With the close of Summer comes the opening of a new photography-focused exhibition cycle at Woman Made Gallery, this time pairing a group show titled the Photographic Self, juried by Carla Williams, along with an invitational exhibit, Michele Fitzsimmons at the Art Institute with Photography by Diane J. Schmidt.
Laying out the artwork for a group show is always a challenge. Various artists of different backgrounds and unique styles can present a problem when attempting to compose an exhibit of aesthetically compatible artworks. With such diversity, we were looking for a common narrative, a communal bond between all the artists’ work that we could explore and divulge.
We started with a question about the medium used— what does a photograph reveal? Photography has the amazing ability to capture the essence of something or someone in an unexpected, fleeting moment. Capturing that moment offers a glance at something that perhaps we wouldn’t have noticed or appreciated otherwise. Photography can expand the definition of self, and create a nontraditional self portrait of the artist and sometimes the spectator too.
What we found was that each piece had it own story. The physical attributes captured in a photograph reveal internal struggles and revelations. We felt as if the artists shared small autobiographies; nontraditional portraits of their lives.
And what we found among those stories were common themes of hope, fear, pain and struggle. These artists are determined to share their stories the way they want to show them. Through atypical, clever and powerful images, many of the works dispute traditional norms of beauty, Black culture and femininity. They transcend conventional means of expression, often teasing traditions, turning stereotypes on their heads, and challenging societal and cultural norms through innovative and novel means. Each artist has evoked courage through sharing her art and her story.
During our group layout, we saw a strong story line of protest against the limiting and degrading perceptions of women’s beauty and sexuality. Cultural and consumer definitions of beauty often reject what is innate or diverse and instead set an unattainable standard of perfection. Our artists explore these constrictions while examining their relationship with their bodies within and outside of those norms.
One of the artists expanding on this concept is Morgan Ford Willingham’s work Unititled 4 (The Beauty Mask). A self portrait, Willingham’s face and hair are masked in a veil of printed advertisements for beauty products which, as Willingham explains, “explores how natural beauty is masked by the cosmetics many (women) use every day, and how the language of advertising is absorbed into the subconscious, constantly influencing what women buy and how they perceive themselves.”
Parallel to this conflicting relationship with natural beauty and beauty products, we saw the prominent theme of women’s hair. In particular, photographers Sierra Faye, Johannil Napoleón and Nakeya Brown bring attention a highly contentious issue in the African American community regarding hair. By focusing on images of hair, these artists pose silent questions concerning what hair says about Black identity and femininity; who defines ‘good hair,’ and with what intension?
In Faye’s piece, A Conversation That Started with Your Eyes and Ended in My Disgrace, the two subjects’ painted backs face the viewer. One woman’s hair is natural, and her face is turned to the other woman wearing an ostentatious 17th century style, bleached wig. What is the conversation, what is the judgment made and who is hurt in the exchange?
In Napoleón’s work, titled Obscure Identity, she explains that “As a Black woman living in a socially constructed society, I am constantly reminded and told that my natural character and physical appearance are negative elements – from my natural afro to the color of my skin. Therefore, instead of having a sense of constant freedom to be who I am as a Black woman, it is interrupted by standards.” Here, the subject’s face is turned away and her natural hair hidden, and instead we can only identify the subject by her straight, blond weave.
Brown’s Kanekalon on a Fork continues the story of Black women’s hair and its strong tie to Black culture and identity. Kanekalon is a synthetic fiber used in many weaves and wigs, and is often advertised to give women a ‘natural hair’ look. By twirling kanekalon around a fork in an act of eating it, Brown is teasing the claims of its ‘natural’ properties, and questioning if there is in fact anything natural about covering a woman’s head with extensions and weaves.
We wanted the artists to feel their work is strengthened through the process of exhibition layout, and for the audience to be able appreciate the themes, messages and artistic creativity so that they may be inspired to continue exploring these stories themselves.
The invitational exhibition in the gallery’s lower level is a series of images created collaboratively in 1981 by Michele Fitzsimmons and Diane J. Schmidt. The photographs in the exhibition, which were digitally imaged and printed by Peter Jones using the original black and white contact sheets, show Michele Fitzsimmons posing nude throughout the galleries of The Art Institute. These images originate from a larger series, titled ‘The Chicago Exhibition,’ in which Schmidt photographed Fitzsimmons in over 60 Chicago public spaces, over the course of six years.
In these snapshots, Fitzsimmons is no longer just a spectator of the museum, but a piece of artwork herself. Her interactions are natural, her poses relaxed, and the mostly black and white photos evoke nostalgia and introspective peacefulness.
Fitzsimmons’s inspiration for this endeavor came from her reoccurring nightmare in which she would awake, horrified, from dreams of being the only naked person in school. Reliving her nightmare of public nudity became Fitzsimmons’s personal theme in this artistic excursion, and Schmidt’s photograpy reveals these repeated transcendent moments.
For Diane J. Schmidt, the project held more symbolic implications. She writes “I wanted to make a humanist statement about how a woman feels naked in the city, not just a disembodied art nude or a fashion model. Michele brought her theatrical sensibilities and I my street-shooting esthetic.”
The artists gathered to celebrate the exhibitions’ opening on Friday, September 6th, and those present included Michele Fitzsimmons along with printer Peter Jones, Grace Aneiza Ali, Kayla Anderson, Pilar Arthur-Snead, Nona Faustine, Sierra Faye, Jessica Van Fleteren, Zoraida Lopez, Qiana Mestrich, Johannil Napoleón, Niki Nolin, Kristin Reeves, MahlOt Sansosa, Amy Misurelli Sorensen, Jennifer Tiner, Gwynneth VanLaven, and Catherine Walker.
–Helen Celewicz, Gallery Intern