Interview: Lorna Simpson

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Spanning 30 years in the art world, creating and exhibiting art, Lorna Simpson champions the freedom of identity: race, sexuality and gender. Much like Prince, one may wonder if there isn’t an art medium that she cannot master. Photographer, Collagist, Painter, Filmmaker, Illustrator, and yes the list goes on. Over the summer, we chatted with Lorna about her current solo exhibition at Salon 94 in New York, black hair, identity, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Ocean, Common and social fragmentation in the U.S.

Tanekeya Word [TW]: For many women, hair is their crowning glory and therefore makes up a substantial part of their identity. As black women, our hair is often seen as a form of resistance [in its natural state] or assimilation [in a straightened state or extension state]. How has the politics of beauty, with attention to hair as a player, informed your works, such as the Works on Paper series that appears in the publication the Aspen Art Museum?


(Lorna Simpson, September, 2013, Collage and ink on paper, 30.3 x 23.4 in (76.8 x 59.4 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York)

Lorna Simpson [LS]: The way black women invent and reinvent their look in terms of their hair is a very powerful thing that I don’t feel that there needs any kind of societal or self regulation. There is a kind of cultural agency in having control over one’s appearance. I remember my mom, in the late ’60s, when we were visiting her family in Chicago and she had long hair that she would either get straightened or not. But one day while we were traveling, I came back from swimming and she had gone to a Jimi Hendrix concert (clearly I was too little to know who Hendrix was…) and came back hours later with an Afro, and I remember being kind of surprised. As a small child it is a surprise when a parent changes their appearance. As in one of my earliest childhood memories, I didn’t recognize my father when he shaved his mustache, but that day with my mom, I remember she rebuffed any opinion that was offered about her hair and was indignant about having to consider any expectation about having a conversation before her decision or after with other family members. “This is my hair and I can do whatever I want with it, I can cut it off or do whatever I want,” she said. Also, it was a statement, at that time whether she had an Afro or straight hair and the assumptions made about her. I think I kind of remember like, ‘Go on wit yo’ bad self,’ [laughs] as a child and remember feeling ‘I didn’t say anything was wrong, I just said you looked different’ [laughs]. So, from my own personal experiences, yes, and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s and even the ’80s. Watching TV and black broadcasters in the ’70s whose appearance had to conform to certain styles and how those styles shifted or even in Washington, D.C. in the mid to late ’80s, when I got out of graduate school, and working at the NEA there were all these government rules about cornrows and how braids were inappropriate. I remember being shocked by that. In more conservative work environments, it was very contentious and probably still to this day. I am sure to some degree there are still some assumptions about business attire and hair choices made by women of color. All that said, yes it does filter down to everybody’s day to day in terms of appearance and reactions to one’s appearance. I think it’s important that women acknowledge their agency—and they can choose to look however they want. To assume whatever, range of choices from femininity, masculinity to androgyny that they choose, and whether their hair that’s straight or curly or braided or shaved is up to them.


(Lorna Simpson, Tulip, 2014, Collage and ink on paper, 30.3 x 23.4 in (76.8 x 59.4 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York)

In some ways for the works that are Works on Paper, it was more of a fantastic exploration of using these things that they become almost unreal in a way rather than a kind of literal depiction of style but a transformative, fantastical effect with using inks.

TW: What is your correlation with identity and the process of collage, drawing, photography and film? Is it different with each medium? How has each technique influenced the way you approach artistic cultural production?

[LS]: I have the ideas for something, and the medium chooses me. Meaning the idea kind of fuels how the work gets made. I don’t think I come to the process of making work with a larger framework of a political position that I want it to fulfill. It’s not that prescribed. It’s more these ideas that come that I find of interest in a way that they speak to me, but not in that over arching way. If the project is on video or film or if a project ends up being a painting or a series of photographs it’s more of what was the inspiration that led me to that idea that then suggests the medium.

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TW: You are also collaborating with Common. Can you tell us more about the project and what fueled your collaboration with him?

[LS]: A few months ago, Common and his team were researching images and art for his new album, and my name came up. Instead of what usually happens within the music industry, which some version of an artist’s work is immediately appropriated, he asked that they contact me directly to talk about the possibility of collaborating and creating artwork for his new releases. So, to my surprise a call came requesting if I would consider the opportunity.

What transpired was listening to the music for the new album and conversations with Common about direction from different bodies of work, as a starting point, and just working through proposals and concepts until we landed on what worked. I am a huge fan, and it was amazing to work with him.

TW: What have you learned via the process of creating the works for your current exhibition? How has the knowledge changed you?

[LS]: I think this time around my work has evolved from a contemplative space of allowing myself time to work through many ideas and slowing things down. This period of my life has shifted and broadened the range of emotional responses that I had while working. I think in the past, I would be more controlled emotionally in the studio and this time the studio became my safe haven. Thus, listening to the news and crying and listening to Frank Ocean while I figure some stuff out is the tone of the day. I feel that giving myself the space to work in the raw, emotionally and intellectually, is important.

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TW: How does this solo exhibition confront the political and social fragmentation that is happening here in the U.S.?

[LS]: In making new work, I have to allow for the tenor of my day emotions to have a role in the work that I made. I have, as have many in this country, witnessed the unrelenting day to day tyranny of police brutality, violent killings, a broad spectrum racist and homophobic commentary, and families in mourning. For me personally, there was no way that these issues at this moment would not be present in the work.

TW: “Enumerated, 2016” is a powerful piece that can be read many ways. What are you mentioning, one by one, via the tally marks created of nails?

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(Lorna Simpson, Enumerated, 2016, Ink and screenprint on claybord, Sixteen panels total, Each panel 36 x 24 in. (91.4 x 61 cm), Overall 144 x 96 in. (365.8 x 243.8 cm), Edition unique, Signed and title on reverse, Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York, Photo by James Wang)

[LS]: I feel that be it personal events and situations, I am counting the days until resolution or watching the news or social media and counting the frequency and repetitions of racial remarks or targeted violence. That level of enumeration and emotional response is heightened and palatable on a day to day level. I am still counting.

enumberated_lsimpson2016_300dpi
(Lorna Simpson, Enumerated, 2016, Ink and screenprint on claybord, Sixteen panels total, Each panel 36 x 24 in. (91.4 x 61 cm), Overall 144 x 96 in. (365.8 x 243.8 cm), Edition unique, Signed and title on reverse, Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York, Photo by James Wang)

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