BAMPFA’s ‘Erica Deeman: Silhouettes’ reshapes place for women of color in art

Alexandria Bruschi/Staff

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On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2017, BAMPFA opened the “Erica Deeman: Silhouettes” exhibit. The British-Jamaican artist has photographed women who, like herself, are from the African diaspora. Using a striking juxtaposition of color and shape, Deeman’s body of work speaks to her heritage, her community and her own journey of self discovery.

The exhibit is in a smaller gallery on the lower level of the museum. The rooms are easy to miss amongst the colors and sounds of the “Hippie Modernism” exhibit, but don’t let that distract you from finding Deeman’s work. Entering the space, visitors are engulfed by thirty 45-by-45-inch portraits set against a stark white background. On initial glance, there seems to be little variation amongst the portraits, with each subject staring into different corners of their white frames, but on further inspection, the complexity of each piece is revealed.

In her exhibit, Deeman directly combats the pseudoscience of physiognomy that was conceived of by eighteenth-century philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater. In his published work, he argues that the human form is malleable, so much so that a person’s internal principles could shape their exterior appearances. This idea was adopted by many scholars and it reinforced the sense that people can be judged based on their outward appearances.

Instead of dismissing this idea entirely, Deeman turns it on its head, using it as a base upon which to create these bold portraits of femininity. By shooting her subjects at a slightly upward angle and positioning them to look away from the audience, she renders images of austere and powerful women. They harken back more to the magnificent silhouettes created for those in the royal court than to those used to boil men and women down to their appearances.

Although the images may seem black and white, the variety of colors in each face begin to emerge from the photos after time and meditation. What’s incredible is that, despite the strict style she abides by to create each portrait, Deeman is able to capture so much diversity in each of her subjects. To see the unique bend of an eyelash, to note the glow against a pupil or to catch a curl flying into the air, her audience must develop an intimacy with these women. Through this, she shows that their true identities are to be earned, not assumed at first glance.

In order to understand the true beauty of her work, Deeman forces her audience to put aside any preconceived notions of who these women could be. In doing this, she combats the way our society attempts to place women of color into certain categories. These women aren’t just outlines of people; they are individuals whose faces carry not only their own stories, but those of their families and communities that have shaped them.

Deeman and the women in her show reaffirm that there is a place for Black women in the world of art. In the past, many artists of color were dismissed because their styles didn’t abide to Western traditions. Even in the mid-1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art was continually described as primal. He was an artist who, like Deeman, came from Black parents who were raised in colonized countries, and because of his background, his pieces were subject to these kind of problematic descriptions that attempted to lower the style of his art to that of pre-civilized human beings. In her series, “Silhouettes,” Deeman confronts how harmful this kind of rhetoric is to a Black artist and tackles the remaining bits of physiognomy that have bled into the modern day.

Through each piece, she redefines how her audience is to perceive women of color. Walking through the array of portraits, not only is the viewer able to experience a small moment in each of these women’s lives, but they are also able to follow a path of self discovery within the artist. In doing so, Deeman constructs a body of work that not only reveals the strengths inherent in each woman, but makes a place for women of color in art.

“Erica Deeman: Silhouettes” is currently on display at BAMPFA until June 11.

Contact Annalise Kamegawa at [email protected].