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From the catalogue of the exhibition by Museum of Modern Art Louisiana:
"Faith, hope and love" by Jacob Holdt




SANDRA RUFFIN


from advocacy to art

 

I AM. I am Woman. I am African-American. I am Mother/ Daughter/ Sister/ Friend. Although that is not the totality of ME; in this moment, I am looking through that lens and speaking from that heart. In this piece I reflect upon and comment on Jacob’s presentation and use of Blackness, especially the Black Nude, in American Pictures. His body of work is broader and more expansive but, just as Jacob’s life-walk was revealed to him through American Pictures, so is the whole of its purpose revealed in the soulful reflections of the “Least of Us” (and therefore the least within us) captured and re-presented in his images of Blackness in America.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE? This question is about power — the power TO BE. Right here and right now. It is not about be-coming, be-having, be-stowing. It is about Be-ing who and what you are, where you are, in every moment. America has never been very ALLOWING when it comes to the BEINGNESS of Black People — any Colored People for that matter, except White People. Mainstream whiteness was defined out of the cultural-color scheme; it was neutralized and presented as the standard to which all other color-cultures had to aspire. Make no mistake, in 1970’s America, Blackness was its opposite.

The America of American Pictures was born out of the power movements of the 1960s. These movements were about seizing/ claiming power; they were about seeing and being seen, speaking up and being heard, loving and being loved. The Black Power Movement in particular was an integral part of, if not the impetus for, other and/or larger liberation movements within and without America. Traditional/historical power structures were disintegrating and re-forming.

The timing of the shooting of American Pictures was fortuitous. Jacob came to Black and White America at a time when people-of-color, women and men, rich and poor began to abandon the ego-centered, individual-mind-identity, to rally around their common causes and to relish in the relative security of group-identity. The Group became a source of power and the power-of-the-group became an undeniable force in American social and political life. Solidarity was the buzzword and it was a force to be reckoned with. The various power movements built upon the successes and learned harsh lessons from the failures of any singular effort to expose exploitation, demand and command voice and/or to re-define identity. Mainstream whiteness as objective, neutral standard was privileged by invisibility. Whites who through their own multidimensional experience un-covered the reality of privilege and discovered its illusory character abandoned the entitlement and joined various grass-roots movements for change. There, in this new place, they re-covered the multidimensional Self.

I met Jacob in 1983 when he came to Harvard Law School to show/do American Pictures. I was a student and President of the Black Law Students Association. Just being me, I embodied in some peculiar way an intangible something that was interpreted as symbolic of the black/ female/ revolutionary. I did not intend this but was aware of it. As symbol, my choices had significance for the community of progressive students at the law school; therefore, in meeting Jacob and being introduced to American Pictures as workshop and slide show, I faced the interesting question of whether or not to support the show. Despite ruminations in academia of the unlocated, multidimensional Self that is the touchstone of the postmodern interpretation of self and the world; when I met Jacob, modernity reigned. People were firmly located and identified in and by groups. The dual/binary mind categorized and excluded. You were either part of the problem or part of the solution. What was American Pictures? On the one hand, it graphically and effectively presented class issues in America. It showed the poverty, the hopelessness, the disempowerment, the intentional neglect, and the despair of America’s underclass. It exposed the duplicity and complicity of American institutions in the continued exploitation and perpetuation of that underclass. It offered the opportunity to display and dismantle the false god that America had become. VOTE YES.

On the other hand, because of a history of race-based slavery and the dominance of race-ism in American thought, the coincidence of Blackness and Femaleness with Poverty and Sexual Exploitation was so pervasive that these diminished states of existence were encouraged to become identified with Black Womanhood. The co-incidence of Blackness and Maleness with Drug Addiction, Drunkenness and Incarceration was so pervasive that these diminished states of existence were encouraged to become identified with Black Manhood. Image is perception. Moreover, Jacob, a Slavic (white) Jesus-looking male was/is exploiting images of women generally and poor black women in particular for fame and fortune. Even if such exploitation was/is not the primary purpose of the work, it’s hardly incidental. Subjugation of women, exotification of black women, perpetuation of anti-black stereotypes–classic Blaxploitation. VOTE NO.

Blaxploitation as theory and practice in its modern iteration emerged in the film industry in the early 1970’s, the very time during which Jacob shot his 15,000 photos from which American Pictures was made. The word itself is a portmanteau of the words “black” and “exploitation.” (Wikipedia 2009). Some of the power SANDRA RUFFIN from advocacy to art 18 wrenched from the system by the power movements of the 60s found expression in the film industry where Blacks re-presented themselves as self-actualized agents in their own lives and the life of their communities. For the most part, Blacks were not the owners of the film or the final industry decision makers, but the genre sought to appeal to the black urban audience and as a result employed numerous black writers, composers, musicians, actors and directors. The dominant thematic formulas for successful American filmmaking in the 1970s were not very different from the current formulas — violence, action, sex and love. As a result, Blaxploitation films repeated the formulas — cops and robbers, pimps and whores, fast cars and fast lives. Stereotypes abounded — sexual prowess, female subjugation, and street life. To be sure, that was not the entire picture presented by the genre, but it was dominant enough to spark protest from empowered organizations within the Black community. In retrospect, what we learned from the debate over Blaxploitation is to ask: (1) What are we (Blacks) getting out of it? And (2) what is it costing us? These are the questions that had to be answered in determining whether or not to support American Pictures.

What is it costing us?
The concern and response of African-American women to the Black Nudes and the relational depictions included in the show do not arise out of some abstract notion of puritan decency but out of the particularized experience of African-American women in America. The legacy of slavery, the commodification of Blackness and its over-sexualization, are at the core of the African- American response to the use of Black Nudes in the show. The sex-on-demand status of slaves, poor women, and women generally is necessarily present in and part of the experience of the Black Nudes as protest and advocacy. Recall that American Pictures was originally presented and experienced as a workshop. American Pictures was process — participants were invited and expected to “un-cover,” “re-cover” and “work through” their perceptions. As workshop, the role of the facilitator/narrator was functionally important if not absolutely necessary, and Jacob, as facilitator/narrator, raised additional concerns.

There were cultural and language differences which hindered effective verbal and non-verbal communication between Jacob and workshop participants. Given the sensitive issues associated with the Black Nudes in particular, effective, culturally-proficient communication was critical when presenting and commenting on these particular photographs. Jacob’s compromised-ability to “pick-up” on the feedback from the participants and to strategically guide their gaze based on that feedback was a serious issue. The ability, both, to present and perceive the beauty and naturalness of the Black Nudes would invariably be compromised if the gaze was not effectively guided. Potential result—exotification, resentment, anger. Of course, exotification of the Black Woman is troubling for several reasons; definitional issues aside, the sexual exploitation and violation of Black Women was/is a global problem. The question of power, its potential mis-use and ab-use was unavoidably and conspicuously presented by the show despite the fact that we, as observers/participants, somehow knew that neither photographer nor subject was, in the specific relational moment, a conscious agent or victim of such abuse. Nonetheless, Jacob’s status as white man and subject’s status as black woman/man immediately bring this power relationship into play. African-American observers/participants are especially sensitive to this dynamic. Oftentimes, it is the apparent victimization of the subject that is the source of power in the image. Paradoxically, lack of power becomes source of power in this context.

Even in today’s world, today’s America, we must ask as we did in the era of blaxploitation, whether there is any transformative potential in the image and, if so, whether that potential outweighs the risk of reinforcing overt or ambivalent sexism, racism and/or classism. Of significant, if not equal importance and concern, is the response of the non-African-American community to the Black Nudes and the relational depictions included in the show. Regarding the white observer/participant, the transformative impact of the show may be enhanced by the potential racial/ gender identification with Jacob, and the possible presumption of objectivity conferred by his status as “foreigner.” However, as beneficiaries of the power and privilege flowing from the status quo ante, whites are likely to shift only incrementally if at all.

So, what do we get out of it?
Despite the fact that it has taken 35 years for Jacob’s photographs to grace the walls of Louisiana, from the moment I first saw the photographs, it was the Art that silenced the criticism. There is nothing more beautiful, more artful than Life itself, and few are present enough to capture and preserve it in any medium. Any authentic slice of life is a hologram of the whole of life, and Jacob gives us many holographic images. While journeying through America, Jacob practiced the art of present-momentawareness. Just recently, we laughed as he credited Attention Deficit Disorder for this unwitting capacity. During significant periods of his visits, there was no interpretation-of-the-moment based on past experiences or future predictions. What was, was. Perhaps he could not have achieved this state without traveling great distances from his home, being unmoored from mundane responsibilities, and landing in strange environments. While in America, his willingness to live without bonds or boundaries moved him from Mind to Moment. Mind uses time to judge/compare what is; without time (past or future) judgment of what is disappears, and one simply responds creatively to the moment in the moment. It was through this practice that Jacob was able to BE with his subjects without noticeably impacting their BEING. (T)here but not (t)here. And in those photographs where the subjects are also practicing present-moment-awareness, the most profound Art is produced:

In the SCREEN DOOR, the young boy does not simply look out onto the world; he looks in upon himself; he looks out and into the observer. His Beingness and Beauty are undeniable. We SEE him; we LOVE him; we ARE him.

THE RETURN HOME, one of the most beautiful and profound nudes in the show, pushes the observer outside herself by pulling the observer in. The longer the gaze the more YOU are drawn out and in. So close until the image is YOU. This kind of intimacy is not the intimacy between photographer and subject or even between the subjects of the photography. It reveals the intimacy between the Self that you authentically ARE and the self that you ALLOW in that moment. T

HE KISS. Through it we glimpse Divine Longing – the spark of Creation. It occurs between bars, as if the Creator is reaching out across the VOID declaring that there BE light and there IS light, embedded, yet embraced, even in the most impoverished social conditions. THE KISS is the container of all our reality and potentiality.

In May of 2007, I journeyed to Copenhagen to join family, friends, and compatriots in the celebration of Jacob Holdt’s sixtieth birthday. It was a spiritual re-union. I saw, felt, touched some who I had experienced only through Jacob’s photographs, reconnected with others who I had met only once or twice over the last 25 years and joined in celebration some who I had never experienced in any way before. Yet, we were united in the joy of celebration and in our common experience of Jacob. As part of the celebration, Jacob mounted an ambitious exhibit entitled, “The Ghetto in our Hearts.” The exhibit re-presented the spiritual, human, and social costs of subjugation, domination and alienation. At the time I wondered about the title of the exhibit thought that it might have been a bit weak, soft even, given the magnitude of the problem generally and the particular issues facing Denmark. In retrospect, I think the title expressed as succinctly as possible the very depth and magnitude that was the source of my original concern. After all, there can be no ghetto in the world unless there is a ghetto in the collective heart of the world. As co-creators, collectively, we are the source of ALL that we see around us. The outer reflects the inner, has its source and its beginning in the inner; it reflects that which exists invisibly in our vibration, our collective thought. So, I am gently reminded of why, over 25 years ago, I said YES to American Pictures and YES to the charism of Jacob Holdt.

Jacob, just being Jacob, personifies the archetype of the empty vessel. The empty vessel simply allows. It goes with the flow; it does not resist. In its nonresistance is its Power. The empty vessel needs no narration; its BEINGNESS tells its own story. None of us is empty all the time, but so few of us are empty any of the time. The story of American Pictures is also the story of the Empty Vessel.

As protest and advocacy, American Pictures functions in the world and one might debate its effectiveness. As Art, American Pictures moves in the Spirit and ain’t no debatin’ that.

 



 

Sandra Ruffin Sandra Ruffin is an Associate Professor of Law at Lincoln Memorial University, Duncan School of Law in Knoxville, Tennessee. Professor Ruffin has a B.A. from the University of Maryland and a J.D. from Harvard. She was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and is a seasoned community organizer and activist. Professor Ruffin views documentary photography as central to the global struggle for social justice and greatly admires Jacob Holdt’s contribution to this effort.

 


 

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