A Woman, Phenomenally

Tiffany Smith

© Tiffany Smith

© Tiffany Smith

When my family came to America in 1989, I arrived with confidence that my status as a citizen assured me a place in the society I was entering. I had no concept of the challenges to be faced in defining my identity as a modern American woman. As a child I watched Miss America and Miss USA pageants from our island home in The Bahamas with wonder, naively dreaming of growing up to become an archetype of beauty and grace. I would scan the contestants to find the one who represented a reflection of myself. Though I never quite found her, I remained unflinching in the belief that my adult self would be more than capable of elbowing out the competition to win the crown. Before coming to the States as a young girl, I had no real experience with being viewed as different or cast into the role of “Other.” I had no idea that the chances of my experiences and ideals of beauty being viewed as typical would be, at the least, a formidable challenge, and at best, an insurmountable goal.

Within the social and political climate into which I entered, I could never be Miss America. I was ready for America, but she was not ready for me. So began my attempt to define an identity that would embrace my multi­cultural upbringing, assert my multi-ethnic makeup, and oscillate between “visitor” and “native” in a battle of the pressure to assimilate and the desire to retain allegiance to specific cultural practices and definitions of beauty.

A Woman, Phenomenally explores the power of images and their influences on the formation of individual identity through the experiences of individuals descended from a mixed cultural or ethnic heritage. The work aims to challenge the often exotified and stereotyped depictions of people of color through the presentation of self-authored imagery that reclaim the subject’s agency over reflections of one’s own identity. The impetus to create portraits focused on women of color comes from a desire to redefine our role within the canon of photographic representation. It is a response to a history that too often casts our bodies as props and objects of exotification, our cultural practices as anthropological novelty, and our notions of self-identification as problematic until validated through a Eurocentric view.

© Tiffany Smith

© Tiffany Smith

When do we begin to redefine what is considered mainstream within mass culture in an impactful manner that creates concrete shifts in collective thought? How can we harness the power inherent to the photographic medium to inform and repossess authorship of our own narrative? This project examines how cultural influences are retained in the face of geographical separation and how individual identities are formed.

My investigation of this subject began with a fascination with turn­of­the­century ethnographic images depicting women of color. The notion of being exotified resonated with me and I was compelled by what was communicated by the gaze that these images documented. Who was looking at these women and why? How did these women view themselves and what control did they possess over how they were subsequently represented? I found that more often than not, the subjects of these photographs had little power over the authorship of their own images, a condition that, to me, was not too far removed from the experiences of modern women of color and their relationship to the media.

Considering the visual language and function of the gaze present in these ethnographic photographs, I began to craft images that employ a contemporary visual language to respond to some of the questions these images generated. My investigations resulted in the self-portrait series For tropical girls who consider ethnogenesis when the native sun is remote, which investigates formation of identity and the power of representation through my own narrative. These experiments helped me to establish a visual language that places emphasis on color and pattern, and a mode of production that creates site-specific environments for the subject, which rely on elements of installation and set design to evoke a sense of place. The images are performative in nature as I embrace the roles of both subject and ethnographer, incorporating cultural signifiers that describe my experience with attempts to mitigate my multi­cultural identity. As I engage in performances of “the Other” I counter the objectionable gaze of the ethnographic photographs referenced with an “oppositional gaze.” In composition and visual aesthetic, the work is not shy about making its presence known; as the author of the images, I am not shy about making my opinion heard.

In my practice, I am repeatedly drawn to themes related to the formation of identity and communities, the role of memory (particularly in relation to notions of cultural identity), and the experience of being or performing “the other.” The criteria that guide the investigation of my subjects are typically anthropological in nature and engendered by a genuine curiosity.

Manipulating the inherent power of the photographic image, the work presents portraits that are collaborative in construction and performative in nature as the foundation of an immersive multimedia installation that creates an environment that references a domestic space through cultural signifiers extracted from the collective diasporic memory. The concept of displacement is a secondary theme that unifies the stories and experiences of the subjects depicted.

The contextualizing installation of the images includes objects that refer back to the portraits and extend the plane of the photographs into three-dimensional space. Props used within the photographs such as artificial plants and tile pieces are combined with constructed sculptural objects that mimic decorative concrete block patterns and readymade objects that reference a domestic space to create the communal environment that the portraits inhabit. The aesthetic of these objects is decidedly tropical, manifesting from my own memories of a shifting home and referencing cultural aesthetics from the Caribbean diaspora.

Collectively, the work functions as an altar to the living, creating a space to reflect on the depiction and experiences of the subjects with compassion and reverence, expanding concepts from my previous installation work, particularly 5 Kings. Like the work of Mickalene Thomas and Ebony Patterson, the work relies on layering of color and pattern to create a transportive environment. Rashid Johnson and Hew Locke investigate similar themes from a male perspective, and also provide context to the work.

The images, video, and their presentation intend to create an idealized and constructed environment for the subjects to inhabit that reference the ambiguous social space that they navigate in reality. Collectively, these elements dissect personal narratives, drawing on memories of each subject’s respective “home” to create a representation that gives each subject a degree of agency in “performing the other.”

© Tiffany Smith

© Tiffany Smith