Ming Smith’s Romare Bearden,
New York, NY, 1977
Matthew Shenoda / Rashayla Marie Brown
A call. A desire to shape a world that has yet to exist. And it is here, on this particular horizon where that possibility lingers in the air, where the desire for something more is tangible, if only we can get out of our own ways. If only we can go further into our own selves, as Bearden did, as Smith does.
What might it mean to live where we do not create sorrow; where our gathering can be magnified? A formidable perch. A simulacrum of grace. A remembrance.
Striving for a shadow of something otherworldly, a handful of salt eroding stone.
Let us talk then about craft: our skill, our aptitude, our ingenuity, our vessel, Smith’s vessel, Bearden’s vessel; that thing that none of us possesses with singularity, but rather as part of a collective that we are each entrusted to cultivate; like Smith did Bearden.
You see the great lie is to believe that the artist is somehow distant from the farmer. We are each entrusted to feed the community, to grow a crop according to our labor, to meet one another at the common table and share the bounty of that labor alongside one another. This is the place for such harvest, the place for such labor, the place for the sharpening of one’s tools and the understanding of how water, sun, soil, and seed can come together to make a thing of nourishment. This is what happens when artists come together.
What can we say about the apprehension of things, the reasons for a shaft of light in an otherwise dark forest? Romare is that light. Ming is that light.
But when I stand still, watch the bodies move like an upright bass and contemplate the power of the tangible things before them, I am reminded of the need for woven fabrics and moments of rest, gazes that speak of things indiscernible. I am reminded that the problem resides in our own comfort, in the perennial desire to make the world small, known only to ourselves. We do it so easily, so naturally, our not noticing. But Smith puts the self in its multiple places. Smith saw Bearden and made Bearden the floating expanse that he is.
Rashayla Marie Brown
For us, visibility has been communal edict. Currency. To guarantee what exactly?
Resistance. Deconstruction. Subversion. No.1
Uplift. Celebration. Empowerment .No.2
This image is a portrait of a painter, a collagist, an elder, Romare Bearden, and a woman, maybe his wife, Nanette? Maybe holding a mirror? Maybe she is the mirror. How many male artists needed their woman close by for inspiration? Their success is ours. Eyes closed, she is beheld. His eyes closed, he is held. By her. Twice, in reflection, in mysterious placement, with his head bowed down. Twice. He is held.
From an image-maker who holds historic significance 4 and remains frustratingly invisible in the archive, whose face graced countless images as a model for others (maybe we’ll find these images in the archive, ha). She made her own photograph and adorned it with paint, direct on the surface.5 Is that what collage from the photographed subject looks like? Ha.
Maybe this is the magic of the darkroom? Ming Smith was no stranger to techniques. To making a film holder by hand. To blur. To shake. To double. To have a hand in the space. For her hand to be apparent and unseen simultaneously. Perhaps it is more interesting to wonder, instead of guarantee.
To love. She did it for love. Not visibility. Not legibility. Not romance. No.
The photographer working from the no, as a collagist would, does not necessarily view the world as a blank canvas or a constant negation. But a space. The collagist working from the no-space, as a painter would, does not align with the binary supposition that to be represented is to equal life and to not be represented means death. Sometimes dark is before life, and death is after light. Sometimes cutting the film gives it life. Inside and out.
The artist working from the no-space does not suppose blackness is a metaphor for liberation.This artist simply works from the liberation that is there, in space. Not from representation, nor from abstraction. From the man or the woman. Both together and apart, one inside and outside. Both portrait and imagination.
But we know that the nature of the medium—the spirit itself—allows us to create from the positive space, to curate and slice down. Thus, this is not representation. It is making. To make what, exactly?
(Oh, to be free from this binary. Oh. Darstellen. Vertreten.6 Represent. Represent.)
Black life without signifiers. Black bodies without features. With signifers. With features. Identification with and without suffering, agenda. Just place, just intimacy, inside us, inside her.
Ming Smith, Ming Smith, Ming Smith. Well. She didn’t make these images so we could pay empty tribute to a hidden figure. She did it for love.
Not scarred because of love, a part of a body obscured by the cut and filled with a mirror, another, filled with love of the other. The interior. Black femme interiority? No.
The interiors that contain us we also contain at the same time. The faces that we devote our lives to, we know without seeing. There is no liberation. There is no death. No binary. There is no visibility that truly matters. There is no cut that does not produce life.
There is only space. And love inside it
- Ming Smith is the first African American female photographer to have work collected by the Museum of Modern Art and the only woman to be a member of the historic Kamoinge photographers collective. We know what William Eggleston means to art history, and we know what Gordon Parks means to art history. I am writing from a space where we all know Ming’s work as extensively, and our collective recognition of her photographic contributions precedes any formal analysis of any work, instead of a space where my writing does a corrective to a violent canonical exercise that has only recently begun to include work by Black artists, that doesn’t conform to identity politics or a civil-rights agenda. This is a written collage or poetic relation, inspired by Smith’s depiction of other artists such as Romare Bearden, James Baldwin, and Grace Jones.
- See Ming Smith, Self-Portrait (from the Self-Portrait series), 1972.
- See Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
Ming Smith, Romare Bearden, New York, NY, 1977 (detail), 1977, printed ca. 1991
Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund © Ming Smith
Cite this article as
Copy this page's URL to your clipboard.