Lorna Simpson. Wigs. 1994. Set of twenty-one lithographs and seventeen lithographed texts on felt, overall: 6' x 13' 6" (182.9 x 411.5 cm). Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago. 21 Steps, Albuquerque. Purchased with funds given by Agnes Gund, Howard B. Johnson, and Emily Fisher Landau. © 2023 Lorna Simpson.

“As a young woman, and a young Black artist, I felt like I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, because I didn’t quite have the assurance of success, but I had a strong desire to create.”

Lorna Simpson

In the late 1980s, Lorna Simpson burst onto the art scene with photographs of unidentified Black figures accompanied by text. These early works interrogated stereotypical images of Black women that existed in popular visual culture and art alike. “The whole premise of the work was to engage with the audience in a way they wouldn't be used to—to put them off balance,” Simpson has said.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960, Simpson studied painting and photography. It was while traveling throughout Italy during her school years that she found the white shift dress that would become an integral part of much of her early work. The garment homogenized the different subjects of her photographs, speaking to a sense of “‘femaleness’ without additional interference from ‘fashion.’”1 The plain, rough cotton also evoked clothing made and worn by enslaved Black people in the American South—clothing enabled by the cotton plantations that fueled American industry during much of the 19th century.2 In these early works, clothing implicitly tied Simpson’s figures to long histories of bondage, surveillance, and oppression faced by Black women in the United States.

Simpson’s first solo exhibition, at Just Above Midtown Gallery in 1986, was soon followed by Projects 23 at MoMA in 1990—the Museum’s first solo exhibition by a Black woman artist. Many of the works featured in the exhibition included details of Black women’s hair, in long plaits, braided crowns, and close crops. For example, 1978-88 consists of four photographs of braided hair against a black surface. Panels with words such as “weave,” “tug,” and “part” sit atop the hair. The work names different ways hair is manipulated, but also, as evidenced by the dates that appear in each photograph, the passage of time. Braids, much like the shift dress, were a fixture in Simpson’s early works, speaking to the tension surrounding Black women’s hair and the important role hair plays in Black culture. Meanwhile, the text Simpson includes in her work is poetic in nature, playing with words to obscure meaning while giving voice back to historically marginalized subjects. Simpson describes her process, saying, “When I take a picture, I have an idea in my head, and I try to make it work. Then I play with language to get what I want.”3 In combining text and image, Simpson’s work brought attention to the systems of categorization and forced visibility that served to oppress Black women. As scholar Saidiya Hartman has noted, Simpson’s work “undermines the viewer’s mastery and disrupts the power of the normalizing gaze” while laying bare the ways in which “memories of suffering are excised in the flesh.”4

More recently, Simpson began experimenting in front of the camera as well. Her 2009 series 1957-2009 features a number of archival photographs Simpson found on eBay. Part of an album, the images were arranged in a grid and featured an unknown Black woman in poses recalling pin-ups. Simpson included images of herself playing the subjects surrounding her. Of this experience, Simpson said, “It’s very artificial: I was imitating a woman’s body that is different from mine, a woman’s body that is more agile.”5 This investigation led her to further explore depictions of Black women in media and pop culture. In 2016, she began working with the Ebony magazine archives, collaging images from the magazine with photographs she had taken. Across her work, Simpson’s aims remain the same. “I wanted to challenge the idea of subjectivity,” she has said, “how we come to know the subject, and our desire to know the subject through details.”6

Note: Opening quote is from Sabine Mirlesse, “Interview with Lorna Simpson.” Aperture, June 25, 2013, accessed March 27, 2023, https://aperture.org/editorial/interview-with-lorna-simpson/.

Antoinette D. Roberts, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2023

  1. Nika Elder, “Lorna Simpson’s Fabricated Truths,” Art Journal 77, no. 1 (January 2, 2018): 45, https://doi.org/10.1080/00043249.2018.1456248.

  2. Ibid., 41.

  3. Coco Fusco, “Lorna Simpson,” Bomb, October 1, 1997, accessed October 28, 2022, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/lorna-simpson/.

  4. Saidiya V. Hartman, “Excisions of the Flesh,” in Lorna Simpson: For the Sake of the Viewer, by Beryl J. Wright (New York, NY: UNIVERSE, 1992), 55.

  5. Sabine Mirlesse, “Interview with Lorna Simpson,” Aperture, June 25, 2013, accessed March 27, 2023, https://aperture.org/editorial/interview-with-lorna-simpson/.

  6. Adrianna Cambell, “Interviews: Lorna Simpson,” Artforum, November 26, 2016, accessed October 28, 2022, https://www.artforum.com/interviews/lorna-simpson-talks-about-her-recent-paintings-and-solo-exhibition-in-fort-worth-64979.

Wikipedia entry
Introduction
Lorna Simpson (born August 13, 1960) is an American photographer and multimedia artist whose works have been exhibited both nationally and internationally. In 1990, she became the first African-American woman to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. She came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s with photo-text installations such as Guarded Conditions and Square Deal that questioned the nature of identity, gender, race, history and representation. Simpson continues to explore these themes in relation to memory and history using photography, film, video, painting, drawing, audio, and sculpture.
Wikidata
Q6681389
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Nationalities
American, African American
Gender
Female
Roles
Artist, Cinematographer, Installation Artist, Photographer
Name
Lorna Simpson
Ulan
500088695
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License

Works

37 works online

Exhibitions

Publications

  • Grace Wales Bonner: Dream in the Rhythm Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 184 pages
  • Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces Exhibition catalogue, Paperback, 184 pages
  • Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 152 pages
  • Among Others: Blackness at MoMA Hardcover, 488 pages
  • Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now Hardcover, 368 pages
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