ArtWeekend

Beuford Smith’s History Lesson

In his photographs, Smith delves into America’s historically volatile relationships between races without spelling anything out.

Beuford Smith, “Couple” (Brooklyn, NY, 2000), silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 inches (all images courtesy of the artist)

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Dubois focused on an issue that mainstream America – from Hollywood to the White House – prefers to ignore:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.

Think of all the movies where Asians are props for white Hollywood actors and actresses: Jared Leto plays Nick Lowell, a former G. I. who joins the yakuza in The Outsider (2018); Scarlett Johansson stars in the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017). After Chloe Wang changed her name to Chloe Bennet, she started getting acting gigs in Hollywood. This is what Bennet posted on Instagram, but later deleted:

Changing my last name doesn’t change the fact that my BLOOD is half Chinese, that I lived in China, speak Mandarin or that I was culturally raised both American and Chinese. It means I had to pay my rent, and Hollywood is racist and wouldn’t cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable

Hollywood’s unbroken, deeply ingrained tradition of whitewashing and  yellowface is  more than 100 years old and shows little sign of diminishing. It can be traced back to America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford, starring as Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly (1915), if not earlier. If you want to know how crazy these scenarios are, try and imagine Takeshi Kitano playing an aging gangster welcomed into the Mafia as one of its own. Hollywood doesn’t blink when it comes to making a movie about a white man joining the yakuza, but would never consider the reverse – an Asian in a white gangster movie, except as a prop to be laughed at and knocked off.

Beuford Smith, “Red Caps” (Port Authority Bus Terminal, NYC, 1970), silver gelatin print, 14 x 11 inches

Double-consciousness has been a constant companion since childhood. A couple of years ago, I made this observation while writing about Beuford Smith’s photographs:

Think of the famous photograph “San Francisco” (1956), taken by Robert Frank. A black couple is lying on a hill overlooking San Francisco. Frank approaches them from behind, invading their privacy, before taking a photograph. Aware that someone is behind them, the couple has turned to look at him: the woman is annoyed and the man, who is understandably suspicious, is angry. The photograph is read racially, with the focus on the fraught relationship between whites and black in America at that time. But DuBois’s words give a different spin to Frank’s photograph. What would this couple’s reaction have been if the photographer had been black? Would the couple have perceived a black photographer as invading their space? Would doing such a thing then become, on some level, a privileged act? Certainly, in 1956, a black photographer would have been rightfully reluctant to do what Frank did if the couple had been white. It is important to remember these things. I think we need to look at ourselves looking at the photograph if we are to begin to see it.

Recently, I visited the photographer Beuford Smith for the first time. He and his wife live in a brownstone in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.  

I did not know Smith when I reviewed his 2017 exhibition, Black Lives: Photographs by Beuford Smith at the Keith de Lellis Gallery and was happy to be invited to his place for lunch.

Beuford Smith, “Frida Kahlo” (Spring Street, NYC, 2001), silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 inches

Smith was one of the founding members of the Kamoinge Workshop, a group of fifteen black photographers who began getting together in 1963, during the first stages of the Civil Rights Movement. In Kenya’s Kikuyu language, “kamoinge” means a group of people acting together. The group’s first director was Roy DeCarava.  Born in 1919, DeCarava is a central figure in the history of photography for many reasons: one is that he made photographs that exposed the double consciousness pervasive in our daily lives.

Smith brought out two boxes of prints, which I went through over the course of the afternoon. It was quickly apparent that the boxes contained groups of photographs exploring different subjects and themes, and that any one of these groups would be the basis of an eye-opening exhibition. I did not try to curb my enthusiasm and asked Smith if I could come back. This is a report on one group of photographs, which I do not believe have ever been exhibited together. All of them are of posters or mass-produced objects depicting either a person of color or someone involved with left-wing politics. They are weathered, torn, and faded.

Beuford Smith, “Nephertiti” (Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY, 1999), silver gelatin print, 14 x 11 inches

This set of photographs defines a singular territory bordered by Aaron Siskind’s abstract photographs and Mimmo Rotella’s décollages made from torn advertising posters. The original subjects inform Smith’s interest in distressed surfaces and images. Whereas Rotella manipulated his found materials by tearing away and cutting into the layers of advertisements that had been pasted one atop the other, Smith photographs what the posters have endured. In contrast to Siskind, who framed his shots so that they would underscore the abstract elements of line and texture, Smith focuses on the damaged, ragged, and battered. Taken before the movie Frida (2002) had its world premiere, Smith’s black-and-white photograph, “Frida”  (New York, 2001), shows a craqueled, cutout of the artist’s head, which takes up most of the photograph. It is almost as if we looking at a painting in need of restoration. What makes this photograph disturbing is the rope that has been wrapped around Frida’s neck a number of times.

In “Nephertiti” (Brooklyn, 1999), Smith photographed two posters, one on top of the other and partially covering it. In the uppermost poster, we see a young black man with the lower half of his face, including his mouth, torn away. The poster is fixed to a pole on a city street; the mouthless black youth sees what is going on but is unable to talk about it. In “Youngstown to Cincinnati, Ohio” (2000, New York), a ripped poster of a black man wearing a baseball cap backwards, with the MLB logo on full display, is partially obscured by a heavy catenary chain looping down from a latch in the photo’s upper left corner and disappearing into the upper right. The man is staring intensely past the thick chain, directly at us; one of whose links covers his left eye.

Beuford Smith, “Youngstown to Cincinnati, Ohio” (19th Street & 6th Avenue, NYC, 2000) silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 inches

In his photographs of torn posters and distressed signs, Smith finds further evidence of the historically volatile relationships between races in America. The rope and chain evoke the history of lynching and slavery, but not once does Smith spell anything out. I think of these images as relics in the present tense: they remind us that the past is not necessarily past. The faces staring at us from Smith’s photographs are ghosts, reminders of what brought us to this place.

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