The Godmother, 2020-present

The Godmother, like the current project in development, You Don't Have to Believe Me, engages with the transnational migration of ideas in the period between the World Wars. Invoking this period again, as with Security StudiesI am suggesting that the conversations of the time period - around anti-fascism, alternatives to capitalism, decolonization, exoticisation, feminism, and gender identity - are precedents for our own. In this project, I follow the thread of a loose, unintentional coalition of women, whose work has been underrepresented in canon, even when known.

 

I found myself in this rabbit hole when looking for self-representation in early 20th century photography in Egypt, and familiarized myself with Ida Kar and Lee Miller's relationship with the Art + Liberty group. I published a series of Kar's photographs of mid-career women on Archivo Platform, but kept looking for self-representation in the period, dwelling on Suzanne Césaire and then tracing backwards to the Nardal sisters in Paris and their simultaneity with producers like Claude Cahun. 

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The Women, 2021, unique chromogenic photogram in eight panels, each 90 inches tall. Six center panels are 24 inches wide. Side panels are 20 inches wide. 

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These images are not meant to fool you. I leave clues as to their fiction, so as to be very clear about the nature of speculative history. In these details from The Women, Eslanda Robeson perches improbably on Andrée Nardal's piano and Dora Maar has three arms.

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To Martinique, to find traces of the women's movement, ideas, faces, and consequences. 2021.

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At the same time, because many of these women have been so erased from a historical record, in this project as in very few others of mine, it is important for me to include their faces. 

There are so few pictures of women at work - really, even still, which is why I loved Kar's images so much - because even when we do work, we don't have anyone around to take a picture of us. We don't have nice girlfriends who believe in us and remember to document our genius. 

 

When history has not honored us with documentation of our sense of futurity, can family pictures fill a gap and flesh out an intellectual genealogy? 

Sisters, 2021, unique chromogenic photogram from collage, 90 x 49 inches

I wrote a feature film script to link the events of their lives in time, space, and relationships, and then began to work individually to find images of the women. Contacting families and archives, drawing from figure models in the postures of various scenes, reaching out to former students who live near relevant sites and making maps for them, asking them to photograph the context, and now, as Covid-19 restrictions have relaxed, heading out myself to photograph and video the context. 

The Godmother in particular circles around the Clamart Salon of Paulette Nardal and her sisters, which was a hub and a wellspring for Black International thought. What Jeanne, Andrée, and Paulette wrote, translated, and published in their various journals helped provide context for the Harlem Renaissance writers in Paris, as well as a foundation for the men who are recognized as for the notion of negritude. Their lives intersect with those of multiple men, in fact, from Hemingway to André Breton, but those associations, while surprising for their serendipity, continue to instrumentalize the women's work to consolidate power around the men's. Instead, I, at middle age myself, am captivated by the productivity of this extranational female ideological network, comprised of women nearing midlife with perseverance through war and family strife. Where men wrote manifestos and are remembered and photographed, these women started schools and publications, and worked towards enfranchisement by supporting each other's work and lives. 

Certain details stand out about the women as one reads their memoirs or accounts of their lives. As I build the body of work, I dance between the literal story I am trying to tell, these details, and an abstract language suitable to the evolving dynamics of the project. 

I have begun to ask actors, non-actors, scholars, and classes to read scenes from the script, and then speak to their own experiences of the issues raised in the texts. This has resulted thus far in "self-tapes" submitted by actors, video shot by former students or friends in far-flung places, and some shot by myself. The goal in constructing a video installation here is to play with the notion of self-representation and also to stage a transhistorical experiment: how do people now relate to the very human reality of these women? What does that mean about their work's significance, even if undervalued at the time? What does that mean about the effectiveness of intersectional solidarity? 

Examples of participants include Russians living in Berlin considering a scene about voting in Germany in 1932; an Alain Locke scholar considering a scene about Locke's visit to Clamart; a woman from Reunion considering a scene about being métisse in Martinique; or a Martinican and Senegalese couple considering what it is like to move to a new place. 

Photogramming myself onto the "backdrops" of the locations associated with various moments in the narrative, I am looking for the ways in which I connect to these women's lives. Here, on Allée Claude Cahun-Marcel Moore, I imagine Cahun walking home after signing the Contre-attaque: union de lutte des intellectuels révolutionnaires, in 1935. She didn't sign other documents organized by the Surrealists, but this one mattered to her. 

"Violently hostile to any tendency, whatever form it takes, capturing the Revolution for the benefit of the ideas of nation or fatherland," the document attacked nationalism, capitalist authority and its political institutions, and placed intellectuals in the "ranks of the workers." They wanted to share the well-being of the bourgeois with "all those who produced it", and they wanted to "use the weapons created by fascism, which has known how to use the fundamental aspiration of men to emotional exaltation and fanaticism" to advance revolutionary goals. 

As a woman inquisitive about her gender identity, sure of her sexual identity, sure of her Judaism, and soon to be involved in the making of "paper bullets" against Nazis in Jersey, there is both vulnerability and strength in this walk.

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Bal Negre
Bal Negre

2022, unique chromogenic photogram, 70 x 73 inches

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Revue du Monde Noir
Revue du Monde Noir

2022, unique chromogenic photogram, 70 x 73 inches

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Lifeboat
Lifeboat

2022, unique chromogenic photogram, 70 x 49 inches

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Bal Negre
Bal Negre

2022, unique chromogenic photogram, 70 x 73 inches

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Next steps include travel to Martinique, Senegal, and Uzbekistan to trace the paths of the participants, including, in the latter case, Langston Hughes' journey through Central Asia in 1932; photograph there; and engage around the question of how life is like now. Intended outcomes of the project include interactive spaces within exhibition spaces, wherein visitors too can engage in the question of their own relationship to the canonically human issues raised by these reanimated heroes. Given the domestic character of most of the gatherings (in apartments worldwide), the installation trends towards the salon, filled with improvisation, music, and questions.