Traumatic Topography: ‘Out of Doors’ Synthesis of Black Landscape Art
by Chenoa Baker
Typically, when people think of landscape art, they think of Romantic Era landscape paintings, which are forest scenes. The Rococo period, which contains fantasy-like woodlands and cupids, comes to mind. These associations evoke white privilege, transcendentalism, and elitism as landscape art is undoubtedly dominated by the Eurocentric perspective. Consistently, many forget about landscape work by Black artists who justifiably approach the landscape genre with critical historical analysis and psychoanalytic reconciliation.
Through conversations and the work of Mexican-diasporic artist, Elsa Muñoz, in Women Heal Through Rite and Ritual, presented by Galerie Myrtis, Muñoz elucidates the concept of ecopsychology. In Afro-indigenous traditions, the land becomes a palate to heal trauma, chronicle history, and have a spiritual-medicinal quality to it. In her work and the work of various artists following these traditions, they portray the land as a receptacle of trauma and yet depicting nature becomes, in itself, a cathartic practice.
Whether in the depiction of the pastoral South or rendering of the urban North, artists show these landscapes as a third character. Symbols of popular trees, the North Star, and factory landscapes become monumental in the telling of Black stories. This is a rewarding genre because it holds visceral imagery of the Black experience. Some of the artists that weave together this story are Keris Salmon, Xaviera Simmons, Njaimeh Njie, and Latoya Ruby Fraizer.
Southern Gothic Landscapes
Keris Salmon’s work maps Black identity on the land through her series of landscapes juxtaposed by text, architectural photo negatives, and family photos constructed into plants. The power in these landscapes are the Gothicism that Salmon applies to the Southern landscape by providing a snapshot of trees and water in a bayou (as seen above) and words as an intermediary between the landscape and troubled history of enslavement. She artistically renders the audio, visual, kinesthetic, and olfactory qualities through the symbolism of her words. Similar to the figurative imagery of Jean Toomer, the land becomes personified as a vessel of the enslaved body and an omnipresent witness to horrific trauma.
In Simmons’ early twenties, she participated in a ‘walking pilgrimage’–essentially, a meditative walk through nature with Buddhist monks for two years. This cultivated a reverence for the land by listening to the stories those sites once saw. Consequently, Simmons’ work embodies migration and reconciles with the land through what she calls “pastoral engagement.”
In the above work, Simmons positions the subject as part of the landscape. The significance of the subject, dressed in black and hiding her face, is that her body becomes like the trees in the background because of the lack of expression and gestural hiding. The raw materials from the train tracks and rubble signify complex labor histories. In the creation of this manufactured landscape, Black people worked in steel factories, excavating other metals, and mining coal. The symbolism of the guitar advances the narrative of the body as an instrument to creating this manufactured landscape. Historically, existing outdoors was tumultuous for Black people because of the Fugitive Slave Act and lynching; but it also signifies leisure time in Southern culture because activities surround time spent outdoors.
In On Sculpture #1, the photograph within the photo fuses the landscapes of past and present. The backdrop of the ocean and the sky represent the Middle Passage–otherwise known as the event that cuts the umbilical tie to our homeland creating a hybrid, tumultuous, and rewarding identity. So much suffering and culture is a result of this water that bifurcated identities. The person’s hands do the job of copying and pasting a historical photo onto the same oceanic environment. The photograph within the photo is the thematic subject matter, which evokes the historical legacy of slavery.
Northern Manufactured Urban Landscapes
Njie’s photo essay begins with the quote, “Tracing water, memory, and change is a photo essay exploring the experiences of Black residents living near the rivers connected by Pennsylvania Route 65.” In tracing the areas adjacent to Route 65, she tells the story of a contemporary take on the Great Migration, the juxtaposition of manufactured landscapes and natural ones, and reflection on the Black experience in the Pittsburgh area.
Foregrounding the photograph above, Njie poses as the subject looking outward from a landing. From her vantage point, we see how the composition has mostly manufactured landscapes on the right and indigenous greenery and water on the left. The interesting thing about rivers is that it constantly moves and changes, but the riverbed that existed for many years witnesses the changing of landscapes and the social history accompanying those changes. In the distance there is a factory billowing smoke and a bridge that signifies the steel, coal, and textile industries that drew Black people to the North yet mistreated them constantly.
In the photograph above, Njie depicts a landscape that is mostly manufactured. The progression in her photo essay from mostly natural to landscapes dominated by cityscapes indicates the change occurring because of the water and Route 65. Like many stories of highways, it segments the Black communities that tend to be more urban, and separates the predominately white suburbs, and rural spaces. She captures this phenomena with her camera. Her keen focus on the landscape covered with storefronts, graffiti, fire escapes, telephone poles, cars, traffic cones, the street, and fences without showing people advances the narrative of environmental determinism. This concept says that the environment has autonomy, as a third character, and it is important in directing the lives of the people who interact with this space.
LaToya Ruby Fraizer
Fraizer commits to producing images of jarring truth. In her use of verisimilitude, she approaches questions of identity tied to corrupted land, gentrification; socioeconomic landscapes tied to natural or manufactured ones; and the ‘geography of oppression’. Through her bodies of work, she explores land that fails Black people and the institutions constructing them. For instance, she showcases Flint, Michigan’s water crisis in her work; exposes the climate change and labor ethics crisis of factories following two rivers in the Pittsburgh-area; covers campaigns to save the Braddock hospital; demystifies the idea of the urban pioneer; and illustrates Black resistance despite all of these things.
The Gray Area explores the demolition of the Braddock hospital by UPMC healthcare corporation. This demolition represents a physical and symbolic one. It speaks to the lack of access to healthcare in a highly polluted city, the manipulation of social landscapes by corporations, and the loss of jobs. The image above provokes a story we are thrust into–the middle or the end–the viewer decides. Debris clutters the image, the barely standing building frays, and the construction vehicle is a part of this change. The prominent line in this photograph is caution tape. A lone tree represents the only natural landscape in the image. The significance of all these elements is that industrial fluctuation is less driven by human engagement than mechanic force. This disregard for people, as none are explicitly shown in the image, suggests an act of gentrification that interrupts the former landscape.
Pier 54, located in New York city on the Hudson River, represents a major port for cargo and human passage. Fraizer mixes performative gesture, historical photographs on a flag, and current landscapes to communicate a story. Frazier positions the subject laying down, which evokes the image of the Middle Passage when enslaved people were packed onto boats. She juxtaposes that inherent history with her body language with people who migrated to the U.S by choice on boats to Ellis Island. The landscape becomes a witness to this history.
Pain and Progress
Landscapes that evoke the pastoral South or urban North are etched into our memory by stories, histories, and photographs. In the artists’ depiction of these landscapes, there is healing by acknowledging the past and reconciling it with the future. At Black Art In America, we encourage you to think critically about these landscapes and to consider manufacturing your own landscape and imagery through Garden Art For The Soul.
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Chenoa Baker is an emerging curator and arts journalist. She provides curating, advertising, employing Google data analytics in her blog content, and research services. Her educational background in Cultural Studies, Art History, and Museum Studies from Chatham University provides a broad base from which to approach collection stewardship and visual critical studies from a critical race methodology. Her writing skills may be confirmed on Sugarcane Magazine, Pulse@ChathamU, and other publications. She especially enjoys exploring the intersection of art, race, and psychology in her work. You may learn more about her services on LinkedIn, Instagram, or by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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