The portfolio of colour negative photographs Barack Obama Masks is comprised of 27 different masks depicting the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. The masks were purchased from stores in person and online, airbrushed in their respective colour negative pattern and photographed digitally against a seamless backdrop. The images were then inverted using Photoshop. This process was initiated as a response to my fascination with and curiosity about the number and diversity of these representations of President Obama. The obscurity of the provenance of these objects, the question of their economic value and their potential uses also puzzled me. Ostensibly created to be sold as part of the economy supplying Halloween or other party costumes, due to the political nature of the subject depicted I couldn’t help but think that they said something more about our relationship to authority today.
An inspiration for this project came from an insight that I stumbled across and had heretofore never considered: that Walker Evans invented what we now consider to be the standard way of photographing museum objects. Walker Evans (b. 1903) personal situation in the early nineteen thirties was not unlike a lot of young artists today. He took on small jobs, art related or otherwise, in order to earn enough money to support himself and his artistic ambitions. Originally a writer, at this time Evans was now interested in exhibiting his photographs as art and was part of the avant-garde circle of artists in New York. In early 1935 Evans got a job working for the Museum of Modern Art to document the objects in its show African Negro Art. So relatively new was the idea of presenting African art in the context of an art museum that Evans, based on the assignment, invented criteria for photographing the African masks and objects that he did in the evenings after the exhibition closed. His method of photographing these objects was to use even lighting and seamless backdrop. The photographs were used in the Museum’s catalogue “African Negro Art” and 17 portfolios of prints, to which the present work takes its appearance from, were created and distributed as educational tools to various institutions (1).
Little is reported on how Evans decided on the criteria he used to photograph the masks. When Alfred Stieglitz had shown African art at 291 in 1914 he used a different approach that played into the mythology of the link between modernism and the “primitive”. In a radical departure from ethnographic display, for the exhibition Edward Steichen created a Cubist installation of geometric forms meant to evoke “a background of jungle drums” (2). In one striking image, reproduced in Camera Work, Stieglitz chose to photograph a piece of African art beside drawings by Picasso and Braque and a wasp’s nest. It can be no accident that these experiments with installation by Stieglitz and Steichen were part of a larger zeitgeist of artistic confusion and intermeshing of ideas at the time that lead to Stieglitz’s famous photograph of Fountain with the painting The Warriors by Marsden Hartley as the backdrop. Despite the much-discussed personal elitism of Duchamp’s distancing strategy (3), his readymade was produced through this exchange and collaboration with Stieglitz. The fertile crossovers between the art forms and artists at this moment in history were largely due to the undefined relationship between new mediums and the history of art. For many artists this intermingling was both artistically and politically engaging.
In contrast, however, to the concerns of older artists like Stieglitz, the younger Evans largely ignored these hybrid forms of art and directly engaged photography, marking a turning point in the history of art that would define photography as a medium. Evans’ approach to use photography as a mechanical and objective framework concerned with the “nonappearance of the author” (4) became the answer to but also a pacification of the antagonisms and contradictions of the questions of truth in art. Truth became synonymous with documentation. If ideology is not false knowledge but the unquestioned set of beliefs that function as a way to deal with an underlying antagonism (5) then Walker Evans photographs are perhaps the greatest example of the traditional materialist ideology of art present in the twentieth century. The tautology that Evans photographic style is that he doesn’t have a style confirms its ideological im- portance for the art of that time (6). A more dialectical approach to this history acknowledges and foregrounds “non-style” as a style.
Perhaps we would not have been able to see this had it not been for one startling example of historical serendipity: Man Ray also photographed the “Bangwa Queen,” one of the sculptures in African Negro Art, using however, very different methods. As dis- cussed by Wendy A. Grossman, Ray’s photographs embody the “New Vision, a term describing interwar European avant-garde ideas about revolutionizing visual language through unconventional photographic practices” while “the vernacular tradition Evans assumed was informed by the contemporary search for authentic and uniquely American forms of expression” (7). Instantly “tradition- al”, Grossman’s conclusion that Evans’ ““documentary” style is further from the spirit of the “Bangwa Queen” than Ray’s “obviously constructed” and highly stylized approach” (8) sounds convincing but misses the point. Both Evans’ and Ray’s photographs are equally constructed and stylized. There is no “true” way to photograph the “Bangwa Queen”. As an object of colonialism, these representations are attempts to deal with the problem of truth: in order to be appreciated ascetically it had to be removed from its original context and its passage to Western hands marks the point where its “original” context was irretrievably changed.
Largely obscure today, the tensions over the then urgent questions about and debate over authenticity and truth in art became the discourse of photography: how accurate is a representation with regard to what it represents and what is privileged or excluded by the frame. The force of Evans’ approach resides in finding truth in the latter question, not in the object of study but in the frame itself, the mechanical apparatus of photography. In Evans photographs we find support for changing our understanding of traditional materialism from “the direct assertion of my inclusion into the objective reality” that “presupposes that my position of enunciation is that of an external observer who can grasp the whole of reality” to a more nuanced approach that acknowledges a “reflexive short-circuit” or a “necessary REDOUBLING of myself as standing outside AND inside my picture, that bears witness to my “material” existence” (9). In Evans’ work, “documenting” a world that was already obsolete through Capitalist industrial society and colonial expansion, Southern plantation houses, auto graveyards, dilapidated buildings from the previous century, African masks, was/is the truth of photography. In contrast, Ray’s approach can only be seen as reactionary, needing to construct “new vision” that ultimately bolsters the dominant position in order to count as a transgression. The error in Ray’s approach is in the former question, attempting to approximate the original context of the object presupposing that it could be known when in fact it doesn’t exist (which is not to say that many interesting works haven’t been made as a result of this approach). In both examples, truth is partial: in Evans’ work, truth limited by our frame, in Ray’s we have nothing to compare truth against.
The contradictions and heatedness of the debate about truth and representation symbolized by Evans’ and Ray’s images was provocatively generative for artists in the twentieth century. Can we still rely on this duality to frame our understanding of truth and representation today? In 2011, it was reported that the Chinese government outlawed in movies, novels or on television any mention of alternative reality or time travel (10). Isn’t this at least a positive sign for artists, an acknowledgement that “images have power”? Upon hearing of the death of Mike Kelley, as a lover of his work I was immediately struck by an obscene idea: “Now we might get to see his truly dangerous, truly disgusting works that were not allowed to come out in his lifetime.” My high hope for these imagined works, analogous to Goya’s Disaster’s of War which for political reasons were not allowed to be shown in public until 30 years after his death, would be able to see the ideological contours of today and transform our notion of what it means to live now and the possibilities that we are not aware of. The depressing thing is that of course these works don’t exist. As shocking as Kelley’s works are there is nothing awaiting us that is too traumatic for us to see. One gets the impression that Kelley sensed the truly terrifying “obscene superego supplement” of art today. Using digital images, it is said, we can construct whatever false reality we want and instead of being disturbed by our “manipulation of truth” traditional objectivity is actively inciting it.
Although artists have used lenses as tools to make images since the Renaissance, one thing is changing today: “photography” at least as we have known it as a material practice since 1839 is ending. If the framework for the discussion of truth, photography and representation is based on the certainty of photographs as material records then is it possible for digital photography to provoke us to expand our notion of materialism?
The photographs Barack Obama Masks stand as records of our cultural paradigm but with a twist: it is the objects themselves that have been manipulated and not the images, re-painted in negative colour. Following a procedure of a “negation of negation” first the object is inverted and then photography is used to invert it back. In the process the original point is not regained but a new way of perceiving the object. The uncanny ghost-like quality of these photographs and our difficulty in reading a positive/negative image is similar to the feeling of perplexity over the objects themselves (11). I hope that these images open up a space to consider the idea that the reality we see is never whole, not because a large part of it eludes us, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot, which signals our inclusion in it (12). The diversity of the representations of President Obama doesn’t suggest that there is some “true” representation that is the common denominator of them all but points to an anxiety about power and representation today. Analogous to the way Evans’ and Ray’s photographs were signifiers of the transition from colonialism to capitalism the plastic Barack Obama masks are curious signifiers of the antagonisms and contradictions of our time: the dissolution of a stable cultural heritage in a multi-cultural society, the over production of consumer goods in globalization, the apathy for democratic politics, the destabilization of traditional material reality. I believe that by examining the points of tension or gaps therein, we may discover new possibilities and re-ignite the discussion of how we think about truth and representation today.
Dan Starling June 2013
1. Virginia-Lee Webb, Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 14. 2. Wendy A. Grossman, Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens, Washington: International Art & Artists, 2009. p. 15. 3. Thierry de Duve, Kant After Duchamp, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996. p. 91. 4. James R. Mellow, Walker Evans, New York: Basic Books, 1999. p. 118. 5. Adam Kotsko, Zizek and Theology, London: T & T Clark, 2008. p. 31. 6. Another sign of the importance of artist is their relevance to artists who come after them. Evans’ influence on Vancouver artists alone requires a through explication. 7. Grossman, Ibid., p. 20. 8. Ibid. p. 22. 9. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006. P. 17. 10. Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing, London: Verso, 2012. p. 996. 11. It is beyond the scope of this text to delve into the pertinent connections between Barack Obama Masks and its precursors, but to name just one touchstone I would like to mention Honoré Daumier’s lithograph Masks of 1831, 1832 for comparison. 12. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, Ibid.