One month ago I traveled to South Africa to attend Black Portraitures. The conference is described as a “series of conversations about imaging the black body” and this year it was held at Turbine Hall in Johannesburg. I applied with my longstanding body of work “Jewels from the Hinterland” and my paper was accepted. I spoke on a panel titled Myths & Portraits alongside artists and academics from South Africa, the UK, and U.S. While at the conference, I attended a talk called Nervous Conditions; the title comes from Tsitsi Dangarembga’s first novel, which explores the psychological effects of colonialism in present day Zimbabwe.
When I returned home to Brooklyn I spent time with Gerda Taro’s images; specifically, “Republican Militiaman and Child at Bullfight and Military Show,” Barcelona. The frame is filled with active information. Taro makes loud images. The expressions of the three main figures, all exuding a different emotion, are screaming at us. The child begs to be held, to be turned away from the bullfight and military show, as illustrated by the subtle wince in his expression. His lips upturned as if bewildered by what he can’t look away from. The man next to the boy, perhaps his father, seems to be attracted to something over the babies head, his mouth twisted into a grimace and the squint lines around his eyes almost touch his cheekbones.
Taro moves the viewer all around the space. The man’s chin directs us to the child’s ear and then the large hand in the left corner. The child and the man occupying the negative space have a similar expression. The diagonals are so powerful in this picture. Taro has given us so much and so little, which takes me back to wanting more information. Not more from her, but she asks us, the audience, to do our own knowledge building. We will never quite know what these three figures are looking at but we can create vivid narratives based on their expressions alone.
Taro’s work leads me to may different places but I cannot escape that feeling of nervousness and anxiety when I look at all three figures in “Republican Militiaman and Child at Bullfight and Military Show.” What does nervousness allow or prohibit us to do? What does it force us to feel? In the image of Saul Leiter’s father the concern in his eyes and furrowed brows are clear indicators of unease. He appears to be bitting his fingernails or putting something in his mouth. Taro’s image also conjures up ideas around family histories and traumas, particularly when looking at Latoya Ruby Frazier’s piece “John Frazier, LaToya Frazier and Andrew Carnegie.” Frazier grew up in the industrial town of Braddock, PA which was home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill. Over time, however, the bustling industry faded and so did Braddock. Frazier looks at the history of the people who settled in her hometown paired with her upbringing and Teju Cole notes that her work “traces out a web of related concerns: the difficulty of family life in such a place, the imperishability of love, the injustice of a hospital closure, the exclusion of black history, the bonds among generations of women.”
Vivian Maier and Francesca Woodman’s pictures enter into conversations around ghostliness and the body that is mobile or immobile as a result of what its been through. Maier’s image of the navy seals or marines on June 25, 1961 could easily be defined by the harsh light that peers through the windows. However, the blur of those who serve at sea provides a much more eerie quality, as if they could disappear at any moment. I also find Woodman and Maier to be important figures because they are often defined by mental illness, as problematic women, and as fulfilling the reclusive and tortured artist stereotype, which can be romanticized as entry point into good art making. But what about the structure of the times these women lived in contributed to their nervous conditions?
I think about what contributes to my own anxiety in 2016 and find comfort in Heather Agyepong’s series “Too Many Blackamoors.” Agyepong describes her photographs as “based on my own personal experiences as a young black woman, dealing with the macro and micro traumas of racism encountered while traveling around European countries.” Her series challenges the stereotypes of strong black women who are incapable of feeling pain and how that narrative “can burden and often entrap black women.” We can also see this rigidness being performed in Jessie Mae Harris’ photographs of her maternal aunt and mother. The women sit and stand stiffly with straight faces and flat eyes.
The pictures that are stylistically related to Taro’s photograph are Diane Arbus’ “Child Crying” and August Sander’s “Painter [Heinrich Hoerle].” Paired together, the images evoked the same emotion of the child being neglected and a father maintaining his composure as if not to be subsumed by someone else’s emotion. What fears may keep us from emoting? Or prevent us from being as vulnerable as the child pictured in Arbus’ image. Why must crying be a shameful act and not one of courage? This curation is a way to explore our individual nervous conditions. Once we acknowledge them we can begin to manage the conditions, allow the emotional flow through us rather than be trapped within us.