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Ayana V. Jackson Seeks to View Black Womanhood as Delicate, Intimate and Weightless

[Ayana V Jackson, Saffronia (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]

Iconic American artist Ayana V. Jackson opened her solo exhibition Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment at Gallery Momo last Thursday. In the exhibition, "Jackson interrogates the stereotype of the angry black woman and explores how these tropes are rooted and justified by the legacy of enslavement. Her work acknowledges a self-realization of the weight of gravity both metaphorically and physically, fixed upon the bodies and subjectivities of black women." I spoke to Jackson about realisations about blackness, specific artworks from her current exhibition, previous exhibitions and more.

A lot of people know Ayana V. Jackson the artist, what can you tell me about Ayana V. Jackson the human being?

Well, I can tell you that I am a black US American who has spent some time between South Africa, Paris and New York and that movement has had a very large effect on who I am. I am a person that is constantly in flux, constantly in conversation with the people and places where I am, so my identity is not particularly fixed, it's quite fluid. But it is solely based on an African diasporic reality as a black American.

In the span of your career, you have been exploring narratives of blackness, from your earlier work such as "Full Circle: A Survey of Hip Hop in Ghana" to "Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment". What do you think have been your most recurring realisations about blackness?

That blackness is not fixed, it's not really opaque. There are multiple versions of it, multiple embodiments of it and multiple experiences through it and one of the first moments that I realised that was when what I usually thought about my own black body was called into question, not in a bad way, just called into question. It was when I met a hip hop artist from Ghana when I was in University, he went to our brother school Morehouse and we were just chatting one day and he was telling me about his hip hop band.

It was 1995 and honestly, it had never occurred to me that there was a hip hop scene in Ghana. For those who were born recently or those who were born continentally it wouldn't seem as surprising but particularly for a black American, it was kind of like huh?!

I knew there wasn't just poverty and just traditional culture [in Africa], in my mind hip hop was still quite recent, so that made me begin to wonder what else don't I know about this place, the entirety of the continent, Ghana in particular. That was the beginning of me wanting to really unpack that.

So that is probably the one thing that has happened through the course of my career, pretty much every project that I've done has attempted to deconstruct and unpack what blackness means.

[Ayana V Jackson, Lucy (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]

[Ayana V Jackson, Anarcha (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]

You talk about fluidity and that blackness is not fixed or structured, do you think that as people we understand that or are there divides or a sense of separation based on where you are from?

Like all humans, we are in conversation with what society says about our identity whether it's a queer identity, whether it's a black identity, impoverished or wealthy, these labels or categories or sub categories of humanness are socially constructed and I think that as we come of age we begin to be in conversation with where our bodies fit, so do we understand it? I think some of us are very clear, the cultural workers are doing the work to break that open, if you are lucky, you realise that you are in conversation with what society says you are and that conversation is not fixed.

You don't really question yourself until you have to defend yourself in a weird way, so I think that there's a lot of work we have to do.

Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment is not only historical re-enactment but it also connects to the social issues that black women are facing today, particularly in South Africa. What do you think are some of the ways in which society can start to progress pertaining these issues?

One thing that I think the black American community and what the South Africa community share in terms of violence against the black women's body is the culture of victim blaming (and it's not just in these two countries) and so women are essentially asked to modify themselves. So these politics of respectability are very prominent in both of our societies. Things around how you dress, how you compose yourself, all of these things are meant to supposedly protect you against violence against your body but the issue is that one should not violate my body regardless. Both of these countries share this very patriarchal understanding of the woman's body, particularly within the black community.

It is seen as protecting us, but ultimately, it's a way of making it seem as though violence against our bodies is our fault.

The exhibition title goes in different directions, sometimes its Intimate Justice in Stolen Moments today its Stolen Moments of Intimate Justice - I don't necessarily want to personify a white version of fragility but the thing about it is the notion of fragility and vulnerability and the need for protection is something that is not particularly the domain of a black woman's body, it is more or less, in our society, the domain of a white woman's body

I want to be able to see the body as fragile, I want to be able to see the body as in need of protection, not only our self-protection but protection from our community and the state, something I don't think black women have had particularly in societies like South Africa and the United States.

[Ayana V Jackson, Labouring under the sign of the future (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]

[Ayana V Jackson, Seeking the source of perfection (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]

Speaking about similarities between South Africa and the United States; what do you think are the similarities and contrasts in the conversations that black Americans and South Africans are having with regards to identity and culture?

What I try to do more is listen for the differences because I think it's very easy as a black American or as an American, because of our shared history, Civil Rights and Apartheid, to see those similarities but I'm trying to listen more for the differences.

I think what I'm trying to understand is living in a society outside of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban where there is barely interaction with whiteness, whereas all 13% of black Americans are in conversation with whiteness in the United States, because it is unavoidable because we are outnumbered; in South Africa, you are not outnumbered, you are the majority, so there are places where these issues between black and white are not faced every day.

So I think there must be some space in the reality of living around predominantly black people and not necessarily choosing to interact or confront whiteness and not necessarily always having to and I feel like there's something in that, that I would like to know about.

What are the narratives of "The Becoming Subject" and "To Kill or Allow to Live" artworks?

The Becoming Subject is about aspirational societies, so when I started I did a project called Archival Impulse; in Archival Impulse I was thinking about the 19th century body that was being photographed by Europeans and Americans with the new technology (at the time) called photography and so some of the first photographic images of the black body come from the perspective of the colonial gaze but then as time went on, people like in my own family whenever they would go out they would step into their Sunday best and take portraits of themselves.

And now I am having myself documented the way that I want to be seen and so that made me think about becoming, the notion of becoming and one of the questions around black people in Victorian dress, in Victorian times, is whether or not they are trying to be like the white people of the time, so my question is what about the possibility that you simply want to wear the fashion of the times, does it necessarily have to be in conversation with or in aspiration for?

The Becoming Subject has questions about garments, the symbolism of fashion, it's about fashion as potentially aspirational.

Kill or Allow to Live; I took the title from research I'd did after reading an essay on Necropolitics that was written by Achille Mbembe; it sent me down the rabbit hole of Necropolitics which means the politics of death, one of the most important things that defines the Sovereign State is the ability to determine life or death, things like the death penalty but also what the police are allowed to do and when and how far and so to decide who can live and who can die is something the State has control of, so they decide whether to kill or allow to live and the relationship of the black American body and the police and the justice system is very precarious and very contentious.

[Ayana V Jackson, How sweet the song (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]

[Ayana V Jackson, Dreams to Remember (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]

Some of your artworks such as "Lucy", "Anarcha" and "Saffronia" seem to be named after women, who are these women and what is their significance to you?

Saffronia is taken from the song "Four Women by Nina Simone", the lyrics for Saffronia say, "My skin is yellow... My father was [rich and] white, he forced my mother late one night". I chose that because even though her skin is dark (there are tons of mixed race people that have dark skin), her eyes are light, so there's a question of whats happening? So there was something about that.

And even though she is relaxing, there is also this kind of confrontational almost seductive moment and considering what she is sitting on, it's tattered but it's not the most inexpensive piece of furniture ever made.

She was initially going to be Betsy because Lucy and Anarcha, the other two that you asked about, are named for a man named J. Marion Sims who was considered the godfather of gynaecology in the early 18th century to the late 18th century.

He was asked to go to a slave plantation to try to deal with the issue called fistula, fistula happens to all kinds of women that go through childbirth; it is a condition where there is a tear between the anus and the vagina, so what ends up happening is once the baby is born the woman will emit faeces through the vagina.

He experimented on three women, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy several times unanesthetized and ultimately came up with a metal stitching possibility but he also came up with the speculum which is now what is used when we get pap smears. He then went to New York to become the godfather of gynaecology and founded the first women's hospital in America.

But the thing that got me as I came to read more about him in Intimate Justice, Shatema's book, I was thinking to myself but where are these women? If he is the godfather then they are the godmothers and even though we know their names, I'm still looking for the monument to them.

She was meant to be Betsy but was something there, something in her gaze, something in her position (as I mentioned) and particularly her legs being opened but there is something about her that made me not want to use Betsy for her.

You curated your first exhibition late last year titled "Selling the Shadow". What did you learn from that experience? And do you have plans to curate more shows?

Yes, I would do it again, but I don't know if I would make a transition to curating. The reason I say I would do it again is, even though it was very challenging, as artists, those who are lucky enough to have exhibitions like this [solo exhibitions], it's great because it is just us, we are in conversation with our own work but from time to time we get curated and the work takes on different meaning and your work takes on different meaning because it is in conversation with someone else and I got very excited about that and it made me think more about the practices of my peers and it made me want to do that and I enjoy that process in theory, but practically, when you are dealing with shipping its another story. Conceptually I really liked it.

The title "Selling the Shadow" works around the artists in the marketplace. It's kind of strange to work in a commercial gallery space with this kind of work, especially many black artists, our work tends to be political or politicised and so then what does it mean then to be in a commercial space and sold to the highest bidder.

So that exhibition was about that, questioning our relationship with the commercial marketplace particularly because, (I'm not saying that black artists don't get the chance to be emotive with our work, and just deal with pretty colours) many of us, either we are denied the opportunity to enter the space because all we want to do is work with pretty colours or like me, we are already political and so we have to sit with ourselves at the end of the night and reconcile the fact that our politics are for sale in the sense that our politics can then be put it into an object that can be sold whether the collector is interested in our meaning.

[Ayana V Jackson, Two Reclining (2017) © courtesy of Gallery MOMO]


Images: Ayana V Jackson © courtesy of Gallery MOMO

Interview: Phendu Kuta

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