June 19, 2013
Photography is said to be the truest representation of reality. The ability to capture still and moving image inspired artists to document life, rather than embellish it. Filmmaker Dziga Vertov inspired the genre cinéma vérité or truthful cinema. Today, photography maintains a special claim to objective truth alongside news stories. Rarely is the hand of the artist acknowledged in the making of a photograph.
But it’s everywhere in the work of New York-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen. A new exhibit at the African Art Museum, curated by fellow artist Craig Allen Subler, takes 55 works from Ballen’s nearly half-decade career shooting in black and white to illustrate the ways in which the artist has utilized the tools of drawing, namely mark-making and line, to create his unique aesthetic world.
Spanning from his early portraits to later, denser works that reference theater as much as photography, the exhibit, “Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen,” shows just how thoroughly the concept of line infiltrates and structures his work across his entire career. Mangled hangers, clotheslines, stick figures drawn directly on the walls–the lines of Ballen’s photographs exist like totems, complete with their own psychic drama similar to Jackson Pollock’s early experiments with Jungian archetypes, or Pablo Picasso’s exploration of mythic figures like the minotaur. The exhibit moves roughly from portraiture to theater to a collaborative image-making that fuses the subject with line so completely that all that’s left is a peek of an arm or a disembodied head.
The artist, who spent nearly a year hitchhiking from Cairo to Cape Town as a young man, is also a geologist who claims citizenship in what he sees as the last generation of photographers working with black and white film. Though he has lived in South Africa for more than 30 years, his work maintains an outsider art aesthetic. Interior shots in the homes of rural South Africans, from his Platteland series, seem to exist at the precise moment chaos turns to order and vice versa: live animals exist alongside their more domesticated toy counterparts, white walls that are otherwise unadorned have smeared handprints or childish doodles scrawled right on the surface and people are typically in some state of undress.
In South Africa, the aesthetic has reached a certain counter culture cache embodied in the idea of Zef. Taken from the Afrikaans word for “common,” zef’s unofficial ambassador is the band Die Antwoord, which collaborated with Ballen on its video “I Fink U Freeky,” also included in the museum’s exhibit.
“They told me when they first saw [my] work that they stopped what they were doing for a year and went in a different direction,” says Ballen of the hip-hop-rave group who reached out to him to work on the video. He says their two styles organically fused and the whole video took only four and a half days to shoot.
When Ballen first saw the exhibit, he says it felt instantly right. “The exhibition is quite silent,” he says, pleased with the outcome. In fact, it’s almost eerily so. The aesthetic still hits just as hard when combined with the rambunctious music of Die Antwoord. Standing in the middle of the gallery space, surrounded by work from his entire career, Ballen says it’s exhilarating to confront himself, to look at what exactly has been guiding his work for so long. “It’s very gratifying,” he says. “Looking back at the work, you feel, well, at least I’ve preserved something through all those years. . .there is a line that runs through.”
“Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen” is on view at the African Art Museum through February 9, 2014. Ballen will be at the museum Thursday, June 20, for an artist talk.
June 7, 2013
From her salon in Silver Spring, Maryland, Camille Reed spreads the message of natural hair to her clients. And it seems to be catching on. The products once advertised to black women in the pages of Ebony and elsewhere are on the decline. Between 2009 and 2011, sales of chemical straighteners dipped 12.4 percent, according to Danielle Douglas reporting for the Washington Post with data from market research firm Mintel. In 2011, the number of black women who said they no longer relaxed their hair hit 36 percent, a 10 percent bump from 2010.
Reed, a participant in a discussion about health and identity at the African Art Museum tonight, says she’s seen the changes too. She opened Noire Salon 13 years ago because she wanted, “young women to understand that they can be beautiful without the wigs, without the weaves, without the extensions.” Her second-floor shop sits right outside D.C., a hot bed of hair whose salons reported the highest sales per business in the country in 2007, according to census data. Offering a range of services from coloring to cutting to dreadlock maintenance and styling, Reed says she tries to use as few chemicals as possible and instead work with a person’s natural hair to create a healthy, stylish look. ”Girls are not buying the chemicals as much,” she says, “They’re still buying the weaves here and there because people like options but they’re not buying the harsh chemicals.”
The history of African-American hair care is a complicated one. Early distinctions existed during slavery when, “field slaves often hid their hair, whereas house slaves had to wear wigs similar to their slave owners, who also adorned wigs during this period,” according to feminist studies scholar Cheryl Thompson.
The history also includes the country’s first female, self-made millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker, a black woman who made her fortune selling hair care products to other black women in the early 1900s. Begun as a way to help women suffering from baldness regrow hair, her company later promoted hot comb straightening–which can burn the skin and hair and even cause hair loss–creating a tangled legacy for the brand and speaking to the fraught territory of marketing beauty.
Eventually the business of straightening won out. In the August 1967 issue of Ebony alongside a profile of a 25-year-old Jesse L. Jackson, a look at the birth of Black Power and an article on gangs in Chicago, there is a mix of advertisements promising better skin and hair. “Lighter, Brighter Skin Is Irresistible,” reads one for bleaching cream. Another single-page spread offers a 100 percent human hair wig for $19.99 from Frederick’s of Hollywood. Chemical relaxers were sold alongside titles like James Baldwin’s “The First Next Time.” As clear as it was that messages of inherent inequality were false, there pervaded an image of beauty, supported by an industry dependent on its propagation, that placed fair skin and straight hair on a pedestal.
When activists like Angela Davis popularized the Afro, natural hair gained visibility but also a reputation for being confrontational. As recently as 2007, black women were told by fashion editors that the office was no place for “political” hairstyles like Afros, according to Thompson.
Reed says the pressure is internal as well, “It’s really more of our older generations, our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers who were saying, don’t you do anything to rock the boat, you look like everybody else so that you can maintain your life.”
Reed’s own personal hair history is a deeply inter-generational story. Her grandmother was a hair stylist at a salon in Cleveland, Ohio, where her mission, says Reed, was to transform women and give them confidence. “My grandmother was about the hair looking good, looking right,” says Reed. In the context of racism, if hair was a woman’s crowning glory, it was also a shield.
Meanwhile, she says her mother taught her about cornrowing and her aunt, who was one of the first to introduce the track weave, showed her how weaves could be used to supplement damaged hair and not necessarily to disguise a woman’s natural hair.
In high school, Reed says, “I was the girl who had her hair done every two weeks like clockwork because that’s how I was raised, to keep your hair done.” Then, three weeks before her senior prom she says, “I realized, this relaxer life is not for me. All of this stuff I have to do with my hair, this is not who I am, this does not represent me…I cut off all of my relaxed hair, left me with about an inch, inch and a half of hair.”
In college she decided she wanted even less maintenance and began to lock her hair. To her surprise, her grandmother actually liked the change. “And we were all just floored because this is the woman we knew who didn’t like anything to do with natural hair.”
Now Reed has children of her own, a son and daughter, whom she is teaching about beauty and hair care. “I purposefully let my son’s hair grow out about an inch to two inches before I cut it because I want him to feel comfortable with it low and shaven and faded–and I do all that–as well as feel comfortable with it longer, a little bit curlier so he knows, whichever you way you look, mommy and daddy still love you.”
For her clients, the message isn’t too different.
Camille Reed will be participating in a panel discussion “Health, Hair and Heritage,” hosted by the African Art Museum and the Sanaa Circle the evening of Friday, June 7 in the Ripley Center.
May 16, 2013
In high heels and flawless fashions, Sheila E. has been rocking the drums since she was a teenager growing up in Oakland, California. At 55, she’s still not slowing down. She’s collaborated with artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, toured the country and is currently working on a new album and autobiography, From Pain to Purpose, due out next year. In town for a show at the Howard Theater Thursday, May 16, she stopped by the African Art Museum for a performance with the Farafina Kan Youth Ensemble drummers. “I slowed down for a couple hours this morning,” she jokes about her hectic life.
It’s a pace and spirit that have become her signature no matter what genre she’s performing in. But those high energy concerts come with a cost. “It’s very demanding,” says the star who regularly ices her hands and feet after shows. “I just had a procedure done on my arm, my elbow and my wrist so it’s still painful to play,” she says. “It’s just things that happen from playing all of these years for so long but I love what I do.”
Sheila E. was born Sheila Escovedo, daughter of percussionist Peter Escovedo. Surrounded by a whole host of musical uncles and godfather Tito Puente, she picked up the drums at a young age. But, she says, “I didn’t know that music was going to be my career.” Instead, she had plans to be either the first little girl on the moon or an Olympic sprinter. Interrupting her training, she took to the stage to perform with her dad when she was 15. “And that changed my whole life.”
Her family and her hometown of Oakland provided precisely the kind of creative fertile ground she needed to experience all kinds of music. “My dad is totally the foundation of who I am,” says Escovedo. “He’s a Latin jazz musician, but he also brought different kinds of music into the house,” she says, adding that it’s this sort of artistic range that has helped her have such longevity in her career. Oakland also provided its own mix of music for the young artist. “I’ll tell you, it’s the best place to be born. I love D.C. but the Bay Area, oh my gosh.” Calling it a mecca for music with a rich variety of ethnicities, Escovedo cited the many bands that came from the area, including her uncle’s band, Azteca.
Though her father tried to persuade her at first to take up violin, he never let her think she couldn’t play the drums. “I grew up in a home where my parents never said that it was wrong to play because I was a girl,” says Escovedo. She remembers going to her friends’ houses and asking where all the percussion instruments were, thinking it was typical of all homes.
Once she got in the industry and began working with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Lionel Richie, she says she encountered some resistance as a female musician. But her parents told her, “Just do what you do, play from the heart, be on time, be early, learn your craft and when you get in there…be prepared so when you walk in you walk in with confidence.”
Anyone who’s seen her perform or watched her delight audiences during Drum Solo Week on the “Late Show with David Letterman” knows that she’s not wanting for confidence. She’s also not wanting for inspiration. The artist says she’s tried almost every genre of music, including polka, though she’s most well-known for her songs “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” collaborations with Prince. With one country song under her belt, she says she’s now trying to encourage her friend Garth Brooks to record with her.
When she’s not writing books or in the studio, she likes to search YouTube for up and coming female percussionists. “There are more women percussionists, young girls playing now than ever,” says Escovedo, and that includes girls from her own Elevate Hope Foundation, which seeks to bring music and art to children who have been abused or abandoned to help them heal and communicate.
Contemplating what item she would donate to the Smithsonian if given the chance, she says it’s almost impossible to decide, despite a garage full of instruments. “The thing is, everywhere I go, if I pick something up, you know, that tube over there or this water bottle, I can play it as an instrument.” In fact, she says, “On Michael Jackson’s album, the first one that he did, “Off the Wall,” he wanted me to come in and play this sound and to emulate it the only thing that I could think of was to get two water bottles, like two Perrier water bottles. I poured water in them to tune to the actual track, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.’” With two pieces of metal, she hit the glass. “So that’s me playing the bottles.”
After her show in D.C., Escovedo says it’s back to the studio to record a track for her album with Chaka Khan. “I say yeah, I’m going to slow down,” she says, but, “I get on stage and I get crazy. It’s in me. I’ve got to do it.”
May 9, 2013
Friday, May 10: Garden Fest
How do you relate to the earth? In the garden outside of Smithsonian’s Castle, three African artists each recently completed a land art installation to explore issues of land use, environmental sustainability, hunger and humanity’s role on the planet. The installations are part of Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, a new exhibition at the African Art Museum. Today, in celebration of the exhibition, Smithsonian’s annual Garden Fest will encourage families to consider their place on Earth, too, with art, composting, plant potting, worm farming and more. Role up your sleeves and get your hands dirty! Free. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Enid A. Haupt Garden.
Saturday, May 11: Super Science Saturday: Astronomy
Think you’re a space expert? Seen everything the Air and Space Museum has to offer? Then take a trip out to the Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, where thousands of aviation and space artifacts that take up too much room to be exhibited on the Mall are on display. On the second Saturday of each month (that’s today!), the museum holds demonstrations and hands-on activities that teach visitors about aviation and space exploration. Today’s theme should whet the space enthusiast’s appetite: Astronomy. Free. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center.
Sunday, May 12: Mendelssohn Piano Trio: Mother’s Day Tribute
Treat mom to some fantastic classical tunes this afternoon, courtesy of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio. The group—violinist Peter Sirotin, pianist Ya-Ting Chang and cellist Fiona Thompson—has played for audiences around the world for more than 15 years, and today will perform music by some of the best female composers. A question-and-answer session will follow the performance. Free tickets available in the G Street lobby beginning 30 minutes before the performance. 3 p.m. to 4:30 pm. American Art Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
April 22, 2013
As part of the African Art Museum’s new exhibition opening on Earth Day, “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,” the museum invited for the first time ever four artists to take over the Enid A. Haupt Garden. We talked with curator Karen Milbourne about the results, as well as the art on view indoors at the museum.
Discussions of land art usually begins with the renowned American artist Robert Smithson of the 1960s and then skip across the pond to his European counterparts. Milbourne points out that “Africa is remarkably absent from the telling of these histories.” It is a mistake that stands corrected in the new exhibition with more than 40 artists representing 25 of Africa’s 55 nations. Milbourne says, earth as artistic subject and even material is the thread that connects each of the works, but one that is naturally occurring.
Concerns over land rights and environmental degradation appear again and again as well as more personal explorations of the human relationship to place. In selecting the works of art and the artists, Milbourne begins the story roughly around 1807, the year the international slave trade was outlawed, although by no means ended. “After decades of being stolen from one’s land, that was easing,” explains Milbourne. At the same time, colonization and mineral extraction began in earnest, again redefining interactions with the earth. Referencing the many ways Smithsonian experts conceptualize the “earth,” Milbourne divided the show into five parts, “Material Earth,” “Power of the Earth,” “Imagining the Underground,” “Strategies of the Surface” and “Art as Environmental Action.”
So-called power objects from a Fon artist of Benin made in the early to mid-20th century reveal how the legacy of the slave trade entered into art. Small wooden figures are bound with cords like those used to restrain captives, but in this case, they tie the body to earthen materials, like plants and clay. These power objects were commissioned and placed in the ground to protect their owners. Other works (above) document the dizzying realities of miners, who despite the dangers to their health from mercury exposure and other risks, continue to search for gold.
Finally, pieces like Younès Rahmoun’s Kemmoussa serve as small interventions through what the Moroccan artist calls aesthetic recycling. Taking the many discarded plastic bags that dot the landscape, Rahmoun twists and ties each into rows of tiny knots evoking the beads of a Muslim prayer chain. As with the rest of the works in the show, his work is a striking call to reflection.
“Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” runs through January 5, 2014 at the African Art Museum.