The term “silhouette” activates a range of thought. Positive associations include the cut of flattering a dress or suit, or a vintage cameo pin that may have graced a grandmother’s sweater. Less than pleasant associations, particularly when the synonym “profile” is considered, suggest presumed or actual criminality, a harrowing passage through this country’s legal gauntlet, and the loss of one’s liberty. Enter Silhouettes, the debut solo exhibition of portraits by San Francisco-based artist Erica Deeman that plumb the intersection of race, gender, and cultural identity - on view through June 11th at Berkley Art Museum/ Pacific Film Archive in San Francisco.
These large format portraits, which at a distance look like black and white compositions, appear impenetrable, much like the popular nineteenth-century paper cutout process with which the series shares its name. Hung as stand alone pieces and in tight groupings, Deeman and BAMPFA director/chief curator Lawrence Rinder sequenced the images to emphasize each sitter’s individuality, plus, as the artist notes, a knowing nod to negative depictions of Black women throughout history. Up close, telling details of bodily architecture - eyes cast upward or looking forward, a gracefully bowed head, or shoulders and jutting collar bones illuminated by fugitive light - reveal that in these subtle-toned color images, there is much more to know about these sitters than a passing glance allows.
Beginning in 2013, Deeman approached friends, family, and strangers, and published Craigslist ads inviting women born of at least one African diasporic parent to sit for her project. Silhouettes is the fruit of that effort, and is driven by multiple motivations: particularly, Deeman’s interest in connecting with women who, like her, embody and navigate the complexities of multiple cultural heritages. Her process interrupts the voracious cultural consumption of Black bodies and the pervasiveness of the male gaze by inviting these women to be photographed, to be seen, on their own terms.
Deeman’s portraits resonate with both historical and contemporaneous aesthetic projects. In 1850, Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) commissioned photographs of enslaved Africans on South Carolina plantations. Daguerreotypist J.T. Zealy’s images, which portray these Black men and women in exposed physical states that no white man or woman of the day would tolerate, were closely examined and confidently offered by Agassiz as evidence that slavery was a necessary, even beneficial, social construct. In a more contemporary context, Kara Walker utilizes silhouettes as a vehicle for exploring raw racial and sexual violence. By her hand, barbarism and depravity are portrayed without filter and without applying blame. The darkened silhouettes act out the worst of human behavior, full in the knowledge that their identities are masked.
Silhouettes aptly skewers physiognomy, the pseudo-scientific practice with roots in antiquity that was updated and advanced in the eighteenth century by the Swiss philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801). The silhouette - first drawn and later photographed - captured an individual’s facial features, and through physiognomic study, thought to reveal her character and overall worth. Physiognomy was frequently used as proof of actual or potential criminal behavior in racial minorities, immigrants, and members of the European and American working class. As misplaced faith in photography’s supposedly “unbiased” evidentiary capability flourished, physiognomy constituted one of many sinister means by which racial and social inequity held sway. Deeman’s portraits arouse the specter of science as a tool used against humanity, positing questions about what institutional or official narratives regarding race still taint our thought processes.
Stepping closer to look at the scant details Deeman illuminates - the soft flesh at the back of a sitter’s neck, or the length and texture of her hair - viewers form ideas of who these women are or how they conduct their lives, notions that are inevitably influenced by pernicious media-fueled stereotypes. Just steps from the frenetic exploration of California’s cultural revolution in the exhibition Hippie Modernism, these silent, monumental portraits, challenge us to question our thinking about race, gender, identity, and what it means to be seen for who we are.
Erica Deeman: Silhouettes is on view through June 11, 2017 at Berkley Art Museum/ Pacific Film Archive in San Francisco, California.