Stevenson, Cape Town
08.06 – 15.07.2017
There are a few black twitter hashtags that I absolutely cannot stand. #blackexcellence is one of those, because of its strong subscription to western notions of success, which is of severe detriment to the majority of black people who do not have access to a moneyed, ‘intellectual’ trajectory of so-called excellence. There is no reason not to celebrate the academic or career success of black people but if we are seeking new strategies of existence that in fact require us only to exist in order to be excellent, then celebrating black excellence as an anomaly misses the point, and poses the danger of self-erasure through the affirmation of colonial values.
Because of the extremity of marginalised oppression, many are left living in a kind of parallel existence of subjugation, a state of perpetually re-enacted exclusion that forms our understanding of the world. Frank Wilderson describes black existence as fundamentally characterised by a negation of humanity, which he argues is synonymous with whiteness. His structural conception of humanity versus in-humanity (whiteness versus blackness to his mind), uses the idea that normative humans may move through the world in the way it was created for navigation, whereas those departing from this norm, must navigate it in un-prescribed, perpetually wrong, and always vulnerable ways. Using this conception of oppressed existence as occupying an ‘upside down’, we can recognise the infinite complexity and creativity involved in sustaining existence, and more than that, finding ways to produce things, despite living inside negation.
Jody Brand’s photography materialises this abstract conception of blackness through her fundamental concern with beauty. Rather than adding to a canon of femme beauty portraiture, her photographs set the record straight through destabilising and ultimately dismissing western ‘beauty’ in her choice to depict the black femme body, which remains amongst the few identities not formed through oppression, abuse, and violence against an other. ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down’, an exhibition of five large-scale portraits of the artist’s friends, is not a portrayal of black beauty- it is an acknowledgement that the world is ugly, that standards of cis-genderedness, whiteness, heterosexuality and able-bodiedness are ugly in their violence against different ways of being, and that the only possible sites of imagination for something better lie within the bodies and minds of those who will never benefit from these oppressive measures of humanity. The images locate beauty in its historically sensible place; within the bodies of black femmes, those who, as Brand puts it in her print I was here, are being celebrated for the fact that everyday something has tried to kill [them] and has failed.
Brand’s photographic choices can be situated between intricate intention, and simultaneous commitment to the candid. Working as a photographer, stylist, and friend, the images are layered with the construction of narrative, combining intimate relationships with curated backdrops, and attention to the individual quirks of each subject with the perpetual unexpectedness of the photographic moment. Her use of flash – recalling Goldin’s portraiture – comes across as an unapologetic claim of space that mimics the power of the subjects’ sure gazes. This gaze betrays a relationship, a sense of the collaborative production process, and the undeniable presence of the artist as a permanent fixture within the images. The sense I have of what Brand does is to assert that the photographer should not attempt to create an artistic character that is alternative to their own existence in the world, for when we unpack an image or an object, we will always find its maker.
Brand’s work responds to our long list of camera-equipped white men, who consistently return to ‘portraying’ blackness and femininity – otherness – but only really have the effect of visualising their own unhealthy power positions. ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down’ gives not only honest and beautiful images of black femmes occupying space, but acts as a complex self-portraiture of the artist- a document detailing her present inter-personal (political) history. This approach articulates a response to the violent history, and continued violent potential of the photographic image. The photograph, a detritus of the colonial situation never foresaw its appropriation by its ‘other’. Brand’s intimate portraits turn the medium on its head, creating poetry from the trash-ness of the camera, surpassing the ‘de-’ of ‘decolonisation’ the ‘re-‘, of ‘re-imagining’, and abandoning the fundamentally harmful idea that excellence could possibly be divorced from the body of the black femme.
 ‘The Upside-Down’, is the parallel universe of Netflix series Stranger Things, which for me speaks quite profoundly to the way Wilderson describes oppression as occupying the space of negation. The upside-down exists parallel to, but also within the world. For those who have never been, it is impossible to describe.
 Michaelis taught me to never use this word.