Race and gender through the lens of Lorna Simpson

Growing up in Brooklyn, Lorna Simpson’s parents immersed her in the world of art from a young age by taking her to numerous plays, museums, and dance performances which inspired her in her journey to become an artist. As a teenager, she did a series of short art courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, which she says introduced her to photography and graphic design. Simpson is now best known for her photo-text installations, photo-collages, and films.

She received her Bachelor of Fine Art in Photography from the School of Visual Arts, New York. After graduation, Simpson travelled around Europe, Africa, and the United States where she further honed her photography skills. She then received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, San Diego. Simpson's works have been exhibited nationally and internationally in places including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis; and Haus der Kunst; Munich, amongst others.

She explores stereotypes of race and gender in society with her subjects frequently being African American women. Photography, video and collage are her main mediums, and she uses them to explore identity using her own experiences of being a black woman in America to inspire her work. Simpson’s imagery is collected from both original photographs and those she collects from eBay and flea markets. In addition to her photography, Simpson has also dabbled in drawings, video, and film where she explored the themes of desire and identity.

One of her most popular works is “Wigs”. This is a series which consists of images of wigs printed onto panels of soft, white felt, each representing a different hairstyle. With this works she explores how black women’s hair comes in various shapes and sizes and can be used to convey anything from attempting to conforming to society’s version of beauty, to embracing one’s natural beauty.

Black women are constantly made aware that society will always have something to say about the way they wear their hair. Whether they are seen as trying too hard to conform if they wear a straight wig or accidentally make a political statement when they wear their hair in its natural state, there seems to be no neutral way for black women to present their hair. This series of pictures is a great representation of how black women have worn their hair for years and the journey it takes to finally get to a place where they can love their hair for themselves in, whatever state we choose to wear it in, rather than trying to appease society’s gaze.

One of her more recent collages “To Control Fire”, depicts three black women, two of which are standing up doing the third one’s hair while she lays down. The standing two seem engrossed in conversation while the woman laying down is staring at the viewer, making us feel like we are intruding on an intimate moment. The upright pair seem to be dressed in a professional manner, so we can guess that they may be going to work or an event and are just sprucing up before heading out. The rain and puddle are an interesting of background, as it can be interpreted that the black women may be drowning in worry, or that the event they are about to go to is a sad one, but they are putting on a brave face and fixing their hair to help them through the day. The faded, greenish tint of the photo in the background makes a nice contrast to the black and white of the ladies in the foreground.

Waterbearer [Porteuse d’eau], Lorna Simpson, 1986

One of her most interesting photo-text installations is “Waterbearer”, which depicts a black woman with her back facing to us and the jugs she is holding are spilling over due to the way she is carrying them. The text below the image could be a commentary on how when black women try to tell their story they are gaslighted and spoken over. Many black women, including tennis superstar Serena Williams, have spoken out about how even in hospital settings their pain is often overlooked and minimised leading them to be in situations that may cost them their lives. The water spilling out may be signs of the inability to keep all this in any longer. The jugs are now too heavy for her to carry and she cannot go on like this. She must let the water out before she can move on. Calls for improvement to the system are happening as more and more black women come forward with their stories and the

conversation seems to be making people more aware.

California, Lorna Simpson, 2019 (left)

Tulip, Lorna Simpson, 2014 (centre)

Head On Ice #5, Lorna Simpson, 2016 (right)

Lorna Simpson said: “I do not feel as though issues of identity are exhaustible,” and with the treatment of black women in contemporary society, she will definitely have a lot of material to work with.

Follow Victoria on her Twitter at @victoria_agwu