Focus on the collection: Ayana Jackson
Using herself as a model, Ayana Jackson performs for the camera, presenting Black women as empowered and passionate. Growing up in the United States, she sensed the social entrenchment of racial and gender stereotypes, and their effect on identity. The artist views historical art and photography — and their employment as tools of colonial expansion in Africa and America — as complicit with ongoing racism to the present day.
To Jackson, performance has political force, and is a means to directly address these issues. She begins each work by imagining how certain narratives constrain identity, then creates her own compensating narratives to challenge racism, sexism and cultural stereotypes. In Saffronia, Jackson engages with the history of slavery, presenting herself as a 19th-century Black woman in a colonial setting.
Saffronia recalls the lounging figure depicted in Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Madame Récamier (1800). However, in the Jackson work, the subject has decisively reclaimed the colonial setting through her leisurely pose, luxurious clothing and steadfast gaze. Jackson has based this series on the idea that slaves were not always victims of social and cultural forces, but could also find moments of pleasure and satisfaction, turning these into statements of pride and resistance.
For Jackson, such works go beyond binary thinking to offer new insights. “These images are not really about the colonizers and the colonized,” she says, “or West versus non-West, and isn’t really about reinforcing any of those binaries. They are about examining the origins of certain kinds of ideas, and particularly of certain kinds of misrepresentations. My concern is not just about how Europe or the West has been taught to see Africa, but also how we, as Black (or non-White) people, have been taught to understand ourselves through those lenses.”1
Ayana Jackson is an American photographer and filmmaker, based in Johannesburg, New York City, and Paris. She studied photography at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated with a degree in Sociology. Her interest in photography began at age five when her father, a photography enthusiast, taught her how to use a camera.
At age 27, she moved to Germany, where she studied at the Berlin University of the Arts under Katharina Sieverding, who remains one of her biggest influences, as does Carrie Mae Weems.
In the words of the artist:
“I was made aware, before I even studied slavery, before I studied civil rights, before I studied colonialism, before I understood racism as a structural problem, that outside forces were intent on making me feel ashamed of being black.”2
“I mine 18th and 19th century Western art and early photographs for content. I ask how the black body has been portrayed, who and what has been left out of the frame, and start from there. When I can’t find them, I invent and perform the characters I wish I had seen as a young girl.”3