On ViewBrooklyn Museum
John Edmonds: A Sidelong Glance
October 23, 2020 – August 8, 2021
Photographer John Edmonds was a standout in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, where his understated portraits and still lifes quietly deconstructed ideas about race, gender, and masculinity. His reserved and lovely show at the Brooklyn Museum—his first solo museum exhibition—includes a few of the photographs on view at the Whitney and in his well-received book Higher (2018), as well as new portraits and still lifes. Some of these incorporate sculptures from the museum’s Arts of Africa collections, including objects donated to the museum by the estate of Ralph Ellison, author of the 1952 novel Invisible Man. Taken together, the work on view gives new weight to questions of value and authenticity, as well as the dilemma of who defines those terms.
Pointedly titled American Gods (2017), the first photograph in the show is a large-scale color print (70 by 55 inches) of three Black men, shirtless, all wearing du-rags: one black, one red, one green, the colors associated with the Pan-African flag. It’s lit from above, so that one man’s eyelashes cast a soft shadow on his cheek, and the light, not to mention the steady gaze of all three men, conveys a deep emotional warmth. Edmonds’s photographic practice is, in part, an exploration of intimacy, in terms of his connection to the sitter but also the moment when that connection is witnessed by the viewer. The subject of his photographs, as much as it is the person or object in front of the camera, is Edmonds’s regard for them. There is a tenderness in his images, whether the subject is a young man gazing at a female sculpture from West Africa or a female nude, a Black figure in the pose of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814), one of several nods to canonical art history found in the exhibition. This Female Nude (2019) is also a photograph of a photoshoot, a picture of an artwork in the making. Edmonds has pulled back the frame so that the studio light and its stand are included in the image. “In many ways,” he told the New York Times in 2019, “this picture for me is really emblematic of becoming a work of art. And this idea that art history and picture making is constructed and framed.”
Implicit in that remark, of course, is a question: constructed and framed by whom, historically speaking? Reframing the colonialist, ethnographic approach to African sculptures and objects taken by Western museums, Edmonds photographs objects that were made for religious purposes as well as those that were made to be sold to tourists, elevating them equally. The two small carved figures that face each other in Tourist Items (from Liberia) (2019) are lit against a reflective gold background, as are the objects in a grid of eight photographs—a Guro mask, a Mossi female figure, a Baule figure of a man, among others from Ellison’s collection—spotlit in front of a luminous gold background. Whose Hands? (2019) shows several hands, in different skin tones, grasping a Baule sculpture of a mother and child. As part of the UOVO Prize that led to this exhibition, Edmonds repurposed Whose Hands? to create a large-scale, 50-by-50-foot installation on the façade of UOVO’s storage facility in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and paired it with texts from Susan Vogel’s 1997 book Baule: African Art, Western Eyes. It’s the image that is most direct in posing questions of ownership and authenticity.
Other pieces, like Tête de Femme (Head of a Woman) (2018), playfully confront what Jessica Bell Brown, in a catalogue essay for Edmonds’s 2018 show at ltd lower east side, calls modernism’s “history of primitivist obsession with African art forms.” Edmonds reimagines Man Ray’s iconic Noire et blanche (1926), a black-and-white photograph in which the pale face of Kiki de Montparnasse, her eyes closed and head tilted, is framed close up and side-by-side with an African mask. In Edmonds’s color photograph, the model, her hair in 1920s-era finger waves, her gaze forthright and knowing (she’s in on the reference), holds a colorful carved and painted mask next to her face. The Baga bird mask worn by a shirtless man seated in front of a kuba cloth in Two Spirits (2019) is doubled, photographed in motion, an allusion to the important role of gender-fluid figures in various religious traditions. It’s a given in Edmonds’s work that many of the masks and objects presented by museums have historically been taken out of their original context. His photographs are not an ethnographic corrective, nor are they meant to be, but they do offer another way of seeing, a rejoinder to entrenched assumptions of value, authenticity, and beauty.