Paul Mpagi Sepuya


Exhibition review by Taous R. Dahmani

A journey to Nottingham Contemporary prompts reflection on Tina M. Campt’s method of “writing to art” in Taous R. Dahmani’s review of Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Exposure. Dahmani writes to Sepuya’s introspective world, where intricate dialogues between mirrors, photography and identity unfold, challenging traditional spectatorship dynamics. Through a lens of queer and black representation, Sepuya’s work invites viewers to confront societal norms, embrace complexity, and navigate the fluid boundaries of self-presentation.

Taous R. Dahmani | Exhibition review | 14 May 2024

On a morning train to Nottingham, I decided to revisit a passage from Tina M. Campt’s A Black Gaze (2021). When the book came out, I had highlighted this sentence: ‘Seated cross-legged on the floor is my go-to position for writing to art.’ The statement struck a chord with me, prompting a personal vow to try Campt’s method. This visit seemed the perfect chance, but once there, I feared the invigilators might find it unconventional. Would I be allowed to sit on the floor of Nottingham Contemporary, ‘sliding down a wall and claiming the undervalued real estate of a gallery floor,’ as Campt wrote? The reason why I wanted to attempt that strategy in order to “write toPaul Mpagi Sepuya’s exhibition was because Campt claimed it ‘minimis[ed] you as a viewer and maximis[ed] the work itself,’ adding: ‘Looking up at [the artwork] both breaks up and breaks down some of the traditional dynamics of spectatorship and visual mastery. And when the subject of that art is Black folks, challenging the dynamics of spectatorship and visual mastery is an extremely important intervention.’

I first encountered Sepuya’s work in 2020 at his solo show in London’s Modern Art, where black figuration and constructed stills through layered acts of looking were key. Four years later, upon entering Exposure at Nottingham Contemporary, I was greeted by a camera on a tripod before a black curtain held by a disembodied brown hand and bulldog clips. Facing this first photograph, I noticed my reflection in the protective glass, positioning my head’s shadow where the operator would be. At that moment, I realised that directly facing Sepuya’s work, rather than ‘looking up’ at it, might be beneficial. This exhibition wasn’t the place for Campt’s method of claiming gallery floors; Sepuya’s large-scale pieces demand that we meet them eye-to-eye.

As I approached Mirror Study (_Q5A2059) (2016), I understood that I was looking at Sepuya’s camera – meaning a mirror must have been placed between the lens and me. This apparatus, and placement of the mirror, suggests the artist is more concerned with what surrounds his camera – objects, people, himself – than with the eventual viewers. The mirror acts as a barrier, its thin reflective metal layer atop glass designed to bounce light back, prompting rumination on the idea of reflection, the image created by light and about photography. In The Mirror and the Palette (2021), Jennifer Higgie elucidated that Johannes Gutenberg opened a mirror-making business in 1438, and within just six years, he pioneered the invention of the printing press. This progression connects the concept of reflection to the notion of infinite reproduction, which ultimately lays the groundwork for photographic theory. Indeed, the coexistence of photography and mirrors has become paradigmatic. In his seminal 1978 essay, which serves as the introduction to the catalogue for his exhibition Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960, John Szarkowski leveraged the metaphor of the mirror to explore the introspective and personal approaches photographers bring to their medium. Similarly, the mirror is an integral part of Sepuya’s artistic process, acting as a catalyst that facilitates layers of analysis of his surroundings. Since 2010, the artist has focused on the artist’s studio as a subject, employing a self-imposed limitation akin to the protocols of a conceptual artist. He describes this approach as a strategy to ‘limit the number of variables as the clearest way to pose a question.’

As I progressed to the next set of images, the initially elusive figure of the photographer gradually emerged. Sepuya skilfully navigates the frame, either concealing or unveiling fragments of his undressed body, and thus, his identity. He delicately reveals details of his anatomy, including the hairs on his neck and arms, and close-ups of his back and torso. Photograph after photograph, his progressive apparition transforms the studio into a stage. We are witnessing the documentation of a performance, a play with characters and, of course, a message. The photographs or the mirror – in Sepuya’s world they are in constant dialogue – predominantly depict self-portraits or portraits of close friends and lovers. Beyond mere self-recognition through self-representation, there is a definitive act of self-presentation; a celebration of the artist’s freedom and agency. The performed gestures subvert gender binaries and reclaim their fluidities, so much so that Sepuya quite literally blurs surfaces and thus boundaries. We observe the movement of bodies on a stage, enacting intimacy and at the same time rendering a political identity that is both queer and black. Sepuya’s photographs recall the words of Judith Butler, who noted in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993) that the performative aspect of gender enables subversive actions capable of challenging and destabilising conventional norms. By inviting his friends to act for the mirror-camera in his studio-stage, Sepuya creates an experimental sanctuary for the development of a queer visual language. Engaging with Sepuya’s photographs is not straightforward; they challenge us to interpret and decode, but, at the same time, the repeated frameworks facilitate a steady understanding of his visual strategy. If, indeed, the mirror is not just a reflection but a boundary, then viewers are mere welcomed spectators. The exhibition feels like an invitation to partake in the acknowledgment of too often marginalised queer black and brown individuals. Viewers are brought into their proximity, invited to stand alongside them, yet rightfully kept at bay.

Sepuya’s work draws from a rich history of queer imagery, from the kouros figures of Ancient Greece to Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Snap Shot (1987) and Caravaggio’s ephebes. These motifs have come to symbolise queer identity, thus raising the question: how can we interpret the revival of these motifs in today’s photographic production? As Sepuya bestowed, as an invitation to think complexly, ‘representation is not an agenda,’ and indeed his visual language strives for something more, something that revived, for me, José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999), Here, Muñoz discusses a process in which individuals tactically interact with societal norms to forge a self that critically diverges from mainstream culture. He emphasises behaviours and gestures as crucial to the identity formation of queers of colour, beginning his book with the statement: ‘There is a certain lure to the spectacle of one queer standing onstage alone, with or without props, bent on the project of opening up a world of queer language, lyricism, perceptions, dreams, visions, aesthetics and politics.” It leads one to question whether Muñoz is actually describing Sepuya’s own photographs some 20-odd-years before their creations.

The studio and its “inhabitants” are constants in Sepuya’s work, existing in a fluid space where time seems relative and ideas and iterations evolve and transform. In the second gallery, elements such as mobile mirror flats from the studio transition into exhibition structures showcasing his latest photographs. Unlike the first room where close examination was encouraged, here Sepuya invites viewers to navigate the photographs, guided by their spatial arrangement. He transforms the space by bridging the private theatricality of the studio with the shared communality of the gallery. Leaving the exhibition, and tucking away my copy with Campt’s book, I was reassured that sitting wasn’t necessary, as Sepuya himself ‘maximises’ his work. He shifts spectator dynamics, elevating and redefining engagement by challenging traditional approaches. On the train back to London, I was left with the feeling that visitors ought to stand in the gallery, embracing homoerotic pleasure, whilst also striving to become accustomed to nuanced discomfort and grappling with complex ideas about image-making. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann Zurich/Paris © Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Exposure ran at Nottingham Contemporary until 5 May 2024.

Taous R. Dahmani is a London-based French, British and Algerian art historian, writer and curator. Her expertise centres around the intricate relationship between photography and politics, a theme that permeates her various projects. Since 2019, she has been the editorial director of 
The Eyes, an annual publication that explores the links between photography and societal issues. She is an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Dahmani’s curatorial work was showcased at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France, where she curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2022). Dahmani is set to curate two exhibitions at Jaou Tunis, Tunisia (2024).


1-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Twilight Studio (0X5A4176), 2022.

2-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Model Study (0X5A7126), 2021.

3-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Daylight Studio Camera Lesson (0X5A2613), 2022.

4-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Pedestal (0X5A8997), 2022.

5-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Studio Mirror (_DSF6207), 2023.

Rahim Fortune


Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

In his new book, Hardtack, Rahim Fortune compiles nearly a decade of work, blending documentary with personal history within the context of post-emancipation America. Through coming-of-age portraits that traverse survivalism and land migration, Fortune illustrates African American and Chickasaw Nation communities. As Taous R. Dahmani observes, the iconography of the American South is drawn between Fortune’s Hardtack and Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, released only a few days after — both of which raise questions that serve to redefine ‘Americana’. 

Taous R. Dahmani | Book review | 17 Apr 2024

At the end of March, something very odd happened: Loose Joints dropped Rahim Fortune’s second photobook Hardtack, and, a few days later, Beyoncé released her eighth album Cowboy Carter. I can almost hear you – yes, you, reader – wondering, what’s the connection? Well, there are several. Firstly, it serves as the perfect soundtrack to look at Fortune’s photographs. As if sound was taking form. Beyoncé’s extensive 27-track list echoes Fortune’s 72 photographs; her lyrics resonating with his visual language. Both artists delve into the iconography and sound of cowboys, churches, southern mothers and daughters, rodeo, sashes and Fortune even closes his book with a “Queen Coronation”. Besides this serendipitous overlap, both artists also actively reclaim, redefine and adjust the notion of “Americana”. Wrapped in a denim-like cover, Hardtack speaks of a specific geography and moment: Texas today, the USA in the 2020s.

Beyond the anecdote of their shared Texas origins, both explore the history of the American South – one through music, the other through photography – connecting its past with its present. 2024 is a pivotal election year, with the southern states bearing a significant responsibility in shaping the country’s future (and, arguably, the world’s). Therefore, there is an urgent need to disseminate an alternative understanding or narrative of what the US might be. After all, the title of Fortune’s book, Hardtack, refers to an emergency survival food, made from flour, water and salt, signalling that we are in the midst of a critical juncture. At a time when states are banning books to erase chapters of US history, Hardtack feels like a welcomed defiance.

In her proudly made-in-America “country” album, Beyoncé embraces the soundscape of the southern states and her Black musical heritage, blending blues, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel. Similarly, an incredible living encyclopaedia of American photography, Fortune quotes – or samples – his ancestors, from Walker Evans’s depictions of southern architecture to Roy DeCarava’s intimate portraits of Black life. Just as Beyoncé pays homage to Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female artist in country music, Fortune channels the social documentary style of Milton Rogovin, his portrayal of African-American communities akin to Earlie Hudnall Jr, and mirrors the political consciousness embodied by Consuelo Kanaga. Furthermore, Fortune examines Arthur Rothstein’s documentation of African-American families in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, originally captured for the Farm Security Administration and later featured in Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941). With Hardtack, Fortune engages in a self-conscious dialogue with photography’s history.

The parallel between music and photography transcends mere coincidence; its potency lies in their shared democratic practice and dissemination, but it also resonates with what Tina M. Campt described in A Black Gaze (2021) as a ‘broader commitment to understanding visual culture through its entanglement with sound, and highlighting the centrality of sonic and visual frequency to the work of Black contemporary artists.’ Already, in 2017, Campt beckoned us to listen to images, and more recently, she revisited the idea employing the concept of frequency to challenge ‘how we see’, adding that ‘the physical and emotional labour required to see these images gives us profound insights into the everyday experiences of Black folks as racialised subjects.’ Listening to Fortune’s Hardtack is to pick up on various stories and histories such as the legacy of Gee’s Bend quilts, crafted by descendants of enslaved individuals who toiled on cotton plantations. These local women united to establish the Freedom Quilting Bee, a worker’s cooperative that enabled crucial economic opportunities and offered political empowerment. As Imani Perry eloquently states in the book’s concluding essay: ‘What we know as Black Texas was birthed through captivity. This land has been a bounty; and also a burden.’ Fortune captures the architecture of past power and oppression – the grand plantation houses alongside the slaves’ huts –and the remnants of this legacy, showcasing what barely survives in the wake of US history. Beyoncé’ sings in “YA YA” (2024): “My family lived and died in America, hm / Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh / History can’t be erased, oh-oh / Are you lookin’ for a new America? (America).” In “Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida” (2020), Fortune kneels down to capture the sunlight beaming on the old train tracks, which bear witness to the 1928 Rosewood massacre during the era of Jim Crow laws. In “AMEN” (2024), Beyoncé’s reminds her listener: “This house was built with blood and bone / And it crumbled, yes, it crumbled.

On the following page, Fortune presents a captivating portrait of his partner, Miranda, underscoring that his documentation of the American South is as personal as it is political. With roots in both the African-American and Chickasaw Nation communities, Fortune traverses rural towns that are close to his heart, pausing to engage in conversations with friends. Fortune embraces the formal conventions of documentary traditions whilst ushering us into novel sensations and uncharted emotional territories. Opening the book, we can almost grasp the wind, and, as we delve deeper, we feel the humidity of the Mississippi enveloping us, the scorching sun on the road casting its light upon each image. His photographs record what stands proud, what is forced to break, what disappeared but can still be traced. In Fortune’s photographs, people are praying, watching, playing, waiting, celebrating, caring and driving; leading an unremarkable life because ‘attending to the infraordinary and the quotidian reveals why the trivial, the mundane, or the banal are in fact essential to the lives of the dispossessed and the possibility of black futurity.”’ Texas also serves as the backdrop for Fortune’s personal grief – as depicted in his first book I can’t stand to see you Cry (2021) – and serves as a place where remembrance holds paramount importance, as evidenced by the tattooed dates of key life moments on his friend’s skin. Fortune’s Hardtack is a poignant tribute, both a requiem for those lost and a homage to those whose actions altered the course of history. Yet, it is also a celebration, capturing the essence of joy found in everyday moments and special occasions alike. It is this unique and delicate coexistence of remembrance and revelry that imbues Hardtack with its profound resonance, showcasing the depth of Fortune’s artistic maturity.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints. © Rahim Fortune

Hardtack is published by Loose Joints.

Taous R. Dahmani is a London-based French, British and Algerian art historian, writer and curator. Her expertise centres around the intricate relationship between photography and politics, a theme that permeates her various projects. Since 2019, she has been the editorial director of
The Eyes, an annual publication that explores the links between photography and societal issues. She is an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Dahmani’s curatorial work was showcased at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France, where she curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2022). Dahmani is set to curate two exhibitions at Jaou Tunis, Tunisia (2024).


1-Rahim Fortune, Windmill House, Hutto, Texas, 2022.

2-Rahim Fortune, Praise Dancers, Edna, Texas, 2022.

3-Rahim Fortune, Willies Chapel, Austin, Texas, 2021.

4-Rahim Fortune, Hardware, Granger, Texas, 2018.

5-Rahim Fortune, Highway I-244 (Greenwood), Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2021.

6-Rahim Fortune, Gas Pump, Selma, Alabama, 2023.

7-Rahim Fortune, Deonte, New Sweden, Texas, 2022.

8-Rahim Fortune, Ace (Miss Juneteenth), Galveston, Texas, 2022.

9-Rahim Fortune, Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida, 2020.

10-Rahim Fortune, Tinnie Pettway, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 2023.

11-Rahim Fortune, VHS Television, Dallas, Texas, 2021.

12-Rahim Fortune, Abandoned Church, Otter Creek, Florida, 2020.

Taysir Batniji


Book review by Elisa Medde

Disruptions, a new book from Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji published by Loose Joints, collates two years of glitched video calls with his family in Gaza while living in Paris. In solidarity with the struggles of the Palestinian people during the latest act of devastating destruction and erasure by the state of Israel, all proceeds will go towards the NGO Medical Aid Palestine providing critical medical care and support on the ground. Elisa Medde considers this evocation of the emotional and physical separation that occurs across borders.

Elisa Medde | Book review | 5 Feb 2024

The lives and paths of images are often elusive. We perhaps should approach them suspiciously, certainly with hesitation, wary of what they could be carrying: power, meaning, even truth of their own. Evidence. The understanding that they actually contain none of these in themselves, but rather tend to reflect, expose and manifest the contexts, meanings and evidences that we build and consign into and about them is sometimes liberating, sometimes confusing and most regularly confronting. Confronting is an apt word: it implies reflection, which is something images are very good at. They reflect well, and they reflect back.

Between 2015 and 2017, Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji assembled a series of images titled Disruptions. Forced in a condition of displacement because of the difficulties in travelling to besieged Gaza from his Parisian residency, Batniji maintained contact with his mother and other family members via video calls on WhatsApp, which were constantly disrupted and interrupted by poor and shaky line connections. Network issues would destructure and dismantle faces, streets and rooms into clusters of pixels, blurred lines or solid blocks of colour. Initially interested in the formal phenomenon, Batniji started taking screenshots on his mobile device. Curious about these glitchy, seemingly random effects, he transformed them into an archive, noting their dates and ordering them as an inventory.

Being displaced, being exiled, being far away means, first and foremost, being absent. This condition carries a shift in time, in how the flow of life is experienced. One’s life is split in two, between the lived space, which flows through the present tense, and the other, distant space, which flows through the narrated tense. Life happening in the latter is mediated by accounts and recounts, filtered by phones, letters and screens. It depends on a means of communication, and is deferred from real time, compressed into clusters of time and forced into synthesis, fragmented in interrupted flows. In Batniji’s long-distance relations, one end lives a life in waiting, split between two conditions while the other lies in an occupied and besieged land in which communication infrastructure is itself subjugated to dynamics of power, apartheid and retaliation. The mere existence of such infrastructure is just one of the fragilities excruciatingly trying to keep together life itself in spite of all, in spite of the constant attempt to erase it altogether. The very idea of real time communication feels like an impossible privilege, with the present tense constantly postponed and prevented.  

Disruption became a series of 86 screenshots, taken between 24 April 2015 and 23 June 2017. In 2019, it was exhibited at MAC/VAL in Vitry-sur-Seine in the group exhibition Lifelines – an Exhibition of Legends, which proposed reflections on identities and their processes of construction and legitimation. Installed as a chronology-based grid of 16 x 24 cm ink-jet prints, their impact was described by curator Frank Lamy: ‘A possible connection is established between the disturbed conversation and the violent events taking place simultaneously in Gaza. The artist thus delivers a part of this common intimacy that stretches between two territories.’

The series has now been published in photobook form by Loose Joints, representing an act of solidarity with the struggle of Palestinian people during the latest act of devastating destruction and erasure by the state of Israel, which has produced, at the moment of writing, about 26,700 Palestinian victims, of whom an estimated 40% are children. Approximately 70% of homes in Gaza have been demolished, and its complete education and health system has been wiped out. The surviving population in Gaza remains with no access to basic survival level of food, water, electricity, health care or shelter, all while the silence and connivence of larger part of the international community threatens the very existence of human rights, and of the agencies and systems created for its protection and guarantee. Batniji’s family itself, as we learn from the book dedication, has been decimated by Israeli bombings, together with all who sought refuge in their family home in the Al-Shijaya neighbourhood of Gaza. All proceeds from the book will go towards the NGO Medical Aid Palestine, which provides medical care and support on the ground.

Batniji is an artist who has kneaded his own story with the histories of his motherland, Palestine, constantly shifting back and forth between private and public, pointing his sharp eye towards the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of dominance, control and survival in the face of colonial violence. His work ultimately revolves around consequences: he detaches himself from the narration of events to look at the effects they produce and force – on bodies, souls, landscapes, memories, connections and communications. His whole artistic production functions as an inventory of traces, a testament to the irreversibility of events and their remains. The dates, stretches of time and recurrences become crucial elements of a life and an artistic production that also takes the shape of a ‘chronology of displacement’, as writer Taous R. Dahmani powerfully describes in her essay, included in the book in English, French and Arabic.

The book sequences the images chronologically, with the dates setting the pace of the narration into sections. The almost unreadable photographs initially confuse and frustrate the viewer into searching for visual anchors and understanding, forcing one to slow down, to go back and forth. The sequence powerfully transmits a growing, helpless tension, with the pace of looking increasing as the pages turn, compelling the eye to almost frantically search for something that is not there – anymore.

These images inevitably resonate differently today than they did in 2019. Whilst war and destruction and disruption were always the backdrop and the filter through which we experience them, they assume a different weight, a different meaning, a different evidence in early 2024. Our visual context has changed: we now see them after having spent the past four months helplessly watching the sheer horror live streaming from Gaza, witnessing the real time destruction of an entire city: houses, bodies, cars, trees, animals, streets and children. Looking at Disruptions today even more powerfully recalls what is behind these interrupted conversations: these glitched images scream shattered buildings, torn bodies, disintegrated lives, missed last goodbyes. They are images of war. To quote Dahmani: ‘Digital tension grips his attention – a screenshot would have been a mere portrait a few minutes earlier. Glitches are errors, defects that shatter the quality of an image. The pixelated screenshots engage our mental images of what war does: images of destruction, the ruins left by combat zones, the elimination of persons, and disappeared loved ones.’

The images in this necessary, urgent book leave their latent imprint in our brains and keep haunting us, as probably Gaza will. Their abstract nature feels like the only way to fathom the unspeakable, to make sense of the unbearable. They arrest us, confront us and reflect on us our responsibility in all of this – the passive spectatorship we all will have to reckon with. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints © Taysir Batniji

Disruptions is published by Loose Joints.

Elisa Medde is a photography editor, curator and writer. She has a background in Art History, Iconology and Photographic Studies, and currently serves as a lecturer for the Photography MA at ECAL, Lausanne, Switzerland. Medde has nominated for prizes and chaired juries, including the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award, Prix Elysée and MAST Photography Grant on Industry and Work, and her writing has appeared in FlashArt, PhotoEye, Time Magazine, Foam Magazine, Something We Africans Got, Vogue Italia / L’Uomo Vogue, YET Magazine, the Aperture PhotoBook Review and artists’ books. Between 2012–23, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Foam Magazine, twice the recipient of a Lucie Award for Best Photography Magazine. She is the recipient of the Royal Photographic Society Award for Photography Publishing 2023.

Ming Smith

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani contemplates the ways in which Ming Smith’s self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – constitute a practice of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world.

Several years ago, in the hope of discovering early photographs by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, I opened, for the first time, the pages of The Black Photographers Annual (1973). While Moutoussamy-Ashe’s work does not appear in the first volume – but only from the second – starting my reading with the first issue meant I came across the name of Ming Smith and what was apparently her very first publication. Launched in 1973, on the initiative of the Kamoinge Workshop, the periodical operated as a unique space for African-American photographers to determine independently both the content and conditions of publication and give them control over words and images: something that had been denied to the vast majority of them up until then. In her Aperture monograph (2020), Smith – who was the first female member of the collective – recalled: “this group of Black male photographers wanted to take control of their own images – their humanity.” The empowering agency necessary for the implementation of such an editorial project is an effective way for photographers to come into existence as authors of their images. In the introduction to the first volume, Clayton Riley suggested that The Black Photographers Annual enabled an “awareness of self”. At the time, I understood this phrase in line with consciousness-raising practices in the broader political context of 1970s America and its possible links with the affirmation of the African-American photographers’ “photographic identity”.

Of the forty-nine photographers published in The Black Photographers Annual, I remember being struck by Smith’s portfolio. More specifically, the second photograph piqued my interest when I realised that the silhouette in the lower left corner could be the reflection of the photographer holding her camera with both hands. Through a game of reflections, that can sometimes make us lose our spatial cues, the figure of – what I still hope is – Smith comes into being. The relationship between the photographic process and that of the construction of an identity was asserted by Smith as early as 1973 as quoted in her bio from The Black Photographers Annual: “My photographs attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.” A passage Smith would take throughout her career, making her self-portraits some of the most interesting aspects of her work. Seeing herself, beyond imposed images.

As Neelika Jayawardane wrote: “When Smith picks up her camera and photographs the intimacy of her face and body in a multitude of situations and places, it is a response to her own beautiful aliveness, her situatedness within a moving world.” Framing herself at the bottom of the picture is something she would do again in the 1989 self-portrait with her Canon camera, where, against the backdrop of a floral wallpaper, she contorts her torso in order to aim at a mirror, the reflected image revealing the upper part of her face, the skin of her back and her hand, once again, holding her camera. This image ought to be considered in line with the long and popular tradition of women photographers’ self-portraits-with-their-cameras, as exemplified by one of Smith’s friends and influences, Lisette Model – from the 1955 half-naked bathroom picture to the 1982 Paris hotel room photograph.

In one of the interviews published in her monograph, Smith stated: “being a photographer was a journey that was about my conversation with my camera.” Smith’s photographic practice is undoubtedly marked by experimentation, offering several departures and different arrivals around her identity as a photographer, a woman, an African-American, a dancer, a music-lover, etc. – an idea echoed by Trinh T. Minh-ha in When the Moon Waxes Red (1991): “Since identity can very well speak its plurality without suppressing its singularity, heterologies of knowledge give all practices of the self a festively vertiginous dimension.” Time and time again, Smith dared to turn her lens towards herself because of the urgency of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world. For being the first African-American female photographer to be collected by MoMA did not, according to her, make much of a difference in her life, and certainly did not interrupt the process of her own recognition and self-affirmation as a photographer.

As a model, dancer and jazz-enthusiast, performativity played a central role in Smith’s self-portraits, as exemplified in Me as Marilyn (1991) or Self-Portrait as Josephine (1986), the latter serving as a clear homage to Josephine Baker but perhaps also to Katherine Dunham, whose “Technique” Smith learnt when she arrived in New York from Ohio. In his book In the Break (2003), Fred Moten pointed out that “black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus – invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation.” A quality we can also easily find in Smith’s 1990s Ellen Gallagher-esque collage of a 1972 self-portrait. The multitude of her self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – work as an emancipatory practice. Not published in the book, and yet essential in the construction of the self through the image, is her 1986 self-portrait as she is breast-feeding her son – an image taken ten years after Deborah Willis’ triptych, I Made Space for a Good Man (1975-76), entitled after a Philadelphia College of Art professor told then-art student Willis that “a good man could have been in [her] seat.” Performing maternity for their cameras states something about female photographic experiences, disobeying traditional considerations about the constructed image of The Photographer as male and White. As bell hooks wrote in Art on My Mind (1995): “to transgress we must return to the body.” We could also mention Diane Arbus’ 1945 self-portrait with her daughter, Doon, where, once again, the maternal body is at the centre of an experimentation with the photographic medium and still asserts desire and reflexivity.

I could write many more words on Smith’s self-portraits; I could also write about Smith’s photographic walks into the night, her spirituality, the blurs, the paint, the poetic titles, the light and the darkness, the phonic substance and the auratic nature of her photographs – and a lot of people have been very good at doing just that. But when reading the interviews Smith gave about her practice, I am struck by the lexicon of sensuality used by the photographer to describe her relationship to image-making. The inexpressible in the expressed. Smith often states that she “follow[s] [her] impulses”, or that photographic discovery is “a turn-on for [her]”. Yxta Maya Murray even wrote that “she picked up her Canon and held it to her face as if it were a lover.”

So I wonder, should we not start considering Smith through the prism of the erotic? Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation (1966) and Trinh (1991) argued for “an erotics of art”; Moten too, speaking of Duke Ellington’s music (2003), spoke of an “erotics of the cut”. As such, should we not consider an erotics of Smith’s practice? After all, the cover of Smith’s monograph is her photograph entitled Male Nude, New York (1977). But what inspires me the most to make this point is Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, published in Sister Outsider (1984). For the African-American writer, poet, feminist and civil rights activist, the erotic needs to be understood as a creative power: “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.” And she added: “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Perhaps all that is left here for me is to invite you to have a look at Smith’s monograph, as an introduction to her work and an invitation to read between the lines, with Lorde’s words in mind.♦

Images courtesy the artist and Aperture © Ming Smith

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, PhD researcher and critic, working between Paris and London. She is interested in the links between photography and politics. She regularly gives talks at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Paris Photo and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial board of MAI:Visual Culture and Feminism and co-editor of The Eyes magazine.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

One Wall a Web

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

The photograph on the cover of One Wall a Web is a close up of a brick wall. If it seems to block access, as an attempt to establish a border, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s book quickly turns out to be an invitation to deconstruct, brick by brick. He invites us to observe the physical and mental dismantling of racial and gendered violence as it is expressed and experienced in United States society today. Driven by the author’s impulse to tear down this wall so that, once the book is finished and closed, we find ourselves facing two abandoned bricks. Taking the metaphoric nature of these bricks as a point of departure, we might explore the forms of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s discourse through the prism of the poetics and politics of a renewed and contemporary western tradition of scrapbooking.

At first glance unsettling as a result of the multiplicity of narrative strata, leafing through One Wall a Web makes it possible to understand that the story is told both through the photographic image and by the text. Though designed in collaboration with graphic designer Roger Willems, the reader is clearly invited into Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s thoughts and state of mind. Professor in the English department of New Jersey City University and historian of the scrapbook, Ellen Gruber Garvey wrote in her 2015 article Homemade Archives: ‘Each scrapbook is a window into the life and thoughts of its maker — and into his or her reading habits.’ Reflections, judgments, positions, observations, speculations and imagination form a complex stream of consciousness. The narrative is constructed using associative jumps and analogies. Various chapters punctuate the work but do not break the flow of reverberations and resonances. Such a juxtaposition of sequences of images and texts recalls the rhythm of the films by American film maker Arthur Jafa and in particular his video APEX.

As such, Wolukau-Wanambwa orchestrates an erudite back and forth between quotes from the fascist website, excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s poems Howl and America, quotations from a Donald Trump interview published in The New York Times and stanzas from Breaking Open and The Speed of Darkness by poet Muriel Rukeyser. These authors, alongside the original and appropriated photographs, are mobilised by the photographer as a network of collaborators and evoke the Rhizome theory as developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (1980), 1987. Texts and images being put on the same level, the work then becomes an evolutionary device that can extend in all directions. Arborescent thinking is opposed to the line of subordination, rooted and taking form, in this case, in the history of structural racism and sexism in the United States. Polymorphic, the rhizome is thus sometimes chaotic, not in its negative sense, but for its capacity of interconnectedness, as Édouard Glissant had it. Linearity and continuum are discarded in favor of fragmentary power.

Successor to commonplace books, popular during Early Modern Europe, where authors could compile their knowledge, usually by writing information in existing books, the scrapbook is a method of textual and visual conservation, presentation and classification that usually offers a meeting point between history and personal narrative. In One Wall a Web, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa plays around with the possible interweaving between history and current events, in particular by linking his own photographs taken in recent years in Virginia, Alabama, New Jersey and New York, and appropriated archival negatives collected online, printed as positive and displayed as equals to his own images. The range of references used by the photographer-author shows his acute awareness of how history is written and told; regularly shaped by popular culture, journalists, experts, politicians and of course the Internet.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s publication aligns with Pero Gaglo Dagbovie’s statement in Reclaiming the Black Past: ‘Black history is a vital part of contemporary black culture.’ Once he had arrived in the United States, British-born Wolukau-Wanambwa lived and observed the brutality of a society against the black body and inherited the deep scar that is the violent history of African-Americans. Free, radical and sometimes brutal, the verdict proposed by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is irrevocable.

Mobilising the tradition of scrapbooks has allowed me to include the photographer in North American storytelling dating back to the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance. Many pioneering figures must be mentioned: L.S. Alexander Gumby, a queer African-American man, who kept scrapbooks on a wide range of subjects, focusing on black history and black-run newspapers whose critical muscle against the white press is groundbreaking. In his close circle, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of African and German descent, also made scrapbooks which would become, among other things, the basis for the collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Another seminal person, Frederick Douglass, known to be the most photographed American man of the 19th century, also kept scrapbooks in order to create a corrective image of race representation. If today this practice seems extremely gendered and depoliticised, for the African-American community, and for these three men, scrapbooks were spaces of the expression of their liberties and their opinions, notably made with cut out newspaper photographs or family albums. Scrapbooks then became volumes that told stories, allowed sharing knowledge widely and as such became a kind of handcrafted archive, validating Jacques Derrida’s statement: ‘There is no political power without the control of the archive.’

Whether in history, or in contemporary proposals, such as that of Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s or Clarissa Sligh’s photobook entitled It Wasn’t Little Rock, the meaning of the scrapbook, its poetic range and its political force is thus, in the act of montage and juxtaposition. The cut-up technique, developed by dada artists, and popularised by William S. Burroughs, is based on the idea of making a text from fragments of all kinds. This technique was also used by Burroughs in his scrapbooks, which were visual and textual collages, and tools for prefiguring new ideas for future work. If for Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Roger Willems the scrapbook was not a direct source of inspiration for the design of the book, Wolukau-Wanambwa has confided to me the fact that he had been keeping red-fabric scrapbooks for many years. Definitively not a work in progress but a finished object, One Wall a Web, by the combination of his own texts, borrowed words and phrases, his photographs and found images is Wolukau-Wanambwa’s way of recomposing American and African-American history.

All images courtesy the artist and Roma Publications. © Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.