Photos by Andrea Ellen Reed. Through December 2, at Target Gallery in the Torpedo Factory Art Center (105 North Union St., Alexandria). Gallery hours: Wednesday through Sunday, Noon – 5 p.m. 703-838-4565×4, or see www.torpedofactory.org.
San Francisco photographer Andrea Reed, a 2003 psychology grad from Howard University, has a series of 10 diptych portraits on display at Target Gallery. At first blush it's a fairly simple lot. All the photos are shot against the same crimson background, with all the characters in minstrel-show-type exaggerated “black face,” and staring straight at the viewer.
Far from true portraiture, these images are in fact portraits of characters, or more specifically, characterizations we have in our heads of the modern African-American community at large. Coupled with their simple style, and punchy imagery, they remind one of Annie Leibovitz's work for Rolling Stone.
Reed's African Americans in black face have a disquieting impression from the word “go.” Chromatically speaking, we are all variations on brown. There are the pinkish beige people, the reddish beige people, the yellow tinted beige people, the olive tinted beige people, the dark beige people, and the really dark beige people (call it sepia, or burnt umber). But there are no “Black” people, or “White” people. The sight of African Americans in black face drives the point home. They are not black. In the same way, the implication is there that the stereotypes are also not true.
Reed portrays our most base assumptions and stereotypes about African-Americans and throws them out the window at the same time. In effect she shouts “This is what you think of us!” And unfortunately, it is also on some level what African Americans think of their own people.
The milieu is not complete per se. We don't see the womanizing male, the NBA dreamer or the dandied strutting pimp, to name but a few. On the other hand, 10 stereotypes seem plenty for us to take in and get the message. Some images seem a tad too simple and easily grasped, while others have a depth of complexity that draws you in and sets your mind to thinking about how this one is going to sort itself out.
“Brother's Keeper” has enough spin on the ball to make it compellingly powerful. Here we see two black males in muscle T-shirts — one black, one white. The black T-shirted male holds his right arm straight out to the side, the picture edge crops the image roughly around his wrist. The left diptych panel picks up the story and shows a big African-American hand holding a pistol to the head of another African American's head. The scale jump implies the increased power in the hand that holds the pistol.
Interestingly enough, the white T-shirted male, we can only assume representing “good.” is being threatened or about to be killed by the “bad” black T-shirted male. Neither man notices the other, each with their eyes locked onto ours. If ever there were an image of stupid mindless violence this would seem to fit the bill.
Two images that deal with African-American self-image and an attempt to assimilate, or adopt the beauty standards of Caucasians, would be “The Bluest Eye” and “Dirty Blonde.” “The Bluest Eye” shows a large African-American female with one blue contact in, and the other one about to be put in. It's an image that makes you want to scream “Stop!” The blue contacts will not make her beautiful or desirable, they simply make her look insecure and frankly a tad bizarre. The photo also seems to be showing how visions of beauty are artificially forced upon us, and how we sometimes see ourselves through the standards of others.
Similarly, but with a bit of opposite spin on the ball, “Dirty Blonde” seems one of the most compelling images here. This
African-American female holds her arm out to the side, running off camera again. In the left panel the story is completed by a hand, two fingers of which hold up a blonde wig by a few hairs, as if it were a dead rat found on the ground. Held at arms length away from her, she is obviously not having anything to do with this “white women's hair” … or is she? The complexity comes in when you notice that several of her own ringlets have indeed been bleached blonde. Assimilation is an easy thing to do, and a nearly impossible thing to totally avoid no matter how hard you try.
You are a part of your surroundings, no matter how hard you try to throw them off. You could, for example, go around speaking only French, but you aren't going to have many people understanding you when you want something. We're all connected in assorted little ways that make us all part of the human continuum. Which, of course, is what makes stereotypes such as these so difficult to throw off.
Reed is doing her part to show that they don't exactly fit, and to whatever extent they do fit, the African-American community needs to work on changing, because this is not how any group of people should go through life … certainly not generation after generation.
Note: Reception with the artist is part of Old Town Alexandria's “Second Thursday” night art events, November 8, from 6 – 8 p.m.
Yorktown Youths Show Off at Curves
Elena Konstantin and Anna Satterfield, two Yorktown High School seniors, will be showing their individual photo works at Curves this month. Opening reception Friday, November 2, from 7 – 9 p.m. As with all Curves shows, males will need to make an appointment to see the work after the opening reception night. Falls Church Curves is located at 240 West Broad St, Falls Church.
F.C. Film Fest Fast Approaching
Falls Church Film Festival is fast approaching. Having been on the judging panel for two thirds of the process, I can attest to the high caliber of entries received this year. Anybody thinking this is a rinky-dink affair will be pleasantly surprised by the final result. Winners in six (or possibly more) categories will be screened at the State Theatre on November 13, at 7 p.m.
The runners up and some of the also-rans, that are fit for public consumption, will be screened this Friday evening at F.A. McGonegal (212 West St, Falls Church) from 6.30 – 8 p.m., and Art and Frame (111 Park Ave, Falls Church) from 8 – 10 p.m.