In his solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, artist John Edmonds conjures optics old and new to chronicle complex relationships between Africa and its diasporas.
A sidelong glance is a mode of indirect looking: surreptitious and critical, this swift leering can be lecherous at times, cloaked by motives like desire and hunger.
In her influential l essay, “A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States,” art historian Krista Thompson surveys the teleologies and visual mechanisms that have informed African diasporic art history in the past century, citing sidelong vision as a critical vantage from which to examine how African diasporic people “are seen, see themselves, or are rendered invisible.” It is this kaleidoscope of distorted looking — at queerness, the artist’s subjects, and Africa at large — that constitutes the pith of John Edmonds: A Sidelong Glance.
Edmonds is the inaugural recipient of the UOVO Prize, an award for emerging, Brooklyn-based artists that includes a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. A Sidelong Glance, his first solo museum show, comprises venerable portraits shot on a large-format camera that document the artist’s friends and acquaintances, often cradling, clutching, and ogling African art objects. These works are accompanied by an assortment of smaller photographs: sculptures and masks donated to the Brooklyn Museum by the estate of the late Black American novelist Ralph Ellison and African tourist objects sold for commercial use stand stoically, often aggrandized by dazzling gold backdrops and staged light.
Burying his critiques in a patchwork of art historical references — like the fetishizing gaze of 20th-century American surrealist, Man Ray, the divine geometry of Renaissance portraiture, and iterations of idealized female figures that saturate Western art histories — Edmonds at once implores us to contemplate visualizations of Africa and African art through the lens of the West, and conjures new avenues for imaging relationships between Africa and its diasporas today.
These dialogues are revealed in intimate works like “Female Nude” (2019). A spotlight bathes Edmonds’ subject in brilliant warmth. Sprawled across striking fabric, she glistens in quiet repose, recalling the compositions of European Renaissance, Baroque, and modernist renderings. The model peers back daringly at the spectator, attesting to her agency and evincing the artifice of the tradition of the female nude itself, which from its inception, denied women the power to return the gaze and propelled Eurocentric beauty standards, omitting Black women from visibility.
Edmonds, who often photographs his subjects in his studio or his apartment, encourages his models to don their own clothing and accessories while sitting. Like the red, green, and black durags that embody the tri-color Pan-African flag, worn proudly by the young Black men in “American Gods,” (2017), the headwrap and waistbeads that adorn the subject in “Female Nude” (2019), become iconographic symbols of diasporic belonging.
In meticulously posed works like “Anatolli & Collection” (2019), diasporic longing for a bygone homeland is made manifest in a curious gaze. A shirtless, muscular young man rests on a table, peering inquisitively onto an assortment of sculptures and masks from the photographer’s personal collection of African art objects. In this moment of quietude, the man whose sinews glint in gentle light, reckons with these objects that appear imbued with life and spirit, yet displaced from their native countries, as he himself is rendered an object of queer desire, subject to the photographer’s gaze.
Discussing an early body of work titled Immaculate, Edmonds declared in 2018, “There’s a connection between intimacy and divinity in my pictures—intimacy as a form of sacredness.” In A Sidelong Glance, the artist captures his subjects—figures and objects—through hallowed lenses. African art objects sold on busy street corners for commercial consumption are glorified alongside those sequestered in the vaults of sterile institutions. These objects become subjects of desire and intrigue–complicating questions of possession, and provenance as they sail through time, borders, and communities.
John Edmonds: A Sidelong Glance continues through August 8, 2021 at Brooklyn Museum, (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn). The exhibition is curated by Ashley James and Drew Sawyer.