By Catherine Rush
Yanique Norman’s exhibition, Lessons on How to Be a More Interesting Woman, on display in the South Gallery at the municipally-owned Gallery 72 in downtown Atlanta, draws inspiration from a set of poems by Safiya Sinclair, Notes on the State of Virginia, I-III. In her statement, Norman claims the exhibition comprises “a radical reimagining of how one can further construct a more complex and more nuanced black interiority.”
Across a large white wall and a small purple one, Interesting Woman, Suite I: Quashie Silences unfolds, with seven unframed drawings consisting of gouache and graphite on paper and a single channel film. “Quashie” is a derogatory generic name for a black person in the Caribbean, in particular one considered insignificant.
The looped film, five minutes long, projects against the white wall in between six of the unframed pieces. A spotlighted silhouette of Norman, sporting a long hairstyle and flowing gown, dances hypnotically, accentuating her hip movements with graceful, leonine arm gestures.
The paper pieces feature backgrounds of large swathes of pink, blue, grey, and tan. Graphite sketches layered atop hint at details of abstracted bodies: orifices, eyes, hair, feet, legs. Turning inside of itself, the suggested figure twists, separates, folds.
The adjacent pink wall hosts Interesting Woman, Suite II: To embrace this hollow emptiness, all puppetry is possible, three unframed sculptural drawings made up of oil, gouache, ink, graphite, and collage on paper. The square paper anchored to the wall in each of the three pieces is saturated in color, primarily blue. The two outer pieces blend the blue with black, the middle with orange and red. Spilling from the square, linked copies of portraits of a black woman’s face sprawl outward. In each piece a single image repeats countless times, but the images used in each of the three pieces are different from each other.
Glitch-like, the repeated images signal an issue, a system failure. Static, yet producing a winding effect in the overall composition, the resulting pattern from a distance recalls a snake or reptilian tail. Though stirring something ominous multiplied and arranged in this way, as a standalone image, each original portrait strikes no particular or obvious emotion, but rather negotiates a space between emotions.
On a monitor situated on the floor in the corner opposite the entrance to the room, Interesting Woman, Suite III: Bosch Suffocations, another five-minute single channel film collaboration with artist Joey Molina, plays on loop. Here the same character Norman portrayed in the first film appears fully lit from the front, dancing against green-screened washes of color, not unlike the backdrops of her drawings. The protagonist’s long ponytail sways, her sheer dress kissed with pink roses and green leaves. In espadrilles and face paint, the character ostensibly plays to an exoticized femme ideal, yet as she moves, her smile goes stale, her mascara-laden eyes glaze over. What is she thinking?
As the figure repeats her dance steps, her image multiplies. At first the effect is humorous, the rendering absurd, but eventually the trail of figures overwhelms the frame. Like the collaged faces in Suite II, something sinister shifts in the accumulation of these images.
In her exhibition statement, Norman explains that this protagonist is “engaged in a Sisyphean battle in conquering both her primitive and cultured selves.” Like the mythical Hydra, as soon as one of these identities is faced, even more emerge. What becomes of this repeated effort, repeated rage, so exhausted, so repeated, so bored? How hollow the unhypnotized eye may quickly appear to the spectator.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, III, Sinclair comments on “[y]our veiled suffocation” with an acceptance that moves beyond bitterness: “The broken world / was always broken.” This acceptance arises from deep familiarity, as she writes: “There is an old sadness I was born to wear like a dress.”
Thomas Jefferson’s book Sinclair references, Notes on the State of Virginia, was published in 1787. In it, among many things, Jefferson (who owned hundreds of slaves) implied a justification of white supremacy, citing “the real distinction which nature has made.” In 1789 Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings, whose father was likely Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles, became pregnant with her first child.
Hemings would bear several more children with notably unreported fathers and remain enslaved to Jefferson for the rest of her life. In 1810 Jefferson abandoned ideas of revising Notes on the State of Virginia but made it clear that “experience has not altered a single principle.”
Sinclair addresses the “child of the colonies.” “You wear your mother’s face in the mirror,” Sinclair writes. “Your grandfather who loved you but could not say it. All the men who love you and cannot say it.” Norman’s show presses: What other faces do you wear in the mirror? What else cannot, will not, be said?
Moving beyond the submissive symbolic markers of rage, scorn, and reactivity alone, Norman’s work—in a gesture of implicit self-authority—refrains from stating the obvious. The multiplication of faces, the multiplication of selves, the multiplication of unspoken stories, implies (poignantly if exhaustingly in the era of Trump) the horror.
And yet, the self-awareness, the subtlety, and physicality of both of these elements (in contrast, tension, and with an emotional collaging accompanying the digital and analog Norman perform) imply a kind of hope.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, I, Sinclair asserts: “I will find my fingers in the muscle of my throat…I will marvel at the body asking to live.”
Yanique Norman and Safiya Sinclair are both black Jamaican women, currently living and working in the United States.