Ayana V. Jackson: Archival Impulse

Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg, South Africa
29 Aug 2013 - 07 Oct 2013


“My process involves identifying reoccurring motifs in the original images, interrogating them, performing them, and last, reconstructing them”. (Ayana V. Jackson)

Gallery MOMO presents Ayana V. Jackson’s ‘Archival Impulse’.

Archival Impulse: The real work of this series does not exist in physical form. It exists in the imaginary; in the space between my reference images, the spectator’s private thoughts/memories/associations, and the reenactments themselves.

At its core, it considers the chapter of photographic history that was underscored by the period of colonial expansion. It considers the role photography played in the architecture of racialized thinking. It considers the potentially violent exchanges between photographer and “subject”, while at the same time considering other interactions between them and looking for traces of agency.

Archival Impulse takes its name from Hal Foster’s idea that by confronting the archive new systems of knowledge can be created. In this case I confront late 19th and early 20th century photographs taken during the period of European colonial expansion. To do this I draw on images sourced from the Duggan Cronin collection created in South Africa, the works of unknown photographers practicing throughout the global south at the time, as well as documentation of reconstructed villages and “native” performers that were touring in Europe’s Human Zoos.

The scholarship of Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Edwards, Okwui Enwezor, Jennifer Bjorek, Pascal Blancher, and Tamar Garb are also informative.   In reading and comparing these texts I have found multiple angles for entering, interpreting and appropriating my reference materials. As visual experiments these final images aim to draw out the multiple ways the originals can be read: ethnographic, anthropologic, pornographic, historical documents, curiosities, etc.

My process involves identifying reoccurring motifs in the original images, interrogating them, performing them, and last, reconstructing them. My primary intervention is in my deliberate choice not to situate the “subjects” in the scenario. I do this first to bring attention to the fact that these early photographs are theatrical performances written and directed by the photographer and subject alike and as such are fictitious; second to ask questions around the photograph’s potential as agent of propaganda; and last, if not most importantly, to transform this theater into a space where new narratives might emerge.

Poverty Pornography: At its root is about the power of photography. Its motifs, methods, interests, and ultimately its effect on the collective memory.   While I have narrowed in on particular moments in photographic history and certain genres of the medium, this is not a conversation aimed at supporting binaries between the West and non-West, Colonial power and formerly colonized, Black and White, Rich and Poor, but rather to locate what I believe to be photography’s role in supporting, if not sustaining those binaries and the possibility that society as a whole is as much a beneficiary as a victim of photography’s might.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes; “The frankest representations of war and of disaster-injured bodies are of those who seem most foreign therefore least likely to be known. With subjects closer to home the photographer is expected to be more discreet …The more remote or exotic, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying.” She goes on to say that “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked …”

It is here that the series Poverty Pornography finds its genesis.

In contemplating this notion, the series interrogates photographic representation of non-European bodies dating from the turn of the 20th century through to the present day. I restage existing images as nudes in order to explore the emotional tension one feels when observing these polemic and often violent photographs. My intention is that the viewer is simultaneously drawn to and yet repulsed by the originals in a similar way they may be attracted yet potentially shamed by the naked female form. This work combines the two in order to question the seductive language of photography and the ideas it can communicate and perpetuate.

The term poverty pornography (commonly used in the Non-Governmental Organization/NGO domain) refers to the prevalence of images of suffering in the developing world. These photographs are generally extremely graphic, often dehumanizing and tend to project an image of endless despair. They evoke sympathy (and hence activism), but at the same time activate modes of representation that maintain what I believe to be fictitious cultural binaries.

While I work with my own body, these works are not self-portraits. The act of reappropriating these images is for me a way to work through my own relationship with photography and the complicated histories it attempts to frame.

Ayana V. Jackson’s ‘Archival Impulse’ is opening Thursday 29 August 2013.



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