07 May 2007

Color, Anonymity and Forced Migration

This post basically is an exercise in free association. This past term I taught a course on "Art & Politics." In it there is a segment on migration for which I have the students read a short social scientific report on the political economy of forced migration" by Stephen Castles* at Oxford. Then I have them read two poems, one by Adam Zagajewski nad one by Wislawa Szymborska that I included in this earlier post. Then we look at two large important bodies of work The first is Jacob Lawrence's "Migration Series" (1940-41) ** which 'documents' the movement of internally displaced African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early 20th C; the second is Sebastião Salgado's Migrations: Humanity in Tranisiton, 1993-99. The point is to get the students to think a bit about how best to convey the reality of large scale displacement and to understand the political dynamics that animate it.

In any case, I also teach a segment of the course on "color" and this year, in addition to reading Ludwig Wittgenstein and Patricia Williams, we discussed the revelation I reported in this post on the variegated shades and colors Walter Mosley ascribes to the "black" Americans who populate his fiction. One of my students noticed that in his paintings, Lawrence tends to depict all the African Americans in a restrictced range of hues. So, for instance, here are the first and last paintings (nos. 1 & 60) from the series:

During the course of our conversation in class I noticed that in this series Lawrence also tends to paint African Americans in silhouette (hence he's a precursor to, for example, Kara Walker) even as he regularly paints Caucasians with discernable facial features. Lawrence's migrants, then tend to be anonymous, often members of largish groups as in these paintings. This, in turn, brought to mind the criticism that Susan Sontag levels at Salgado's Migrations photographs (which I believe I've mentioned here before too):

"[T]he problem is in the pictures themselves, not how or where they are exhibited: in their focus on the powerless reduced to their powerlessness. It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite type of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights."

If this is a plausible criticism of Salgado (which I doubt), what are we to make of Lawrence's depiction of African American migrants. They are not individuated even by hue or shade (as in Mosley's fiction) and they are not differentiated even by facial features as are many of the "anonymous" migrants whom Salgado depicts. How are we supposed to depict masses of internally displaced persons? Why are Salgado's images objectionable if Lawrence's are not?

* Stephen Castles. 2003. “The International Politics of Forced Migration.” In The Socialist Register, 2003. Ed.Colin Leys & Leo Panitch. Merlin Press, pages 172-92.
** Just FYI - I find that this page at Columbia U will not load properly in Firefox but works fine with Internet Explorer.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

The mere logistics of getting all the names in any crowd scene even under the best of circumstances are well beyond impractical. And I certainly don't think the "nameless" masses of, say... Koudelka's Czech uprising make them any the less empowered- or Salgado's, for that matter. In fact, you could argue that it's their anonymous, everyman status that lends to their ultimate power and appeal with the public worldwide.

08 May, 2007 01:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Stan, I agree. One thing I failed to notice when I first read the Sontag passage is that she uses the word "portrait" which is slightly different, although it reflects the convention of focusing on individual suffering about which I've commented here before. And, that said, industrious or curious photographers/journalists/critics have not had too much difficulty tracking down e.g., Lange's 'Migrant Mother,' Evans' Allie Mae Burroughs or Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl" and naming them. Here Marth Rosler's famous essay on documentary photography is a useful source. That may be beside the point though. And I have always found it ironic ow SOntag decried the cult of celebrity given her own stature!

08 May, 2007 10:43  
Blogger Stan B. said...

And let's not forget that most famous
of anonymous "portraits," The Chinese Tank Guy!

08 May, 2007 14:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sontag's criticism reminds me of the old Stalin maxim which goes something like "the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." There is definitely more emotional sting when political tragedies are personalized, at least for me; however, I think the whole project of appealing to people's concious through art or "documentary" photography, is unrealistic. I wish I weren't so cynical but I don't believe the world is going to change because Salgado took a photo of a starving girl, no matter how personal, touching, or sad it is.

08 May, 2007 18:48  
Blogger Unknown said...

Here is an audio piece that doesn't answer your questions, but is related and, I think, very interesting.
look for: the paint mixers by damali ayo and Dmae Roberts
" Wired with a low-fi tape recorder, performance artist damali ayo visited hardware stores and asked employees to mix paint to match different parts of her body. "

08 May, 2007 19:03  
Blogger Jon Anderson said...

Sontag is ultimately a very disappointing cultural critic. while adopting the manner and tone of far more subtle thinkers such as Walter Benjamin or Teodor Adorno, she almost inevitably lapses into creating pseudo hieratic pronouncements based on very dubious polar oppositions such as the one formulated here. She would have been better off making a thorough study of a writer such as Montaigne, develop an understanding of irony and paradox, rather than become a very weak imitation of Frankfurt School thinking. If one examines this pronouncement carefully, its ludicrousness becomes quickly apparent.

09 May, 2007 08:31  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Jim, don't know if interested, but just wanted to alert you to Jacob Holdt's new book "United States 1970-1975." You can get several related links to his work on my site.

17 May, 2007 21:23  

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