Twenty Questions (A Sampler)
by Lorna Simpson, 1986
A newly curated standing-exhibition at the Tate Modern art gallery, London, called Citizens and States, has some really thought-provoking exhibits in it. One that caught my eye was the work of Lorna Simpson in her exploration of how meaning and identities are constructed. She uses texts and images as the medium through which she explores ideas.
The exhibit Twenty Questions (A Sampler), comprises four monochrome photographic’portraits’- head and shoulders view -taken from behind, framed in circle ‘hoops’. The young woman is wearing a simple white cotton garment. All the photographs are identical. Underneath the ‘portraits’ are five plaques:
1 ‘Is she as pretty as a picture’, 2’Or clear as crystal’, 3 ‘Or pure as a lily’, 4’Or black as coal’, 5 ‘Or sharp as a razor’.
By sub-titling the piece ‘A Sampler’ it sets up a kind of dialogue with the medium of samplers in the past – embroidered pieces of cloth with all kinds of details in. Although in their early versions, samplers were important methods of recording information, produced by skilled craftsmen, in the Victorian Era the attitude towards the craft was altered. At this time, Victorian ideology demoted the craft of embroidery and samplers to be a purely female activity, carried out at leisure and thus was partly regarded as a pursuit of vanity.
Just as a sampler is worked in a double hoop which keeps the cloth taut, so perhaps, we might interpret the lives of women in the Victorian Era to be restrained and defined by the ‘double hoop’ of the cultural discourse that afforded women a very constricted place, set firmly within bounds and constraints, as tight as their corsets. Simpson’s artwork taps into this altered view of samplers; something that is consigned to the insubstantial and superficial. The images of the dark-skinned young woman in the white cotton garment evoke the garments worn by African American slaves. These women also, were defined and constrained by the ‘double hoop’ of the discourse and attitudes regarding slaves, as well as attitudes to women.
The images showing only the back of the head convey the utterly de-personalised aspect of this person, who has been made a non-person. She has no features that differentiate her from anyone else, no individuality, no personality, no story, no humanity; she is reduced to the status of an object. This is the image of a woman who is not seen, not seen for who she is.
Who she is, or what she is, is conveyed by the questions that other people ask about her – elucidated on the plaques. They are questions that betray the questioners’ preoccupations, perhaps: Is she pretty as a picture – is she externally pleasing to the eye? ‘Or pure as a lily’ – a white lily being an artistic symbol of sexual purity, thus often depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary; is this young woman sexually pure? Does the question ‘black as coal’ refer to the colour of her skin, her hair, or the state of her heart? Might ‘black as coal’ hint at questionable ‘dark’, ‘untamed’ sexuality? In reality, did she, as a young slave woman ever have any charge over her own sexuality as opposed to the desires of the men that surrounded her, especially those appetites of the white slavers? ‘Sharp as a razor’ – having keen insight concerning any situation, in which she can be relied upon to act and speak incisively and with wisdom – enough to undercut the superficial and facile preoccupations of others? Is this regarded as a virtue? Or is this phrase used pejoratively as a warning, that this woman is too smart, too threatening?
And all these questions, all five of them, let alone ‘Twenty Questions’- to use the title of the work – seem to be questions that others ask of her, ask about her; not asking her about herself. Those questions are posed in a way that keeps ‘her’ mute; whoever ‘she’ is, she is given no voice of her own; she is not allowed to speak.
The images are in the style of a portrait – which is normally a head and shoulders perspective that is rendered in order to capture not just a representation of an individual, but also to convey a certain quality and personality of the person portrayed. Yet in this work the image is taken from the back, where none of those individual aspects are depicted. We might regard these as ‘anti-portraits’; the subject is a human, but a woman human whose voice and sight have been denied.
And yet – and perhaps this is the power of the work – this unknown, nameless young woman is the subject of this simple yet profound artwork, occupying a place next to artworks by other great artists -artists who as visionaries and prophets do not allow history to be forgotten, or justice to be denied. This young woman, as representative of many slaves, as well as many women through the centuries, raises questions for us the viewer:
‘See, if you have a strong enough heart; hear, if you can brave the challenge of every cry from the ground of history on which we stand calling out:
‘Enough! Never again!’
[For my interpretation of Simpson’s Five Day Forecast, see https://wordpress.com/post/patriciagibbons.wordpress.com/5142]