Waterless lithograph on felt. Walker Art Center Collection, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1995. Artist information below © 1998 Walker Art Center.
Lorna Simpson combines photography and text to address issues of identity, race, and gender in our society. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960. Her earliest photographs documented the street life of New York, Africa, and Europe. While working on her MFA in visual arts, she began to question the basic premise of documentary photographs as objective images and, as a result, made their concealed meanings the focus of her work. Simpson explores the ways people, especially black women, are identifed, classified, and judged based on their physical atrributes and personal styles. "in my work," says Simpson, "I try to get viewers to realize... that it is all a matter of surfaces and facades." The objects she includes in her photographs--coiled and braided hair, shoes, African masks--serve as symbolic stand-ins for the body.
The installation piece Wigs (portfolio) refers specifically to the identity of African Americans and how they conform to, or rebel against, prevailing white standards of beauty by braiding, dying, weaving, and processing their hair. The series of 21 duotone lithographs of various hair styles and textures is printed on creamy-white, quarter-inch-thick felt and push-pinned to the wall. The lithographs of hairpieces and wigs are accompanied by 17 small text panels also printed on felt. All the hair pictured in these prints is jet black except for one image of a blond, Barbie-doll-like wig, and all the wigs are shown as if seen from the back of a head. The tactile properties of the felt are beguiling and sensuous, as are the "portraits" of the wigs. With the combination of ambiguous text and image, Simpson makes us aware that meaning depends upon context, use association, and power. At the same time, she playfully engages identity as costume and gesture, giving it endless possibilities.