Category Archives: Commodification

Malibu Betty (Pinboard #7)

Ali Kheradyar, “Malibu Betty,” 2011, c-print, 48 x 36 inches, edition of 5

Ali Kheradyar is a Los Angeles based artist of Iranian heritage although she was born and raised in the United States.  Her training is in music and dance.  Much of her work focuses on the female body and, in many instances, her own body.  These works use the body as a jumping off point to explore themes such as beauty, sculpture, commercialization, sexuality and gender.

This work entitled, “Malibu Betty” from 2011 is part of Kheradyar’s Dye series.  In Dye, Kheradyar photographs portraits of her pubic hair covered in Betty Hair Dye.  The dye specifically designed for use on one’s pubic hair and is for women who want their pubic hair to match the hair on their head whether it is blonde, brunette, pink, purple, or, as is the case in this work, Malibu Blue.  The minimalistic image features a cropped close-up of Kheradyar’s lower torso, legs and pubic region.  Her pubic hair is matted with a thick layer of the Malibu Blue dye which contrasts starkly to the pale tone of her skin and brings an element of playfulness to an otherwise muted work.

For the artist, the dye raised a number of questions, as she writes, “What was this practice about?  The commercialization of the female?  Consumerism?  Color?  Challenging the male gaze, or partaking in female objectification?  How are these products appealing?  Is this sexy?  What do these products say about sex culture and beauty now?”  Many of these questions remain unresolved in Kheradyar’s work.  Without knowing the artist’s background or the context of the work, the image could easily be an advertisement for the product.  At the same time, Kheradyar’s use of her own body and its simultaneous simple presentation coupled with assertive presentation of the self, echo Ana Mendieta.  However, such contradictions and layered meanings are an essential part of the questioning process Kheradyar is driving at.  Her work highlights the ways in which sexuality can at times be ridiculous, absurd and even funny doing so an practical and straightforward manner.  Rather than poking fun at a product that turns your pubic hairs blue, to form this observation, however, she simply uses it as it was intended to be used.  In this regard, her work turns the questions she seeks to address to the viewer.  You can almost feel her asking the viewer, in genuine curiosity, “is this sexy?”  In turning this question around rather than explicitly asking it by presenting herself in a provocative or sarcastic mode, she is able to effectively disrupt a simple reading of her work.

Sources:

http://www.alikheradyar.com/

http://sweet-station.com/blog/2012/04/dye-by-ali-kheradyar/

http://www.western-project.com/artists/ali-kheradyar/#6

 

Indigo Som: Chinese Restaurants and Chinese American Identity (Pinboard # 6)

Indigo Som, “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi”, 2004-2005

 

Indigo Som is a Chinese American who grew up in Marin County, California and remains a California based artist.  This image, entitled “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi” is part of Som’s series Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South 2004-2005.  As the title indicates, the series focuses on Chinese restaurants located in Mississippi.  Som describes her impetus for the project as stemming from the contrast between the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants in America and the continued characterization of a Chinese presence in America as “perpetually foreign and intrinsically un-American.”  The duality of this phenomenon was particularly striking to Som in the form of Chinese Restaurants and in particular unexpected Chinese restaurants which is to say those that you see “in tiny towns when you’ve been driving for hours with no Chinese folks in sight.”  One such place was Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In this image, the Chinese Restaurant Wu’s is shown in a desolate landscape.  Although several cars are visible in the parking lot, the image conveys a sense of isolation.  Further, although Som draws attention to the restaurant by using it as the subject of her photograph, she also highlights its mundane nature through brown and grey tonalities as well as the devoting nearly half of the frame to asphalt road along which Wu’s is located.  The ways in which Chinese restaurants have become a caricature of Chinese culture are evident in this image.  The font in which the name “Wu’s” is written appears to calls to mind, albeit tenuously, calligraphic Chinese lettering.  In addition,  the building which is otherwise a non-descript tan colored cement block, features a green overhanging pavilion roof that, despite bearing similarity to the drive thru next door, is enough to indicate in one quick glance that this is a Chinese restaurant.

Such embellishments are not necessary, yet they underscore the interplay between authenticity and foreignness that dominate American perceptions of Chinese culture. Nearly every American has eaten food from a Chinese restaurant, Chinese food is in many ways an American cultural staple.  Americans have always incorporated things from other cultures, that is in fact a defining feature of the “melting pot mentality” of American culture However, Som’s image of Wu’s reveals more than mere appropriation.  Rather what Som’s image shows is the continued isolation of Asian-American culture in favor of an imagined Asian-American culture.  The fact that this restaurant in no way resembles actual Chinese culture is not important.  Consumers of Chinese food in America are not seeking an actual Chinese culture, rather they are seeking an imagined one- one that is foreign but harmless, exotic but safe, distant but right at home.  Again, creating caricatures of other cultures as a means of harnessing or destabilizing their presence in America is not something that is unique to Chinese-Americans.  What is unique is the particular role played by Chinese restaurants in this process.  They function both as a point of contact (in some cases real, more frequently imagined) between American and Chinese American culture, but also highlight the absurdity of the American conception of Chinese-American culture as well as the continued othering of Chinese and on a broader scale, Asian culture, that makes little logistical sense.

Sources:

http://sites.asiasociety.org/arts/onewayoranother/oneway3.html#Indigo

http://www.well.com/~indigo/

http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Berkeley-artist-goes-deep-to-get-her-fill-of-2722528.php#photo-2176652

http://www.creativeworkfund.org/modern/bios/indigo_som.html

 

Pinboard #4: Richard Prince

Richard Prince’s Unitled (Cowboy)  is an iconic photograph that refers to an iconic advertisement that refers to an iconic American role. The image is a palimpsest of meaning, and seems to acquire additional layers of resonance with every passing year.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), chromagenic print, 1989

 

 

 

Prince (b. 1949) is an American painter and photographer. He is usually referred to as an “appropriation artist,” because his most famous works are rephotographed photographs, some of which are physically or digitally altered. Most of his early material, such as the Marlboro advertisement used in Unitled (Cowboy) came from magazines, newspapers, printed advertisements, billboards, and television. Prince is attracted to suspicious narratives in widely circulate images; of his work, he has said, “I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And, I try to re-present them even more unbelievably.” [1]

Untitled (Cowboy) is taken from the Cowboys series, arguably Prince’s most famous works. In the far right of the frame, a cowboy seated astride a galloping horse seems to race off the very edge of the image. The rest of the image is filled with blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Each image in the Cowboys series was taken from a Marlboro cigarette ad, a campaign known for its celebration of traditional American masculinity. Marlboro’s ads seemed to depict authentic scenes of masculine action replete with wide open spaces, blue skies, tumbleweeds, lassos, and ten-gallon hats.

Prince’s rephotographs call the authenticity of these scenes into question; because Prince’s image isn’t “real,” the viewer is asked to reconsider what makes any photograph “real.” In this case, was the Marlboro ad, which appeared to document a cowboy at work, really emblematic of a type? Or staged with models? And if this “authentic” American experience could be staged, was it truly “authentic” at all?

[1] Marvin Heiferman, “Richard Prince”, “BOMB Magazine”, Summer 1988.

Disruption and Consumption: J.P. Ball’s Photographs of William Biggerstaff (Blog Post 2)

J.P. Ball & Son, Portrait of William Biggerstaff seated in a chair with a hand on his face wearing a flower in his lapel; Photograph of the Execution of William Biggerstaff, hanged for the murder of “Dick” Johnson, flanked by Rev. Victor Day and Henry Jurgens, sheriff, 1896; Photograph of William Biggerstaff, former slave, born in Lexington, KY in 1854, 1896.

 

This work is a series of three photographs taken by James Presley Ball of William Biggerstaff in the year in 1896.  Biggerstaff was a former slave from Lexington, Kentucky who had moved out West to Montana after gaining his freedom.  In 1895, Biggerstaff was accused of murdering the African American prizefighter Dick Johnson in a quarrel over a white woman.[1]  Although Biggerstaff claimed the killing was done in self-defense he was nonetheless found guilty and hung.  In this series of images, Biggerstaff is shown in life, just after his execution and in death.

The first image is a posed portrait of Biggerstaff.  His head rests on his right hand and he gazes solemnly in that direction.  He is dressed formally wearing a suit with a flower pinned to the lapel.  The second image is gruesome and depicts Biggerstaff’s hanging body shortly after his execution.  His face is covered in a mask meant to preserve his dignity in death but which only adds to the horrific nature of the image.  Biggerstaff wears the same coat as in the first picture and is flanked by a Reverend, Victor  Day, as well as the sheriff, Henry Jurgens.  A crowd of onlookers is clearly visible in the back indicating the public nature and spectacle of Biggerstaff’s death.  In the final image, Biggerstaff is shown in his casket.  The angle of the image draws attention to his hand on which a wedding ring is clearly visible.

At first glance this troublesome series of images seems no different than the myriad of lynching images from this time period.  Leigh Raiford describes such images as an essential component of the “reinscribing of the black body as commodity” and a mechanism that “helped extend [a unified white identity] far beyond the town, the county, the state, the South, to include whites nationwide and even internationally.”[2]  While this is certainly true of the vast majority of lynching images several features of this image complicate reading it in such a manner.  The first is the presentation of the three images as opposed to a singular image of a lynched body as was the custom.  Rather the photographer’s decision to use three images, including one showing Biggerstaff while he was still, creates a narrative that individualizes the work.  Typical lynching images present bodies that are often unrecognizable, providing an anonymity that allows for a disassociation from the work that for white audiences at the time played into racist fantasies and for contemporary audiences makes it easier to stomach.  Such dissociation is impossible with this series.  By presenting Bigerstaff’s portrait side-by-side with those of his death, the photographer creates a narrative that contextualizes and brings meaning to Biggerstaff’s life as well as death.  The wedding ring in the final image punctuates this narrative and again forces the viewer to think about the consequences of Biggerstaff’s death on those in his life.

The second characteristic of the photograph that disrupts a conventional reading, is not a feature inherent to the work itself but is in fact the photographer, James Presley (J.P.) Ball.  Ball was born a free man in 1825 in Virginia.  He learned the art of daguerreotype and quickly became extremely successful as a photographer.  As one of the most successful and famous photographers of the latter half of the 20th century, Ball photographed a number of notable people including Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass.[3]  However, in addition to his famous portraits, Ball also documented the horrors of slavery as well as lynchings, publishing a pamphlet addressing the horrors of slavery from capture in Africa through the Middle Passage, ” and serving as the official photographer for the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. [4]  In addition, Ball was one of the leaders of the movement for William Biggerstaff’s clemency.[5]

Thus, when viewed in this light, these images necessarily take on a different meaning.  If lynching images were commodify the black body for white consumption, as Raiford argues, then what does it mean that this particular set of images was taken by a photographer such as Ball?  To some degree the images of Biggerstaff highlight the relevance of authorship and purpose when it comes to lynching images.  Had the same set of images been taken by a white photographer for purposes more in keeping with most lynching images, they would remain part of the processes described by Raiford, lacking any notion of emancipation.  At the same time, the mere fact that Ball may have intended the images to serve as a call to arms, or at the very least a powerful memorial to Biggerstaff, does not control how they would have been and continue to be interpreted.  Thus, although the typical mechanisms of lynching images are unquestionably disrupted, Ball’s role and the photograph itself cannot be neatly summarized.  The question then, becomes what the role of the art historian ought to be with regards to this image.  Is it enough to merely draw attention to the ways in which interpretations of images are complicated by concepts of authorship, viewership, subject and object?  Such an exercise seems to fall short.


[1] The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

[2] Leigh Raiford, “The Consumption of Lynching Images,” p. 270.  From Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis.

[3] http://www.lonniedawkins.com/JamesPresleyBall.htm#_edn5; (The San Francisco Call, 1896)

The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[4] http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[5] P. 246, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature by Jacqueline Goldsby. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Also: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/ball-james-presley-1825-1904, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/amacker/photo/death.html

Pinboard #4: Postcards from the Exotic

This a hand-colored photograph of a river baptism. In the center of the image, two preachers clad in dark red robes attend to a woman in a white dress and bonnet, who is submerged in the water up to her shoulders. To the right, there are several clusters of people, including a group of faithfuls who are waiting with their hands crossed in front of their bodies for their baptism to take place. To the left are two boats, which are conceivably bringing new participants to the ceremony. Crowds of African Americans, several people deep, line the banks of the river. Red lettering printed on the image indicate that this “Genuine Negro Baptism” took place near Norfolk, Virginia in 1918.

I. Stern, Genuine Negro Baptising near Norfolk, Va., 1905–10. International Center of Photography

This object was on view in the International Center for Photography’s 2011  “Take me to the Water” exhibition of vintage postcards of river baptisms in the Mid-West and the South between 1880 and 1930. As the ICP web site explains, religious fundamentalism was widespread in these decades, which brought tremendous social and economic changes to these regions. Postcards of river baptisms circulated both through those individuals who participated in the events, as well as via those who attended as spectators or merely knew of them and saw them as curious spectacles. For river baptisms were a kind of theater that satisfied not only the faithful, but also tourists in search of evidence of homegrown traditions that were at once authentic and exotic.

I wanted to present this image in relation to the horrifying lynching photographs that we encountered through Leigh Raiford’s essay. This postcard is an example of another kind of imagery that commodified black bodies. However, it performs this operation not in a register of violence, but rather one of exotic spirituality that appealed to white consumers of river baptism postcards. The title of the postcard, “Genuine Negro Baptism” captures how river baptisms featuring black subjects were addressed to such beholders as exhibits of authenticity. The postcards, like lynching photographs, provided a vantage point from which to dominate the black body through objectification and primitivization.

Gallery

Images for Prairie Pinups

This gallery contains 6 photos.

 

Images for “The Consumption of Lynching Images”

Left: Unidentified Photographer , “Lynching”, ca. 1900
Right: Frank Hudson, “The Avengers of Little Myrtle Vance, and the Villian brought to Justice, ca. 1900

R.C. Holmes “Wilmington, Delaware” 1900

J.P. Ball & Son/ James Presley Ball, “William Biggerstaff”

Vivian Cherry, “Untitled” From “The Game of Lynching, Yorkville, East Harlem”, series, 1947