Artist Profile: Jessica Wimbley
“[W]e technically are not born with identity; it is a socially constructed attribute… In other words, who we are is controlled by internal and external factors that combine to make us who we become.” ~Sabrina Lea Worsham
“Changing how we see images is clearly one way to change the world.” ~bell hooks
Written by Betty Ann Brown
Jessica Wimbley’s art compels us to change the way we see images and how that seeing affects identity construction. She interrogates depictions of African Americans–especially African American women–from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For some time now, she has been focusing on how African-Americans were portrayed in cabinet cards: the larger format cards that were introduced in the 1860s and replaced the earlier carte de visite in the 1880s. The last cabinet cards were produced in the 1930s. Soon after their “demise,” printed magazines began to rise in popularity. Wimbley has also engaged fashionable “glamour” images found in printed magazines like Ebony and Jet. Founded in 1945 and 1951 respectively, both publications prioritize African-American content.
Wimbley does not simply appropriate such images. She changes them in order to deconstruct the messages they convey. Her “Cabinet Card, Hair” (part of her 2016 exhibition at Charlie James Gallery) takes a nineteenth century cabinet card portrait of what appears to be a European or Euro-American woman and then skews it by inserting a clutch of her own hair over the original woman’s locks. The white beauty with what appears to be medium brown hair (you can see a little of it on her forehead) is transformed into an African-American with thick, wild curls. The juxtaposition is unsettling. What would a nineteenth century “white” woman think about having an Afro? Would she want a photograph to memorialize it? Or would she straighten her hair to make it look “whiter” and, according to the aesthetics of her era, prettier?
I am reminded of “Black is Beautiful!” one of the resonant slogans of the 1960s-70s Black Power Movement. Racial pride was predicated on claiming African skin color and facial features and curly hair as attractive, a remarkable accomplishment in an era when all–or almost all–fashion models were emaciated white women with “smooth” hair. (It was not until 1974 that Beverly Johnson became the first African-American model to be featured on the cover of Vogue magazine.) (Just to expand the point about racism and fashion, Yalitza Aparicio became the first indigenous woman on the cover of Vogue Mexico as recently as 2018.)
Wimbley’s Belle Jet Series (exhibited at the College of the Canyons Art Gallery earlier this year) is comprised of large images characterized by eclectic layering. While Wimbley’s “Cabinet Card” Series is often quite small in scale (“Hair” is only 4″ x 6″), the “Belle Jet” Series runs larger, at 65″ x 35″. These works have rounded edges that imitate the shape of nineteenth century stereograph matting, so the artist is continuing to anchor her roots in history. (Stereographs were printed with two almost-identical images side by side. Viewed through a stereoscope, the flat photographic images appeared to become three-dimensional.)
Wimbley has combined glamorous images of the “Beauty of the Week” from Belle with vintage photographs, then merged them with self-portraits as well as painted and drawn passages. In one, the “Beauty of the Week” is joined with an historic depiction of Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus” who appeared in European freak shows in the early nineteenth century. Baartman died in 1815, so we don’t have any photographs of her (remember, photography was first patented in 1839), but there were numerous, often quite offensive caricatures of her with her large buttocks ridiculously parodied. On top of all these conceptually resonant images, Wimbley has placed a helmet mask from the Sande Woman’s Society from in and around Sierra Leone, Africa. Young women are taken out of their home villages, painted a chalky white to imply that they are “unformed” until they receive the womanly knowledge dispensed by the society. Some of these female cultural insights are delivered through Sande dances. The spirit figures with helmet masks perform in such dances but do not speak: Everything is communicated visually. The masks have small mouths to discourage women from speaking out, scarified lines across their cheeks, and expansive hairstyles, to make them more attractive.
Visual communication of feminine behavioral and beauty ideals continues in our mass media era. As theorists Debra Grodin and Thomas R. Lindlof remind us, “Today media are part of our world and therefore play an important role in the formulations of our identities or constructions of self.” In other words, the images we see on television, in films, and in magazines (whether print or online), are crucial in establishing our sense of self. Images tell us who we are.
French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes about identification as the transformation that takes place in the subject when s/he connects with and “assumes” an image. Lacan focuses on what he calls the “mirror stage,” i.e., the early childhood recognition of the “self” reflected in a mirror. We can expand Lacan’s concept by thinking about how identification happens when we see ourselves–or don’t see ourselves–in the mass media. What kind of images do we identify with? Another way of putting this is: What kind of images tell us who (and how) to be? Further, what kind of images resist our identification?
A simple way to clarify this distinction is to remember that female viewers of early Hollywood films were compelled to identify with the male protagonists (I am echoing Laura Mulvey here), yet it could never be a full identification because of the gender gap. In a similar way, Black viewers of dominant fashion magazines before the end of the last century could have only a partial identification with the all-white display of what the society deemed beautiful and therefore valuable.
Jessica Wimbley rehearses the postmodern view of personal identity, reminding us that we are all multifaceted and decentered entities. She scrambles diverse media sources to interrogate the construction of Black womanhood. She shuttles between early photographic portraits (cabinet cards) and more recent “glamour” shots from Ebony and Jet magazines. She adds images of herself, as well as traditional African artworks, particularly the Sande Society helmet masks from Africa.
bell hooks reminds us that “[w]e have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.” hooks adds, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is–it’s to imagine what is possible.” Jessica Wimbley reminds us to imagine what is possible. She challenges the historical parameters of identity and suggests that women–all women–can construct new alternatives. Yes, it is possible.