Questions of Identity

by Jo Ortel
I Remember it Well by Pat Ward Williams at the Community Artist’s Collective, co-sponsored by Houston Center for Photography, and the Houston Women’s Center Caucus for Art, with funding from Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, March 26-April 30, 1994 and Portraits of Community: African American Photography in Texas, group exhibition, at Diverseworks, March 19-April 24, 1994.

In her talk at the Women in Photography Conference, Pat Ward Williams posed some seemingly straightforward questions: “How,” she wondered, “do we use he term ‘race?’ What does race mean? How do we evoke the images of race?” Two exhibitions on display in Houston in the spring of 1994, including Williams’ own at the Community Artist’s Collective, offered opposing but complementary ways of addressing questions of racial identity. “Portraits of Community: African-American Photography in Texas,” hosted by Diverseworks, was representative of the view of race as an essential fact, and from this starting point it celebrated the richness and variety of African-American experience. 1 By contrast, “I remember It Well,” Williams’ installation, looked more critically at the underlying concept of race and examined how racial identity is constructed through representation. 2
“Portraits of Community” showcased the work of fifteen African-American photographers, many of whom began their careers in the 1930s and ‘40s, and most of whom earned their livelihood by providing services within their communities. 3Commercial studio portraits and “glamour” shots hung beside photos of the urban landscape framed within a self-consciously modernist high art aesthetic. The photographs documented both the ordinary and the extraordinary events and individuals in various African-American communities in Texas. From photographs of parades, weddings, confirmations, and church ground-breaking ceremonies, to Louise Martin’s poignant photographs of a mournful Coretta Scott King, and Robert Whitby’s pleasing Hula Hoops (1957) composed within a more formalist aesthetic, the “portrait” of African-American community presented was rich and multifaceted. In its eclectic selection, the exhibit offered a powerful and textured alternative to the stereotyped (and often negative) image of African-American identity so pervasive in our media-saturated visual culture.

Defining one’s identity, whether with words or with images, can be empowering, and empowerment constitutes an important step in any liberatory struggle, as African-American cultural philosopher bell hooks has pointed out. She writes, … a dimension of the oppressor/oppressed, exploiter/exploited relationship is that those who dominate are seen as subjects and those who are dominated objects. As subjects, people have the right to define their own reality, establish their own identities, name their history. As objects, one’s reality is defined by others, one’s history named only in ways that define one’s relationship to those who are subject. 4
Later, hooks goes on to write that “oppressed people resist by identifying themselves as subjects, by defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, telling their story.”5 Taken together, the works in this exhibition defined a reality, shaped an identity, just as individually, each photograph had been framed by an African-American photographer who had a story to picture, a reality to name. In its overall conception and in its details, “Portraits of Community” was constructive, hopeful, activist: it sought to replace invisibility with representation and recognition.6
Still, there was something troubling about the definition of race that lay just beneath the surface. “Portraits of Community” embraced uncritically the concept of race as something permanent, irreducible, and natural (as opposed to socially-constructed). As Rosemarie Tong has written, “falling into the trap of essentialism… is an analytical dead-end as well as a political danger.”7 Because the essentialism retains and indeed, celebrates categories of race as they have been produced historically, the possibility still exists that these categories can be used to justify marginalization and oppression.

Ironically, “Portraits of Community” included images, somewhat incongruously, that underlined this very problem. In an adjoining room were displayed photographs and memorabilia related to African-American life in the nineteenth century. Included here was a sizable number of tintypes made by anonymous photographers of equally unknown African-American sitters. In addition, there was a group of four or five photographs hidden from view beneath draped panels of black fabric. When the viewer lifted the shrouds, horrific scenes of lynchings and lynching victims were revealed. Hanging beside the door that served as both the entrance and exit to the exhibit, these photographs bracketed, both literally and figuratively, the main body of photographs of African-Americans by African-Americans in the main hall.

The lynching photographs serve as a stark reminded of the “trap” of “essentialism,” of the way essentialism can be used as a justification for oppression and exploitation just as readily as it can be used as a strategy for empowerment. As Tong has written, essentialist claims about what makes certain groups of people the way they are (for example, women, blacks, Jews) are the political-philosophical constructs of conservatism. The history of essentialist arguments is one of oppressors telling the oppressed to accept their lot in life because “that’s just the way it is.”8
The practice of lynching in this country is an example of what happened when, instead of understanding that race is a socially constructed (and therefore arbitrary) system of classification, a community of people operated under the belief that raace is fixed, constant, and therefore constitutive of a given person: individuals were singled out and murdered in the most gruesome ways “because of their race.”

In her installation at the Community Artists’ Collective, Pat Ward Williams took an alternative approach to the issue of identity. Whereas “Portraits of Community” accepted race as an essential face, Williams’ art reminds us that the very concept of race is itself a social construction. Her work seeks to analyze and scrutinize the process by which identity and difference are constituted.

For her pieces exhibited at the Collective, Willams used photographs and snapshots gleaned from her family’s photo album, man of which her father had taken. Some, enlarged to mural size, had been overlaid with unaltered snapshots, great swashes of paint, and bits of handwritten or stenciled text; others were combined with found objects. In Unhappy Children, for example, nine snapshots were tacked to the wall around a simple wooden shelf in a random arrangement that recalled the way treasured photos and mementos get wedged among miscellaneous clippings and coupons on kitchen bulletin boards. Only one yellowing, 5 x 7 inch photograph, the type of formal studio portrait that has become a fixture in every middle-class American home, sat in a Lucite frame on the shelf. It showed a young black girl in her Sunday-best dress holding her baby sister. The elder sibling smiles shyly for the camera, the younger one fairly beams. The rest of the photos documented predictable events and moments in a girl’s young life: birthday parties, Christmas, school events, a summer morning spent with giggling friends. In one, the little girl, with hair straightened into a single curl across her forehead, stood before a fireplace mantel, and beside a large TV. She proudly held a blonde, white-skinned baby doll for the camera.

“If I was so unhappy as a child then why are all of my pictures smiling?” This question was scrawled in metallic ink along the top side of the shelf in Unhappy Children. By making the deliberate distinction between “I” and “my pictures,” Williams compels us to consider the relationship between self and the representation of self. What role, she seems to ask, does the photographic image play in our understanding of who we are? Williams gently prods us to acknowledge that history, memory, and identity are produced in and through representation.

Moreover, by phrasing a question that has complicated implications as a simple “if-then” equation, much as a child might, the artist allows us to see the naiveté of believing in and seeking such absolutes as a single truth, a single history.

These concerns reappear with greater subtlety in Lovely Ladies, an enlarged wall-size photograph of ten glamorous women of color lined up in a companionable row, their arms clasped around each other’s waists. The women wear formal evening dressed and sparkling jewelry, and flash beguiling smiles at the camera. Their hair has been straightened, curled, coaxed and pinned into stylish coiffures. Super-imposed on the enlarged photo are tiny snapshots in which (presumably the same) women are shown at other moments in their lives, posed before a shiny automobile, in a fur coat, with some other signified of middle-class American prosperity.

To four of the women in the mural Williams has added garishly bright paint. One seems engulfed by flames: tongues of red paint leap from her head and spread upwards onto the wall above. Two other women have been singled out, given painted dresses, blue and green. Here, too, the paint extends beyond the mural and drips down the wall below in sloppy rivulets, as if in mockery of the elaborate care with which the women have presented themselves.

In an earlier version of Lovely Ladies, Williams included text that read, “As a child of the ‘60s I often criticized my mother for not uplifting the race by being more Afro-Centric. I realize now that learning to use the correct fork was her idea of progress.”9 This text reveals a fault line in Williams’ thinking about identity, one that the artist herself apparently recognized before the Houston exhibition of Lovely Ladies. Williams saw her mother emulate and aspire to white, middle-class values and lifestyles, and she interpreted this as her mother’s attempt to elide differences between black and white- as if racial identities were monolithic, fixed, and unchanging. Yet Williams’ own work suggests that race and identity are neighter stable nor permanent. Our carious identities are always changing in endless reconfiguration. Different company, different settings, sifferent circumstances: we continually slip on identities like so many items of clothing from a sale rack. Still, we communicate our values to others. Just as cultural values concerning desirable skin, eye, and hair color were conveyed to the little black girl in Unhappy Children through her little blonde, blue-eyed doll, Mother’s preferences and aspirations were also transferred. One can almost imagine the little girl in Unhappy Children poring over the photograph of her mother and friends in their elegant finery. It is with these affects that the “lovely ladies” will forever be folded into the family photo album.

In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison tells the tragic story of Pecola, a young black girl in Ohio who prayed every night for blue eyes. Pecola was convinced that if she only had blue eyes, she would be beautiful, she would be noticed and her life would be perfect. Her parents would stop fighting, her father would stop drinking, her brother would stop running away from home. Of course, Pecola never actually received her blue eyes, but she was finally noticed, by her drunk father, who raped and impregnated her. I was reminded of Morrison’s story as I viewed Pat Ward Williams’ installation last spring. Williams’ work is not pitched at the same level of high emotional intensity as The Bluest Eye, but her work does explore the processes by which we learn that we are different, the processes by which Pecola, for example, came to believe that without blue eyes, she was no one and nothing. In her art, Williams consistently addresses the construction of identity. Her work interrogates “the intricate interlacing processes which work together to produce all seemingly ‘natural’ or ‘given’ identities. 10 She explores how we learn who we are by taking a closer, critical look at the sites and mechanisms where and by which identity and difference are produced.

Jo Ortel received a Ph.D. from Stanford University and is currently writing a book on contemporary artist Niki de Saint Phalle.

1. “Portraits of Community” was scheduled to travel to 5501 Columbia in Dallas; to the Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin, and to the Tyler Museum of Art. The exhibit was curated by Alan Govenar.
2. Williams’ installation was co-sponsored by the Community Artists’ Collective, HCP, and the Houston Women’s Caucus for Art. It was partially supported through the Collaborations Program of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County. The installation was on view from March 26 through April 30, 1994. Williams also spoke at the HCP Conference on Women in Photography on a panel discussion entitled “Glass Ceilings/Closed Doors.” In her talk, Williams addressed issues of race and identity within academia.
3. The photographers featured include A.B. Bell, Marion Butts, Morris Crawford, Rodney Evans, Elnora Frazier, Earlie Hudnall, Jr., Curtis Humphrey, Benny Joseph, Calvin Littlejohn, Louise Martin, Herbert Provost, Carl Sidle, A.C. Teal, Robert Whitby and Juanita Williams.
4. bell hooks, “feminist scholarship: ethical issues,” Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1989, pp. 42-43.
5. hooks, Talking Back, p. 43.
6. This theme was repeated in wall texts, many of which were drawn from Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man.
7. Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction Boulder and San Francisco: Westview Press, 1989, p.135.
8. Tong, “Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction”, p. 135.
9. As quoted by Celeste Connor in a review of Williams exhibit at SF Camerawork for Artweek, 25 no. 9 (May 5, 1994), p.27.10. Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York and London: Routledge, 1989, p.2.