In a video currently playing in the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Nothing Personal” exhibition, two women silently and simultaneously perform their morning rituals, their skin-care and makeup routines and hairstyles providing clues to their social roles, their place and time. The work is by New York–based artist Lorna Simpson, who has spent much of her nearly 40-year career exploring visual identity—namely the language of hair. Take, for example, Wigs, where a long blond tumble of curls hangs bodiless on a white backdrop, nearby a stretch of braid is neatly coiled just below a frothy cloud of disembodied afro; or Twenty Questions, which features four gelatin silver prints of an obsidian bob shining against equally dark skin and the collar of a soft white tank top—between each image, plaques propose interpretations, from “Is she as pretty as a picture” to “or sharp as a razor.”
From the sprays of updos in Stereo Styles to the chronologically organized ropes of braids in 1978–88, Simpson seems to suggest that if we wear our history, it’s on top of our heads. From birth, the texture and color of our hair alone speak volumes about centuries of heritage, while length and style become culturally coded symbols of sex, location, musical preferences, and professions. “Hair is a cipher of identity,” said Simpson over the phone recently, speaking about her fascination with the material. “I had questions about representation and what we learn about the subject.”
They are questions she leaves open-ended. Without a voice and often faceless, Simpson’s portraits instead confront us, the audience, with our own preconceived notions about race and gender as they’re tied to beauty, a theme that became more prominent in her later collage work, in which found photographs of anonymous African American women (and occasionally men) were stripped of their original coifs and surrounded, instead, by swirls of Simpson’s free-form ink paintings that she has likened to Rorschach tests. There, the forward-facing gazes seem to ask, “Who do you think I am?” and “Why?”
Now, her subjects are more liberated than ever. Above, in a new exclusive series for Vogue.com, Simpson has lifted the faces of 12 women from “very mundane” ’60s and ’70s advertisements in Ebony magazine—the culture and politics monthly she grew up with that “informed my sense of thinking about being black in America”—and paired them with illustrations of geological and astrological forms from a 1931 textbook. Stripped of any fundamental context, the women provide no origin story and no identifying characteristics. The geometric shapes replacing their hair weren’t chosen for their resemblance to, say, Nefertiti’s crown or Erykah Badu’s emerald head wrap—references that may spring to mind as you look at them—but rather for the same reason you might cut, color, or change the texture of your hair: simply because, says Simpson, “I thought they were beautiful.”
The post Artist Lorna Simpson Returns to Her Favorite Subject—Hair—With Exclusive New Works appeared first on Vogue.