These paintings represent a modern study in dichotomy and perception from a historical context using portraiture as the interpretive engine.
I often use the image of the black woman in unaccustomed/atypical context; derived to create a visual tension between historical fact, misinformation and myth. The viewer is lured into the possible narrative of the depicted figure by her beauty, strength and grace; however immediately enters an intellectual menagerie where they are confounded by the disconnected visual clues. Is she slave or slaveholder? Is she captive or free, is she servant or served? Is she factual or fictional in a historical context? All of these questions and more provide basis for the individual viewers journey of allegorical interpretation.
The images are imbued with cultural and ethnic symbolism that provides insight into the historical context of the painting. Yet, the icons, combined with my personal visual vocabulary, may remain unseen or misread by the “unknowing” eye; the eye that never learned the historic bases for all the possibilities in the lives of these women. In a society that often make instant cultural judgements based on visual cues that are often stereotypical, but not always, I feel offering ethnic imagery that defies common visual library of the modern citizen may challenge each individuals biases and foregone conclusions of their own notions of what race represents in history and therefore in humanity.
The images beg the question: Is “Truth” self-evident? Who’s “Truth”? How does knowledge, experience and perception of one’s “self” determine what is evident? If the view of oneself is skewed is it possible to see another clearly?
What Really Happened in the Congo: Belgium’s ‘Heart of Darkness’
Leopold famously said when he was forced to hand over the Congo Free State to the Belgian nation: “I will give them my Congo but they have no right to know what I have done there,” and proceeded to burn archives.
Mangbetu women’s clothing, Medje village, Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo), 1970 - Photo by Eliot Elisofon
“The photograph depicts woman wearing traditional barkcloth ‘negbe’. The main item of women’s clothing was a rectangular barkcloth garment called ‘nogetwe’. Worn like a short skirt or sometimes like an apron, it was left open to reveal the ‘negbe’, or back apron. Women generally wore barkcloth when they were not at work and when strangers were present.” (Schildkrout E., Keim C., 1990: African Reflections, University of Washington Press)