly takes her back to her childhood in Palestine: “a journey of returning to the places that showed me who I am.” They both also speak with real and imagined communities, past and present. They both have the courage to show and tell difficult stories, stories in which they are implicated, and by teling the stories through pictures and words they take responsibility for the narratives.