Read my interview for the Feminist Art Conference Residency I will be participating in from May 12-26th. See full post here.
Sarah Stefana Smith (b. 1982) is an artist-scholar based between Washington D.C. and State College, PA in the United States. Smith’s photo-based practice is a recursive exploration of blackness, memory, and genealogy. She creates photographs, collages, and photo-weavings that are informed by an interest in conceptual art, embodiment, and narrative in feminist and black art traditions. Her art-scholarship communicates between the fields of black art and culture, queer and affect, visuality and aesthetics.
Feminist artists often deliberately use found objects or materials that are not traditionally from the canon of history. In one of your projects Hauntings and Other Inclinations you used pigeon mesh. Can you explain to our readers why you chose this material and what it represents symbolically for you and your work?
Let me begin with an antidotal story.
The pigeon mesh (bird netting) came directly from the experience of needing a material to keep birds from congregating on my balcony. At the time, I was living in Toronto, at the corner of Gerard/Dundas on River street, in one of the high-rises. I think I paid something like $800 for a one bedroom apartment. Between the four years, I lived in the East End of Toronto, in various iterations, that apartment I last lived in, was cosmetically renovated and offered at the starting price of $1250 a month. A new aquatic and recreational center was erected, several high-rise buildings that provided various income housing were demolished, and replaced with mixed-economic status condos. The Freshmarket was introduced and several single family and three floor apartment complexes were targeted for demolition. The landscape of the East End, like much of the city, continued to change (e.g. St. Jamestown, Cabbagetown, Regent Park, Riverdale, Leslieville), in ways, that my brief time in Toronto, only begins to gesture towards.
The radical traditions of feminist and black intellectual thought, remind us that land/place/ geography changes alongside the people that inhabit the space and always bears the mark of relation and antagonism. The symbolic meaning behind the bird netting and my own orientation to living, is not lost on me. The practice of managing a space, to minimize congregating birds, reflects the very systems of exclusion and violence that makes a nation-state and anti-blackness possible. Bird netting is used to keep pigeons and flying creatures from congregating on balconies. Symbolically this material is used to obstruct something from coming in. Yet the netting, as a central infrastructure, gives the illusion of free movement and airflow particularly as the material is both visible and invisible, depending on where you are situated. What does it mean, then, to think about an illusion, a spatial and geographical illusion and the traces of story, investments in memory, in imagined community that holds the space for both violence and creation? This relationship between contamination, exclusion, imagined, and antagonistic relation, is what I think is capture in such a simple material; what materials outside the cannon of history provide is a gift to the discourses on the very nature of art itself.
Using mesh in Hauntings and Other Inclinations (it has also become an integral part of how I approach photographs as three-dimensional) invites this dialogue on exclusion and inclusion. The boundaries of species. The boundary of the human.
In many ways, I was problem solving. I was going through a moment in my work where I hated picking up a camera and taking photographs, I just was not inspired. I also knew that I did not want to photograph black people to make a statement about blackness, something that I write about through other artist’s work and what I imagine is the various entry points into discourses about blackness. I wanted to think about blackness more obtusely. I wanted to figure out how to make a flat document, more dynamic and sculptural. The bird netting, quite literally addressed that need. In short, bird netting, takes on a lot of varying orientations across the breadth of my work. I wear the mesh, I wear the weavings. I make two-dimensional photographs, sculptural and wearable; and I always think about the nature of blackness and the boundary of the human in it all.
In your series Remixed of the Color Purple there is a visual juxtaposition between the movement and stillness. What does this speak to?
The story of Remix of the Color Purple begins with two trips, one to Provincetown, Massachusetts and another to the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Writer, Alice Walker, in, The Color Purple, in an often-cited passage, notes, how one cannot walk past a field of purple, without stopping to appreciate its beauty. I was thinking about the relationship between godliness and spirituality, beauty and the sublime, through the juxtaposition of Provincetown, a community of LGBTA+ people and Philadelphia’s festival of African and Afro-Caribbean spiritualties that present a mash-up of Yoruba, Santeria, and Catholicism, that rely on some similar figures. Beauty and the sublime, is used as the philosophical standpoint on the nature of existence, the nature of aesthetics. I was also reading a lot of fiction that considered practices of magical realism and allegory, through Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, Paulo Coelho The Alchemist and what has been understood as a continuation of Alice Walker’s Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar. This cross pollination between what is real and fantasy, what is remembered, what is recalled and conjured translated in a set of photomontages that use place, stillness, and movement.
Because I understand myself as a photo-based artist, the genealogy of the medium and its practice, is mediated through the logics of time, which has everything to do with a relationship between fantasy and the real. Of course, photographers break apart the nature of these techniques in their own practice. Which tells us a lot about futurity and what future making looks like for subjects that do not immediately adhere to the parameters of linear progress time (e.g. blackqueers). So, Remixed is a mediation on futurity. Though in 2009 I do not know, how succinct this line of inquiry was in the production of the work.
I am getting to movement and stillness, so bear with me…
Recently a mentor of mine, suggested that I might think of my visual work as a continual call and response or dialogue with the artists whom my scholarly writing engages with. I have recently been thinking about motion, stillness and movement and this relationship to time and Ayana V. Jackson’s photographic work, To Kill or Allow to Live (2016) series and Wild as the Wind (2016) have been my mode of meditation. What is so compelling to me about Jackson’s work, is this visualization of movement in a two-dimensional photograph, that makes stillness, a kind of motion that lifts off the image, itself. So, if we return to Remixed, a defining thread, is the constant movement of the dancer, through geographical locations that are never clearly marked. At times, as a viewer, we might be held in space, while at other times, only a glimpse of the fabric of the dancer’s clothing mark movement. What is magical about photography and motion, and the visual as communicative text, is that through interpretation, the image itself exceeds language. This relationship to time and place, motion and stillness, exceed the linear.
In your series Dreadhead the view of the subject’s faces are obstructed. Why have you chosen to eliminate the identity of the subject in your work and what does this represent symbolically?
Dreadhead represents a continued interest in themes of anonymity and the limits of representation as it relates to blackness. As I mention previously, there is a circular conversation I have with the artists I write about (e.g. Ayana Jackson, Mickalene Thomas, Deana Lawson, and Zanele Muholi); many of which often use the body in their work and my own fascination with objects as extensions of bodily comportment without the body present. These object studies also, mark my own perplexity with markers of difference (e.g. such as race, gender, ability etc) that locates imagined and pre-figured collectivities in and through the body. A return to the body, or a subject that is not an inanimate object, still, is another entry point into this trilogy of preoccupation, the body, representation/vision, and blackness. In many ways, this work is indebted to Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson’s oeuvre. Particularly where their work has figured black feminine subjectivities central to a discussion on historicity and blackness. Whereby Weems’s trilogy of work, juxtaposes the body in such locations, as Louisiana and Hampton, in Simpson’s work, we see a relationship between text and the presentation of the work with related objects and at times in installation form (see for example, Five Rooms 1991).
In Dreadhead, the subjects “identity” has not entirely been eliminated because as viewers we can draw some conclusions about the racial identification of the subject based on skin and hair texture. The racial marker, then precedes the individual’s constellation of subjectivity, by relying on all the things that signify blackness. However, without a returned gaze, viewers must also do some of the work to imagine, who this subject is and what relations can be drawn by the surrounds and objects present in the photograph. The images for me, then, holds in suspension the tensions of race, representation, and anonymity. On the one hand, to figure as black, is never to experience a kind of anonymity, and on the other hand to be of all the world’s history.
Let me offer one more example, to make this connection. I have been on the job market, and have considered Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies departments as one space for potential employment. Recently, I got some feedback, from a well-meaning senior scholar, that read my work as black feminist scholarship and thus, a position filled in the department. In other words, my work is not novel enough in the context of a department that already has two or three other scholars doing “black feminist thought” (which we can read as black women). That within the context of hiring practices, justify another black studies scholar would be difficult. I want to note, my perplexity/ challenge in this, is not being named a black feminist scholar/ one that does black feminist scholarship. Rather, that my work is only made to be legible as such, and thus does not represent a wide breadth of work important to the very notion of Feminist and Sexuality studies. As if a black feminist/ or black feminist scholarship means your work does not encompass all of humanity (e.g. utopianism, war, genocide, affect, and so on and so forth). So, there are some ways that racial markers can never be abstractions, even in institutional practice. I have also been thinking a lot about what constitutes a black artist, or a black Canadian artist, and black American artist. This is a continual question in my art and production, and certainly not new. I think these questions are evoked in this notion of anonymity (or the obstruction of the face) in this work.