On Lorna Simpson and the Black imaginative practice of collage
“The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
–Toni Morrison, Beloved
While the usual world order that we once knew has been halted by the COVID-19 global pandemic, Black people continue to be lynched. Two of them were recorded and shared for the world to witness. I wanted to protect my daughter from the harm of watching a Black man take his last breath, but the news looped these images around our living room. I reached over to cover my daughter’s eyes just as my mother used to during sex scenes in films, to shield me from the inevitable. She peeked through the crevices between my fingers, just as I had as a child. She climbed into my lap and we wept, silently. She wanted to know why they hate us so much and I wanted to know if the repetition would ever cease.
Since seeing Ahmaud Arbery murdered, each day after homeschool, my daughter and I meet on the living room floor with images that I’ve found and copied from my father’s photo albums as we quarantine at his home in Texas. There are the faces of my grandmother and her sisters in the country standing grounded and barefoot on dirt roads, my face as a girl racing against the Houston heat to consume a melting ice cream cone in nothing but my panties, moments of Black joy captured in faces that I do not know but recognize all the same. We cut these faces out and put them in the wild on mountaintops, in gardens where they exchange breath with the trees, and in the sky. Using faces of the past, my daughter and I become the architects of Black futures. The practice of collaging has carried me through this grief-heavy quarantine, a meditative motion on nights when I cannot sleep.
Collaging is a historical practice of Black imagination. It has helped us to envision unfathomable futures in the face of violence and uncertainty. It has been a creative way to love each other even though we haven’t been shown care, to express the depths of our experiences even when no one ever asked how we felt, to give evidence to all the things unseen. This is much like the work of Spiral, an art collective formed in the sixties, whose members included the recently departed Emma Amos and the late Romare Bearden. For Spiral, collaging served as visual representation of Black quotidian life. It deconstructed internalized white-supremacist stereotypes of Blackness, providing momentum to the civil rights movement.
Contemporary artists like Mickalene Thomas, Tschabalala Self, and Lorna Simpson carry on this tradition while giving focused elucidation to Black femininity. In her current online exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, aptly titled “Give Me Some Moments,” Simpson uses collaging to speak to the layered and fractured identity of Black womanhood. The title of the show is not a request; it is an imperative. It is a demand for solace and reconfiguration. “We’re fragmented not only in terms of how society regulates our bodies but in the way we think about ourselves,” Simpson recognizes this as the immediate tragedy and offers us a counternarrative through which to reimagine our identities. Social media, a form of collaging in itself, has helped to spread content virally and essentially provide proof of what Black communities already knew to be true: that white folks are killing us. And yet, I fear its psychological effects on an already fragile collective identity. How will we think of ourselves when everything around us reduces our existence to violence in the fight for reform? Buckets of blood need not be delivered to prove we are dying, lest we run the risk of breaking our backs along the way. Collaging, with its varied layering, inherently offers a respite.
In “Give Me Some Moments,” Simpson collects archival images from Ebony magazine, a publication significant to the Black beauty canon, and layers them with some of earth’s most mystifying elements. In Lyra night sky styled in NYC, we see a Black woman with bare shoulders, her heavily lined, piercing eyes staring into us. The corners of her mouth are turned slightly toward heaven but her hair reaches further upward. Her hair is the northern summer constellation Lyra, seen best in the month of June. For me, summer used to mean ice cream in the Houston sun. Now, I just dread the slayings that the heat brings. But the bright star of Vega is centered in the image, luminous, a guiding light as women often are in the matriarchal Black family tradition. The constellation map stretches out beyond the frame of the collage, proving that there is yet more still. Black is not the absence of light, but the complete absorption of it, and the figure’s gaze holds more depths than we can see. Simpson’s work has always offered just enough story structure to intrigue, but it leaves you with ambiguity, challenging you to question whatever assumptions you bring to the narrative. She understands the correlation you have undeniably internalized between Blackness and sexualized femininity. She uses this to draw you nearer, and then subverts you.
On February 19 at 4:56 A.M. Breonna Taylor tweeted, “Why do I feel like all my life Since I’ve been able to work I’ve always been the one making sure folks straight & nobody has ever looked out for me the same way.” This is what many Black women stay up late wondering: Who is protecting me? Can they even see me? Less than a month later, she was murdered in Louisville, Kentucky, as she lay dreaming in her bed. I wonder what her last dream was. Who she saw in her sleep, what her final moments looked like in her subconscious. In lucidity, she knew what we all know; we are not safe here. Even in death, it has been proven that her life had no value in the eyes of the state of Kentucky, where her killers presumably went home before dawn, climbed into their beds and slept restfully, without fear of consequence. They still roam free because killing a Black person is as American as apple pie.
In Simpson’s Flames we see two images of different Black women with fires raging from their heads, while they speak and smile and drink tea. Breonna’s tweet was sent while she worked a night shift where her coworkers probably had no clue of the yearning she held inside, of the fires she contained in her head. The most potent love I have received in this lifetime has been that of other Black women. Simpson gives nod to this in To Control Fire, which is positioned as a response to Flames. A woman’s floating head is fixed on you. You watch voyeuristically as two other women stand behind her, gently tending her hair. They control and offset the fire that they are not quite able to extinguish. Rain water ripples behind them, and Simpson’s 1986 image Waterbearer is brought to mind. In that work, a woman seen from behind, holding two vessels of water, rests above a text that reads: SHE SAW HIM DISAPPEAR BY THE RIVER. / THEY ASKED HER TO TELL WHAT HAPPENED. / ONLY TO DISCOUNT HER MEMORY. Water calms, the women calm each other. This is a necessary salve to survive. Everyone else will look at you and tell you that you’re not on fire, and this only fans the flames.
California shows a woman in a gold jumpsuit with gold sling-back shoes, sitting relaxed on a bench, one leg propped up like a mountain peak. Her posture is alluring and inviting, as her weight rests on the palm of her hand. We can’t see her face but her body tells us she’s ready. Her head is composed of kunzite, a pink precious stone that possesses mystical romantic powers. The stone, it is said, encourages one to release the armor built up around one’s heart in order to receive abundant love. Much like the earth itself, this woman is capable of producing lava and then processing that pressure to mold precious stones.
Breonna was essential, and not just because she worked as a medical professional during a pandemic that has claimed over 100,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. In an essay in The Cut, her mother, Tamika Palmer, describes Breonna as the one who gathered the family for functions and game nights. Her magnetism pulled them together like the discreet roots beneath an archipelago. One day, we must acknowledge that Black women birthed this nation. Since its inception they have been a source of emotional comfort, of reliable drudgery, sexual laborer, physical laborer, your nanny and your mammy, your punching bag, your liberator, your organizer, your siren, granter of your manhood, the soft warm pink place for you to deposit your darkness. The most precious and valuable tool of the empire was the womb of the Black woman. In order for America to reconcile its reality with its image of itself, it has to reckon with this history first. And it hasn’t, and it can’t, because it has forgotten who its mama is.
I have had many restless nights pondering the question Breonna asked. In the revolution that I imagine, Black women get moments of rest. I remember the many nights that my mother waited up for my brother or my father to come home, her fear that the police would pull them over, plant a substance under their seats, arrest them, or worse. Even if, by chance, you evade police violence, your mind is still plagued with fear of the possibility. Black women abused by the police are often ignored, they become footnotes in the movement toward equality. In the very city where protests erupted in honor of George Floyd, who called out for his dead mother in his final moments, just a few blocks over, a Black trans woman named Iyanna Dior was brutally attacked by more than a dozen cis Black men. The attack was filmed. The outrage was footnoted. Author Kiese Laymon recently wrote about Black boyhood in the New York Times, astutely saying, “…we tried to humiliate Octavia in the lunch room to make ourselves feel harder, impenetrable, like men.” This is what that group of Black men were seeking when they attacked Iyanna. They wanted her blood to make them whole. They were not dissimilar from the officer that kneeled on George Floyd’s neck. Fiona Apple’s recently released album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, has an entire track dedicated to a Black girl she never took the time to get to know, Shameika, who told her back in middle school that she had potential. This country owes itself to the Shameikas, the Iyannas, the Octavias, the Breonnas. To all the Black women who built men up so that they may stand erect while stepping on them all the way. Even in the civil rights movement, the rights of women were sidelined in the name of progress. “Sit down ladies, we gone get to y’all in a minute.” When we erupt, they call us angry, and we are. But we are angry and we are soft, we are formidable and we are tired, strong and vulnerable, essential and forgotten. We carry all these ways of being at once. This time, all the Black lives matter, not just those of cis Black men. Time’s up. We are done waiting.
In the 1977 winter issue of The Massachusetts Review, Ralph Ellison writes that through collaging, Romare Bearden was creating a “new visual order” that reconfigured the possibilities of Blackness as it refers to masculinity. This is precisely what Lorna Simpson has created for Black womanhood. She constructs surreal story lines that make our internalized racial bias pliable. The Black Lives Matter movement rests on the expansiveness of our imaginations, on our ability to imagine worlds that have never yet existed. The Americas were built on oppression, and a new order must be conceptualized. Reform is simply not enough. We must start from scratch, cutting up the past and then piecing together the imagined with what worked for those before us. We must start with how we see ourselves. We can liberate through loving one another. The imagination of artists has always been necessary in willing us toward an implausible existence. So when I put my ancestors in the sky, I’m manifesting our ascendence. May we never return to the way things were.
In the short time since I began writing this essay many more Black women and Black trans women have been murdered. The list is swelling still. Our need for protection is urgent. Say her name:
Sasha Bonét is a writer and critic living in New York City. She is currently at work on a collection of essays on Black motherhood and memory in America.