Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
Sojourner Truth’s carte-de-visite is a compelling premise for an exhibition. Also known as a ‘calling card’, the carte-de-visite was a photograph mounted on stiff card of a small, standard format. This kind of photograph was relatively cheap to reproduce, and during the height of its popularity in the 1860s, individuals would distribute these portraits of themselves to family and friends through personal interactions or in the post. Celebrities and public figures would also use the carte-de-visite as a means of disseminating their image.
A runaway slave who forged her own path as a key figure in women’s rights and the abolition of slavery in the United States, Truth is engrained in the mythology of the struggle for American civil rights. Her decision to create and multiply her own image through the use of the carte-de-visite was strategic, and employed full use of the technology of the time. Truth would distribute and sell her own photographic portrait to further the slavery abolition cause during the American Civil War. Considering this action offers us the opportunity to think of agency and self-representation not in hypothetical terms, but through actualised events in history.
In one particular carte-de-visite, created in 1864, a sepia-toned stark-faced Truth sits next to a table with a bundle of wool. A bonnet covers her head. Accompanying her portrait the text reads, ‘I sell the shadow to support the substance,’ the phrase of which was adapted as the title of Ayana V Jackson’s curated exhibition at Gallery MOMO. Jackson has used this image as a point of departure to explore the realm of activism and responsibility, the image and its consumption. A collection of ten video pieces are screened simultaneously in Gallery MOMO’s video room, curated by Detroit-based Ingrid Lafleur.
Born and educated in the United States, Jackson has worked in a number of other African countries, notably Ghana. ‘Selling the Shadow’ allows audiences a rare opportunity to see contemporary African art otherwise not commonly exhibited in Cape Town. However, despite the inclusion of artists from elsewhere in Africa, the exhibition has a distinct American presence, owing in part to the exhibition’s thematic protagonist Sojourner Truth, and a recurring evocation of American history.
A man was lynched by police yesterday (2015) by Dread Scott is a flag that draws its form directly from the flag hung from the offices of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) on Fifth Avenue, New York, during the 1920s and 30s. Displayed the day after a racially-motivated murder, the original flag simply read ‘A man was lynched yesterday.’ In this, Scott plainly compares the lynchings of black Americans during the early 20th century with the current public exposure of police violence.
An installation directly applied to a wall of the gallery, Torkwase Dyson’s Anthony Burns (In Plane Site: Fugitive) (2016) could be read as a formal and spatial “map” of the American runaway slave Anthony Burns, whose trial for freedom from slavery made him, and the abolition cause, a household conversation. Visually, the work operates almost entirely in the abstract: large areas of matte black pigment are offset by squares of clear and white plexiglass, with lines drawn in white graphite. The installation’s effectiveness arises from its opaque nature, in which apparent simplicity as a mere visual marker of Burns’ movements cannot account for the forms alone.
The portrait itself and indeed, the black portrait, functions as an important space of exploration within ‘Selling the Shadow.’ Beyond mere figurative depictions of people, the presence of the self-determined black portrait moves against the once-dominant anthropological white gaze. Further, as Truth has demonstrated, the creation of one’s own image can become an important act of affirmation.
Notable is the untitled photographic portrait by Ghanaian-German artist Zohra Opoku. Known for her portraits of women obscured by foliage, Opoku’s monochrome photograph is a ghostly welcome addition. Facing Opoku’s Untitled, are a set of five drawn portraits by Robert Pruitt. Born in the United States, Pruitt has found acclaim in his conté crayon portraits. Five individuals are depicted in the series, their careful renderings off-set by the flatness of graphic branding, a variety of elaborate hair styles, and an unexpected satellite dish.
Two sculptures by Dumile Feni – Untitled and Labourer– are situated facing each other. A legend of the South African art world known primarily for his drawings, Feni’s sculptures hold a kind of proportional cohesion that can only be achieved in three dimensions. Dyson’s Anthony Burns (In Plane Site: Fugitive) forms an appropriate backdrop to these two figures, which otherwise may have been lost in the expanse of the space.
A group of figures stand around an ambiguous scene in Cosmo Whyte’s technically dexterous Untitled. In this ominous plane, foliage is illuminated in white, and foot-print like forms in gold leaf sit atop the expanse of charcoal. Whyte’s Untitled is well-positioned next to Wedding (2013) by Raél Jero Salley, a sombre portrait of three figures, two in western clothing, the third in traditional dress. Salley’s central figure’s white veil and parasol are effective complements to Whyte’s palette, and both share an atmosphere of uneasy anticipation.
While the political and social relationships between South Africa and the United States is well-studied terrain, its relevance begs further unpacking in this context. As two countries with legacies of institutionalised racism and a history of slavery, the links are obvious, but nonetheless complex. Further, the exhibition’s presence in Bo-Kaap, long acknowledged as one of the havens for freed slaves in the city, offers more opportunity to develop points of cross reference.
Although their absence is understood, one couldn’t help but miss Jackson’s own photographs. Considering the impetus of the exhibition centered on the fabled Sojourner Truth, it is surprising and disconcerting that more women were not included in ‘Selling the Shadow.’ Apart from Opoku and a photograph by Mary Sibande, the self-exploration of the femme was noticeably absent, where a number of American, South African and African artists come to mind, though this was counterbalanced somewhat by LaFleur’s video section.
Still, Jackson’s curation offers gallery visitors a view into the vast realm of cultural production that seeks to uncover and make links with the past, through the means of the present. Truth’s evocative image and accompanying text (‘I sell the image to support the substance’) speak to an acute self-awareness, and further, self-actualisation that extend beyond their own moment in time. Each working with the legacy of the black image, the contributing artists possess an equally self-aware understanding of history, both dominant and marginal. The first in a two-part project, one hopes ‘Selling the Shadow’ will continue to evolve. As a historical record, Truth’s carte-de-visite generates countless valuable conversations.
This piece has been edited to include mention of the video section curated by Ingrid LaFleur. This section included works by Jessica Wimbley, Endia Beal, Lauren Kelley, Simone Leigh, Michèle Magema, Jefferson Pinder, Amir George, Derrick Adams and Tabita Rezaire.