Sex Attacks, Skin Attacks: Black Feminism in the Art of Lorna Simpson

By centering the experience of black women in her art, Lorna Simpson engages in an artistic practice of black feminism. Her work combines photographs of black women with texts that call attention to the oppression and violence that black women constantly endure. As she consistently excludes the faces of her figures, they come to represent a kind of every black woman. Though her artwork is often subtle, it is also radical, as she centers black women and reveals, disrupts, and defies the racist and sexist stereotypes, injustices, and aggressions. Ultimately, Simpson portrays black women as figures of strength, grace, and defiance in the face of racism and sexism.

Five Day Forecast, 1988

Five Day Forecast speaks of the everyday instances of racist and sexist objectification and micro-aggressions. We see five photographs of a woman, her face cut off from view. She stands with her arms crossed against her chest and wears a simple white dress that creates a contrast against her dark skin. The text above lists the days of the work week, suggesting monotony and continuity. The words below suggest the various ways in which the woman is assigned meanings that are not related to her experience: “misdescription, misinformation, misidentify, misdiagnose, misfunction, mistranscribe, misgauge, misconstrue, mistranslate.” The repetition of words with the same prefix is also monotonous, suggesting that these acts of misdescriptions are everyday occurrences. Some of the words — “misremember” or “misconstrue” — also hint at the dismissal of black women’s memories and knowledge. Though these misattributions and misunderstandings are predicted to continue (a “forecast”), the woman’s crossed arms signal a posture of defiance, resistance, and self-protection towards those who “misdiagnose” or “misidentify” her.

Guarded Conditions, 1989

Guarded Conditions, 1989, speaks overtly of the violence that black women face because of their gender and skin color. The photographs within the six panels line up imperfectly, breaking up the woman’s body even as they appear to combine into a whole image of her. Simpson’s subtle fragmentation of the photographs speaks to the mutilation of black women’s bodies, from the wounds of beatings and sexual violence during slavery to the ongoing killings at the hands of police. The title suggests that the woman must protect herself from the threats named below the frames: “sex attacks” and “skin attacks.” While “attacks” instantly suggests physical assault, there is no immediate evidence of bodily violence in the photographs. The figure seems to have braced herself, with one of her hands curled into a fist. “Dressed in a shapeless white shift and standing upon a wooden pedestal, the figure of the woman is located in multiple situations of institutional repression and surveillance,” art historian and curator Beryl Wright suggests, “such as slave auctions, hospital examination rooms, and criminal lineups.” Simpson’s choice of words directly names the aggression that the black woman faces as related both to gender and race; she is situated within various forms and contexts of oppression that intersect. Though the row of figures in Guarded Conditions is reminiscent of oppressive or violent spaces such as a police line-up and a slave auction block, the six women may also be seen as sentinels. Perhaps they are guardians, standing ready to protect black women against skin and sex attacks. They can be seen as figures of black female strength in opposition to the physical and structural violence they face because of their gender and skin color.

Simpson’s refusal to show her subjects’ faces and give visual access to their full bodies combats “the hieroglyphics of the flesh,” the stereotypes imposed on black women’s bodies. Instead, Simpson creates images of black women who turn their back on the viewers, who defy those who would gaze at them in surveillance. “Against this backdrop of fixed colonizing images,” bell hooks writes, “Simpson constructs a world of black female bodies that resist and revolt, that intervene and transform, that rescue and recover.” Simpson’s portrayals of black women as defiant, graceful, strong figures who create alternative spaces and narratives, who assert the power of their knowledge and memory, who protect against race and gender attacks, who defy and exist outside of dominant structures, is the most radically black feminist aspect of her work.