At first sight, we are looking at a simple portrait: a little rag doll sitting gingerly on the lid of a tin can, its unclothed black cotton body supporting a head carved in painted wood. However, what the photograph reveals is above all a page in African American history, and Andres Serrano multiplies signs and indices that turn this photograph into an object and an instrument of confrontation.
An American photographer of Honduran and Afro-Cuban background, Andres Serrano has honed his work on confrontation, using his medium as a part-deforming, part-subversive magnifying glass. As in this picture of a black doll, the photographer attacks the effects of normative representation, whether in religion (with his notorious Piss Christ), morality, or sexuality. He deconstructs and denounces stereotypes by staging and over-aestheticizing them. Thus this wide-eyed doll, which may have taken part in many games and received tender caresses and secrets, becomes a carrier of a much less childlike, much less familial history. Perfectly contrasting with the orange background, the material details are used to comment on racial representations contained in this adorable doll.
At once emancipatory and stereotypical, this black doll is, from head to toe, a quintessence of American racist subconscious. It is emancipatory because it exists as a racialized artifact representing the delicate features of an African American woman. Unlike other black dolls of the time, it avoids the classic traits of demeaning, racist representation (such as bulging lips, excessive smile, flattened nose…). Nevertheless, it remains confined to racist stereotypes: with no visible of hair, the “mammy” wears a headscarf knotted over her forehead and oversized earrings, and has a spongy, desexualized brown-colored body. All these ambivalent, indexical features in Andres Serrano’s photograph take our reflection outside the frame, beyond the portrayal of an “innocent,” childhood toy.
By Anne Laurens
Andres Serrano, Infamous
Du 14 novembre 2019 au 4 janvier 2020
Galerie Nathalie Obadia, 8 rue Charles Decoster, 1050 – Ixelles-Bruxelles – Belgique