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A young woman wearing an earth-toned caftan poses in a faded parking lot, her head turned away from the camera and toward a rust-colored wall, her right hand holding a sprig of white blossoms. An older woman sits on the steps in front of an Episcopal church, gazing into the distance, her arms crossed above her lap. A teen on an empty sidewalk clasps her hands to her smiling cheeks, her tank top splashed with oversized emojis. She could be confessing a crush or simply reflecting on her weekend. She is alone but does not seem lonely, as though befriended by her own sense of sudden wonder.
In Ask Her How She’s Doing, Katherine Simóne Reynolds’s photographic series, presented virtually on Artsy by projects+gallery in St. Louis, the stories that belong to these women remain unknown, but they feel subtly and delicately intertwined within their urban, rust-belt St. Louis environs. Sometimes the sky is overcast, sometimes light suffuses a schoolyard. Other times their eyes calmly meet our gaze, or they narrow toward an unseen point. Each of these women is Black and each is depicted tenderly on a quiet spring day.
Some women are named, but most are not. This conscious ambiguity is important to the artist. “Self-preservation is essential to the toolbox of Black women’s survival,” Reynolds told me in a recent conversation, “and we are entitled to privacy. The relationships that I had with these women was really beautiful, but the relationship with the camera is something else.”
Honing her multidisciplinary practice over the past five years, Reynolds, 27, is acutely aware of the perils of capturing a person on camera without weighing the very real consequences. But the fiercely introspective nature of her growing body of photographs, video, and sculpture resists a reductive taxonomy.
Ask Her How She’s Doing evolved somewhat organically over the summer of 2015. It started with asking Black women in St. Louis neighborhoods, “How are you actually doing today?” What may seem a simple proposition is anything but, especially when engaging a diverse group of people so often caricatured, demeaned, or outright ignored by contemporary discourse, to say nothing of the whole of American history. Within these 15 portraits, Reynolds rejects the tired “strong Black woman” trope for something more honest and true: vulnerability is vital to a full sense of self, but it is a luxury that Black women across age and background are perpetually denied.
With a revitalized Black Lives Matter movement this summer, Ask Her How She’s Doing proves ever more exigent. In light of the disproportionate number of Black families devastated by COVID-19, and the great number of Black women risking their lives as essential workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and day cares, their physical and mental health feels especially under siege. “The series becomes more potent now because we are understanding the erasure of Black female voices even more,” explained Reynolds. “It’s not about just listening, but deep listening, understanding the embodiment you have to take if you care. You don’t have to be a certain type of Black woman to be seen and listened to. All of us deserve that.”
If, individually, these portraits invite us to imagine each woman’s distinct personal narrative, collectively they act a portal to private selves that seem intentionally just out of reach. “Woman in My Neighborhood” portrays a pony-tailed woman walking down a shaded lane and looking pensively to her right, a gold pendant askew below her sunlit collar bone. In “Take Off,” the woman in the caftan leaps above the concrete ground, green grass sprouting through its cracks, and looks down at the flowers cradled at her breast. A similarly exultant piece, “Imani Dancing” features a lithe woman prancing across a verdant lawn, her tall frame aligned with a family of power lines. As her toes and arms arch midair, her body energizes the expanse around her. In “A Woman Named Cynnamon,” the auburn-haired subject with a septum piercing holds a burst of pale pink between her lips. Is that cotton candy? No, it’s a cloud of cherry blossoms.
If Ask Her How She’s Doing insists that we stop and reflect on the interiority of Black women, Reynolds’s 2019 video work, I Told You, I’m Fine, meditates on the burden of performing invulnerability when asked that very question. The three-channel video — part of the artist’s broader creative interrogation of surveillance within beauty supply and discount stores — features three Black women wearing different blond wigs, confronting the lens in slow motion with a low-pitched “I told you, I’m fine” repeated every few seconds as though responding to a nosy interlocutor. One woman dramatically combs through her Rapunzel locks in front of a tower of paper napkins, and the two others swerve through a crowd of blank-faced, Anglicized mannequin heads.
Within these fluorescent-lit product-scapes, to be “fine” is to flout the possibility that one might be allowed to be anything else. “In all these works is the attempt, as a Black woman, to control the visual narrative,” said Reynolds. “They are conversations with the question of opacity, the feeling of simultaneously being seen yet invisible.”
Lately, Reynolds is less interested in “cohesive experiences” of finished art than in working through ideas collaboratively. “I’m trying to show more ‘works in progress’ now,” she explained, referring in part to the foam “husks,” or sculpture reliefs, currently on view in Abstractions of Black Citizenship at Seattle University. “I think that there’s more complexity to start that relationship with the audience. Especially as a regular Black woman, it’s important to show my process. I’m also interrogating a concept of Black excellence — how that concept can actually be very damaging to progress and understanding.” Her ongoing Mending Keloids series — three-by-four-foot objects made of wax or resin — reflects the artist’s enduring stake in the experience of Black suffering and healing, but the works suggest overgrown scar tissue (“keloids”) rather than invisible injury and resilience. “How do the body and soul heal?” the series seems to ask, “and at what cost?”
“Today we still have Black trans women whose deaths and murders are not even being reported,” said Reynolds. “White people are coming out in droves at this time, but from the beginning it was Black women and Black trans women trying to change things. And people aren’t even wondering how we’re doing.”
With Ask Her How She’s Doing and her other works, Reynolds implores us to question why, and to reckon with the answers.
Ask Her How She’s Doing, presented by projects+gallery (4733 McPherson Avenue. St. Louis, Missouri), can be viewed on Artsy through July 31. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to The Loveland Foundation, an organization committed to fostering mental wellness within communities of color, especially Black women and girls.