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Jessica Lynne: Autobiography, Photography, and Moving Beyond the Singular ‘I’

July 28, 2020
Jessica Lynne

Header image: L to R: Tony Oursler, Are We Going To Have To Go Through With This Again (2008); Xaviera Simmons, When You’re Looking At Me, You’re Looking At Country (2011–12); Kimsooja, An Album: Hudson Guild (2009). Projects commissioned by More Art.

“To be concerned with the self or the autobiographical is inherently to attend to the relationships of power around which we negotiate, that impress upon us.”

Few subjects are as slippery as the self. Who we are, how we present that to the world, and the many, many dynamics we are entered into and with which we engage create an ever-mutable, multifaceted definition of personhood. Even when we feel secure, we shimmer.

Moving beyond the self is often the purview of art and of activism (the experience of another point of view; working for the greater good), but it needn’t be self-effacing — it can be self-affirming, empowering. Between the individual and the communal there is always much ground to cover and yet it it is moments of deep introspection that build solidarity. As writer and critic Jessica Lynne writes, drawing on the work of scholar and author Saidiya Hartman, “the autobiographical is not a ‘personal story that folds onto itself.’ It is the act of looking closely at one’s own position within historical and social processes in order to understand their larger significance and reach.”

In More Art in the Public Eye, Lynne’s writing grounds three public art projects that used photography and video — as well as text, performance, and sound and/or silence — to bridge the individual self and the communal body and to better understand the construction of both. Her essay “Narrating Ourselves Anew”, excerpted below, moves fluidly and incisively between the making of personal histories and identities, questions of representation, and the power dynamics of art-making, all of which speak, in this context, to an abiding interest in the many uses of the image as both a personal and political signifier. Lynne turns to the work of Black women, in particular photographer Carrie Mae Weems and Hartman, to examine how in our own bodies and minds and experiences we engage and create the world, and vice versa. She draws attention to the art that emerges from modes that Weems identifies — like the construction of history, myth, memory — and argues that telling one’s own story —not a given in its own right for people of color and other marginalized groups in America and elsewhere — does not only mean looking inward. When taken on artistically, poetically, with imagination and rigor, “It makes room for a critical kind of play and elasticity in further service to the visioning of a future beyond the scope of whiteness and patriarchy and heterosexuality.” A new way of telling, one oriented towards justice as much as one’s own claim-staking.

When asked to speak briefly about the impulses that pushed her toward photography in the mid-1970s, photographer Carrie Mae Weems responded:

Another thing that’s interesting about the early work is that even though I’ve been engaged in the idea of autobiography, other ideas have been more important: the role of narrative, the social levels of humor, the deconstruction of documentary, the construction of history, the use of text, storytelling, performance, and the role of memory have all been more central to my thinking than autobiography. It’s assumed that autobiography is key, because I so often use myself, my own experience — limited as it is at times — as the starting point. But I use myself simply as a vehicle for approaching the question of power, and following where that leads me to and through. It’s never about me; it’s always about something larger.¹


Carrie Mae Weems, The Kitchen Table Series (1990). Images via the artist’s website.


Weems, one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, offers a valuable framework with which we might think through and about cultural production that takes up grappling with “the self” and the multiple identities a person carries at any given moment. Indeed, throughout her decades-long career in visual storytelling, through photography, social practice, performance, and video, Weems has concerned herself with investigating subjectivity in domestic and public spaces. Yet what she rightfully asserts is the idea that to be concerned with the self or the autobiographical is inherently to attend to the relationships of power around which we negotiate, that impress upon us. In this way, autobiography becomes a conduit, a material component that troubles, disturbs, interrogates, confounds, or makes clear one’s (many) relationship(s) to the world. Through her work, Weems has dared to make space for a complex Black, female subjectivity to exist and in many ways we can trace her lineage through the photography of artists such as Deana Lawson, Nakeya Brown, and Xaviera Simmons. In considering practices like theirs, I do not just ask how, I also ask why — as in, what are the conditions that make their images necessary? In this instance, perhaps, it is a social legacy of image-making that has often opted for flattened representations of Blackness.

In 1977, the Combahee River Collective introduced the term “identity politics” as language to embody interlocking oppressions and the radical set of politics and interventions that sprung forth directly from their identities as Black Lesbians. Their affirmation of identity politics as a centerpiece of Black feminism refused to ignore the very real ways in which power, or lack thereof, affects one’s material conditions (in this case, the material conditions of Black women). They asserted that this political core is in fact central to revolutionary acts, not merely a footnote in liberatory processes. I find the legacy of CRC’s theoretical assertions looming over Weems’ photography or, for example, that of her peer, photographer Lorna Simpson — practices that often invite an intimate look at and consideration of Black women (in the US, though not exclusively), an experience that is not monolithic but deeply informed by the consequences of race, class, and gender. The personal is indeed political.


L to R: Xaviera Simmons, American Book Covers (2007); via David Castillo Gallery. Deanna Lawson, Seagulls in Kitchen (2017); via Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Nakeya Brown, Hair Portrait #1 from The Refutation of Good Hair (2012); via Blue Sky Gallery.



And what of the traditions from which we emerge, the cultural inheritances we carry? The myths that help us understand the world’s patterns. The oral histories that have been handed down for generations. The gestures and movements that become signifiers. The blood memory. These too can inform our political strategies, just as they represent the most intimate parts of ourselves.

What then does it mean to utilize the personal within a process of self-imagining? Self-narration? What is at stake if this process does not occur? What do we lose when we do not learn how to see ourselves in terms that are self-imposed? How do we tell a story about who we are and why we are? And how can we begin to organize and create in dialogue with others as we draw from these wells? I am asking these questions as a way of establishing a framework through which to consider work that relies on the autobiographical as a methodology for examining social infrastructures, and also as a celebration of a specific interiority or set of experiences.


1. Dawoud Bey, “Carrie Mae Weems by Dawoud Bey,” BOMB Magazine (July 1, 2009).

Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is a founding editor of ARTS.BLACK, an online journal of art criticism from Black perspectives. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Art in America, The Believer, BOMB Magazine, The Nation and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about love, faith, and the American South. Jessica lives and works in coastal Virginia. Find her online at @lynne_bias.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.