Lorna Simpson: Waterbearer.
Lorna Simpson's photograph Waterbearer was reproduced in 1987 in one of the early issues of B Culture, a progressive black newspaper of arts and culture that was fresh beyond all belief. For a brief moment in time B Culture was the expressive space for everything radical and black--it was on the edge. Of course, it disappeared. But not before publishing a full-page reproduction on Waterbearer.
Carefully pressing my newspaper copy with a hot iron, to remove all creases, I tapped this page on the wall in my study, awed by the grace and profound simplicity of the image: a black woman with disheveled hair, seen from the back, pouring water from a jug and a plastic bottle, one in each hand. Underneath the photograph were the subverdsive phrases,
She saw him disappear by the river They asked her to tell what happened Only to discount her memory.
Subversive because it undoes its own seeming innocense, Simpson's portrait is reminiscent of Vermeer's paintings of working women--maids standing silently by basins of water in still poses that carry no hint of emotional threat. Yet Simpson's language brings a threat to the fore. It invites us to consider the production of history as a cultural text--a narrative uncovering repressed re·pressed
Being subjected to or characterized by repression. or forgotten memory. And it declares the existence of subjugated sub·ju·gate
tr.v. sub·ju·gat·ed, sub·ju·gat·ing, sub·ju·gates
1. To bring under control; conquer. See Synonyms at defeat.
2. To make subservient; enslave. knowledge.
Here in this image the keeper of history, the griot griot
African tribal storyteller. The griot's role was to preserve the genealogies and oral traditions of the tribe. Griots were usually among the oldest men. In places where written language is the prerogative of the few, the place of the griot as cultural guardian is still , the one who bears water as life and blessing, is a black woman. Her knowledge threatens--cannot be heard. She cannot bear witness. She is refused that place of authority and voice that would allow her to be a subject in history. Or so the phrases suggest. Yet this refusal is interrograted by the intensity of the image, and by the woman's defiant de·fi·ant
Marked by defiance; boldly resisting.
Adj. 1. stance. By turning her back on those who cannot hear her subjugated knowledge speak, she creates by her own gaze an alternative space where she is both self-defining and self-determining.
The two containers are reminders of the way history is held and shaped, yet the water that flows from each is constant, undifferentiated undifferentiated /un·dif·fer·en·ti·at·ed/ (un-dif?er-en´she-at-ed) anaplastic.
Having no special structure or function; primitive; embryonic. , a sign of transcedent possibility, there as a reminder that it is aways possible to transform the self, to remake re·make
tr.v. re·made , re·mak·ing, re·makes
To make again or anew.
1. The act of remaking.
2. Something in remade form, especially a new version of an earlier movie or song. history. The water flows like a blessing. Despite changes, distortions, misinformation mis·in·form
tr.v. mis·in·formed, mis·in·form·ing, mis·in·forms
To provide with incorrect information.
mis symbolized by its containers, it will continue to sustain and nuture life. It will redeem. It is the water that allows the black woman figure to reclaim a place in history, to connect with ancestors Ancestors
See also father; heredity; mother; origins; parents; race.
an inclination toward old-fashioned things, speech, or actions, especially those of one’s ancestors. Also archaicism. — archaist, n. past and present.
The black woman in the photograph understands that memory has healing power. She is not undone, not in any way torn apart by those dominating gazes that refuse her recognition. Able to affirm the reality of her presence--of the absent him whose voice, unlike hers, might be listened to--she bears witness to the sound of the water and its meaning for her life. Hers is a portrait of serenity, of being, of making peace with oppositional history.