Amber N. Ford’s “Untitled: I Really Just Made This Work So I Could Heal,” at Akhsó Gallery
Long before the Black Girl Magic movement of recent years, community educator and gender studies scholar bell hooks called for loving blackness as a form of political resistance. In 1992, her now famous collection of essays, Black Looks was published with goal of “transforming our ways of looking and being, and thus creat[ing] the conditions necessary for [Black people] to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life.”
While hooks’ call was not new in 1992, her analyses of the ways in which mass media images of black people reinforced white supremacy, not to mention to larger beauty culture, which was also being interrogated in white and intersectional feminist circles. In 1991, Naomi Wolf argues in The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women, that behaviors reinforce a body project that is all-consuming–as new makeup colors, clothing and hair styles, beauty creams, cosmetic surgery procedures, and exercise trends keep consumers seeking–and never achieving, “ideal” beauty.
Both hooks and Wolf seek de-programming from the conditioning wrought by mass media, particularly in the post-World War II era of screened images, as after 1948 most American households had at least one television. Indeed, today’s smart phone is a personalized version, making it a more dangerous, but not a too distant cousin from the screens around which families gathered by the mid-20th century. Their books are two the most influential theoretical texts of Generation X’s third wave feminism, which was driven by intersectional analysis, and trenchant critiques of capitalist-fueled beauty regimes and behaviors.
Amber N. Ford’s Untitled: I Really Just Made This Work So I Could Heal, is a contemporary photo installation evoking these important questions on her own terms, with three decades of history and gender-racial discourses coming to bear. Ford’s skillfully wrought, trompe l’oeil photographs–close-ups of Black hair (braids, locks, weaves, and wigs), simultaneously celebrates black beauty culture and practice while confronting the white supremacist gaze.
Ford incorporates the disparate lighting of the Akhsó Gallery into the installation, with the reflections from the open space adding a changing dimension to the work. I viewed the exhibition on sunny, but cool Halloween at around 4 p.m. and found myself examining the framed objects to determine “what” they were–photographs of braids? Braids cut and mounted on a panel and framed? The underside of a wig?
White and female, my examination reflects the kind of obsession white people and white culture have with black hair styles. As I inspect the art work, I’m asking:
“Is it real or unreal?”
“Is it image–
Can I touch it?”
These are questions wrought with privilege–connected to white supremacy, and with centuries and millennia of systematic racism, which was reinforced by scientific racism. Indeed, “study” was central to this codified form of racism, and Ford’s installation reflects a history of exoticism of black women, and of black bodies. The trick of the eye is that the photographs are encapsulated in the frame–literally and historically, of observation of “other.” Aided by the intimacy and lighting of the Akhsó Gallery, one cannot help but see themselves reflected back on the glass between the viewer and the image.
Each of Ford’s images depicts black hair, up close, as if one might touch a three-dimensional lock, as they may be “specimens”–braids cut from an unsuspecting person’s head, the inside of discarded wig Ford’s recovered from a roommate’s bedroom floor. Ford, challenging us to look, reminds us that each of our perspectives bear the privileges, challenges, and resiliencies of our experiences.
Ford’s photographs of Black hair represent a celebration of black beauty and the ethos of Black Girl Magic, and they incorporate viewers in the healing process, which is self-interrogative. When Ford shows the inside of a wig–the bobby pins, the glue, she is taking the mask off for us. What we bring is completion, perhaps more accountability in our gaze.
Ford’s installation, Untitled: I Really Just Made This Work So I Could Heal is a forthright call for all of us to be more self-reflective, to lay our cards on the table.
To heal with honesty.
Amber Ford: Untitled: I Really just made this work so I could heal
Through November 16
11808 Cromwell Avenue
bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992).
See Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991).
Generally, third wave or GenX feminism emerges in 1991 around the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings that had young females of the day–across race and class, in an uproar over the committee’s voyeuristic, sexist treatment of Dr. Anita Hill, who reported the nominee’s acts of sexual harassment in the workplace on national television.