Revisionist Imagery – A meditation on photographer Viviane Sassen
The dualistic nature in having a profound affinity for a culture yet at the same time a distance that’s equally overwhelming comprises Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen’s reflection on her relationship to Africa. As a person of African-American ancestry I inherently view Africa through a similar lens of “otherness” patronized by a history that is integrated within the very fabric of Europe’s colonial and cultural advancement into the Americas. To many in the post-industrialized world, Africa is an abstraction. A population disconnected from the global system yet has partaken upon itself the vices of man while retaining the primitive qualities of jujuism. Generalized as if the continent itself were one country organized by the seven European nations that scrambled for its resources.
There is also in the West a tendency to reserve a lowbrow or negative assessment for the colour black. This is especially evident within the art world where general restrictions for the colour metaphors wickedness, a lost of one’s right, dignity, or emptiness of the self. It’s obvious that Sassen’s intimacy toward blackness isn’t reserved for these stigmas but are solaced within a psychical that takes form throughout a dance between shadow and light in her photographs. Aiming to forgo any specificity within the viewers participation, many of Sassen’s photographs disguise the subject’s face either through the use of various shadow tricks or more surrealist methods like situating implements over the face in order to call the viewers gaze on to something else, something more. Sassen’s photographs and their dissenting attitude toward blackness recall an effect African-American painter Kerry James Marshall projects upon his relationship to otherness and the perception of what it means to be apart of a European idiom yet at the same time have a contingency to remain detached from it’s popular norms. The Afrocentric characters Marshall creates become one with the colour, in a way that doesn’t envelop but accentuates a reality that is overshadowed by a predominantly white paradigm. I believe Viviane Sassen’s work manages to do something similar. Instead of promoting an interrogation of the subject’s condition like many photographs taken in and around the African continent tend to do, Sassen’s work formulates an interrogation of the viewer’s condition by challenging the totality of each image with the prescribed reality typically fed to Westerners about African people.
The interiors featured in Sassen’s book Die Son Sien Alles [Libraryman], take a documental tone and in comparison to her portraiture there lies this significant difference. In these photographs the viewer is situated amongst dilapidated structures around Cape Town, South Africa. This setting claims a confrontation between daily life and what black African’s have to relate to within these disconsolate spaces. Sassen’s depiction of these interior scenes render little room for abstraction due to the intimate illustration of how the Eurocentric advertisements that adorn the walls have little semblance to the township’s true values. I cannot help but feel the photos reflect a sum of both Sassen’s discontent and fascination with the décor that is available for the citizens to make these interior spaces their own. Overall, the interior scenes in Die Son Sien Alles read a bit like a poetic metaphor. If they were coupled with text I believe questions between an individual’s identity and the space they inhabit would be brought up. It’s congruent to say that Sassen’s own concerns with time, boundaries, and personal history with culture are also reflected within these photographs.
With a sociological relationship to the idea of blackness that is respectable to African-American artists’ like Kara Walker and the aforementioned Kerry James Marshall, it is important to note that Viviane Sassen who is tall, blonde, and Dutch just might belong in a discussion about Pan-Africanism. It is inherent within Sassen’s unique relationship to African society that her perspective comes from inside a Pan-Africanist trait that aims to stimulate a fair-minded image of African people. By this quality alone I understand Sassen’s photography and sketches as a kind of revisionist art.
Just as her commissioned work for highly acclaimed labels Miu Miu and Missoni merge into fashion’s concern to highlight aesthetics and form, Sassen’s work in Africa intuitively utilize preternatural techniques that work in her favour in order to highlight a perception of ambiguity. In respect to this open-ended structure Sassen promotes narratives I akin to a type of improvisational performance act as well. The subjects within her photographs are collaborators, formulating with her a total experience where composition, space, and form congregate between the viewer’s perceptions. Within this structure, Sassen manages to achieve a sense of equality that is naturally humble. Photography’s voyeuristic concerns therefore become irrelevant by leaving the viewer with themselves and an image that preforms just as a non-objective narrative would. It comes at little surprise that a self-portrait taken at the beginning of her career which features her body fragmented by the square shape of a white towel brought her back to Kazimir Malevich’s suprematism, a philosophy which called for a visual language that was to be simplified into the most basic geometric forms. After deciding to produce a set of photographs in a similar tone she describes this collection of work as her “white period”. Sassen’s ironic titling confronts the meditation on black we experience in her latest work.
Increasingly I’m convinced that Viviane Sassen operates beyond the common constrains many photographers put upon themselves. Her goal to provide the viewer with stories or in her words “visual puzzles” that run deeper than a static image repudiates the limitations many photographers place upon the medium. In the totality of her work there is a tendency to challenge popular stigma by concentrating on what it means to communicate rawness and materiality in a photograph yet at the same time summon the viewer into somewhat of a daze. Along with her interpretation of blackness we may go beyond skin colour and into the realm of abstraction and wonder.
Check out new book by Viviane Sassen published by Libraryman here.