Nonconforming Identities: Photographs of Blacks in America
A review of Allen Cooley’s thesis show, “Normal”
by Carla Aaron-Lopez
Semantics. It all boiled down to semantics and the absurdity of language. And quite frankly I’ve been waiting to write something as challenging as this review for a while. See, in February 2009, I had my thesis show entitled *My black (American) Life* at City of Ink not too far away from Gallery Stokes in the Castleberry Hill district. I had been trying to look for a way to describe what it feels like to be black and marginalized from definitive black culture. I found that my photographs were reflections of the other weird people of color that I chose to be around as friends and colleagues.
As I began my thesis paper, I researched about questions of whiteness as mainstream cultural influences, DuBois’s notion of double consciousness and Foucault’s arguments of power and knowledge. All of these things began to matter as I tried to make my black ghetto gothic story sound sensational as a stand against the masses. Yes, there are strange black people. We exist but we have challenged the former notion of black culture by being black and claiming our individual freedom to *be*.
In the case of Allen Cooley, his search was similar but photographically different from mine. Throughout our time in graduate school, we’ve exchanged words and have tried to figure out a more concrete ideal of blackness and its inhabitants.
From the difference between our two bodies of work, I’d have to say we’ve found one level of relation that boils down to this: our blackness is defined in our own personal recorded experiences and how we relate to the historical pride of being black. Even though we come from similar upbringings, the cultural choices that we’ve made have shaped our individual experiences. I chose a counterculture life and he chose to be a success of the middle class. We share a tradition of being black in America through political struggles and mainstream successes however when it breaks down to the individual, as shown in Mr. Cooley’s portraits, their stories are only interesting when we become engaged with that individual.
If we were to look at just one of Mr. Cooley’s environmental portraits, we’d definitely notice the subject first. We look into their eyes, we pay attention to their clothes and finally we make a connection with the subject through the details in their environment. We become connected with his subjects more than ingest an overall summary of the African-American experience instead we have a representation of an African-American that has experienced life and chosen one that fits them. We then begin to notice that they aren’t the monolithic black male or female often found in white mainstream media. Now, we are dealing with a person just you, me and your next door neighbor.
They are somebody, they are someone.
In an essay by Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of history and Africana Studies at New York University, in which he appropriates Walter Benjamin that “in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to empower it.” In other words, when I viewed Mr. Cooley’s work I began to worry if we were indeed continuing a tradition of upholding black as so powerful, we fail to see the bigger racial issue at hand. That even in our works we have preconceived notions of what black is and we have to demonstrate what that black is to audiences that have their own notions of blackness. I’d be scared that eventually we would fall into the same blackness as tradition instead of embracing a new cultural politics of difference in which all differing viewpoints on being black in America are accepted as such.
This notion then opens up a new set of structures to be built for description. Just like Mr. Cooley, I want to show the world minorities that aren’t making criminal headlines or vying to be the next big entertainment mogul figures. We just have different approaches to how we photographically describe Benjamin’s quote. His is more formal in the set up of his shots. The person is either sitting or standing, residing somewhere in the middle of the frame or close to it and they are formally lit to be our focal point of viewing. His subjects come from various backgrounds due to their occupation but all have that mundane sense of this-is-everyday-life. To me his subjects seem organic in which they do not fit a predetermined role for the black in America. This is quite shocking to a see in a gallery that recently had a show of paintings in which suburban America was portrayed as only white women and their joys of being white, homogeneous and addicted to Starbucks. They didn’t seem to be a somebody or someone. They seemed crafted in their identity while Mr. Cooley’s work wants his audiences to notice the individual identity of his subjects and gather on their own accord that they are normal and just that. Not normal black people but just everyday folk.
We come in all different shades, shapes, sizes, cultures and I’m willing to add thoughts as a category. The two of us as artists are seeking solutions to the fine art world’s stale notions of representations of blackness by helping to redefine it as something that is so grand it can no longer be thought of as one single idea or culture. I will agree that there is an essentialism to blackness as a whole in relation to racial struggles. We’ve all been *othered* for so long that we’re beginning to “other” ourselves if we chose to break from continuing African-American experience tradition to the core.
Mr. Cooley’s work at Gallery Stokes challenges that tradition in a formal setting that is challenging to even the gallery’s patrons. I saw very few of their own regular opening reception visitors that night. In the spirit of August Sander during the rise of the Nazis in Germany*, *he wanted to show his Germany as all-inclusive and comprised of so many different characters and Mr. Cooley and myself choose to do the same. It’s all in our language how we choose to define ourselves and our communities. We can either continue to use our cultural differences to separate ourselves or we can chose to view ourselves in a light that is relative to one another no matter how we choose to define ourselves and our experiences.
And by this, I find Mr. Cooley’s series to be a wonderful visual difference to my work because it challenges how I see, read and view my fellow people of color. It proves that even words can be absurd by trying to generalize an entire experience for a group of people that may or may not adhere to the Eurocentric verbal, racial and social confinements placed upon them out of hatred. It’s a chance to acknowledge our visual language as a way of communicating that accepting difference is the key to gain a better understanding of the human experience.
Carla Aaron-Lopez is an Atlanta-based artist.