By Sarah Stacke
If I glance to the right while sitting at my desk, an oversized postcard that rests on my bookshelf comes into focus. I don’t remember where I picked up the card, which features a photograph of a shirtless, muscular black man standing at the edge of a bright blue ocean. A small boy, as if in the midst of a back dive, is draped over his head. The card has held its place amongst my books for about a year, hinting at a place I’ve been and quietly asking for attention.
This summer the intertwined figures pictured on the card demanded my full consideration. While visiting a gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, I ran across them on the cover of a book named Flamboya. The image, made in Ghana by Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen (b. 1972), is called D.N.A. After turning a few pages of Sassen’s book, it became apparent the elements that distinguish D.N.A. – unusual postures lit by midday sun and accentuated by deep shadows – prevail throughout the photographs Sassen has made in Africa.
Her subjects are young African men and women, frequently wearing brightly colored clothes; their bodies intentionally positioned against the highly saturated African soil, foliage or a textured wall. Sassen draws on her background as a fashion photographer and collaborates with her subjects to create stylized portraits that are at once theatrical, playful and mysterious. She often conceals her subject’s faces in deep shadow, creating an unresolved tension between subject, photographer and viewer. According to Edo Dijksterhuis, the author of Flamboya’s epilogue, Sassen’s use of shadow “places question marks instead of exclamation marks … she questions the viewer’s gaze, particularly that of Western viewers.” Sassen’s fresh aesthetic undeniably raises questions of representation, yet at the same time her images possess elements of the vibrancy and mysticism that are a part of everyday life in Africa.
When one of Sassen’s images showed up at the Nasher Museum as part of the current exhibition, Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection, I was once again compelled to pay attention. The image is called Arusha, presumably made in Tanzania. A woman wearing a thin black blouse, decorated with pale flowers and drenched in warm sun, is standing in front of lush green leaves. We see her from the waist up and her arms hang at her sides. Her head is tilted toward her right shoulder and her gaze, only visible through her right eye, confronts the viewer. With the exception of her eye and a portion of forehead, her entire face is obscured by shadow. Although we can’t see her mouth, the playful squint of her visible eye makes me imagine a slight smirk across her lips. This woman is undeniably in control of what she is willing to reveal to the viewer. Just as the strong figures of D.N.A. silently enticed me from afar, this woman is keeping her distance. Yet at the same time she seems to be inviting us into the shadows, tempting us to visit a place we probably won’t understand.
IMAGE: Viviane Sassen, “Arusha,” 2005. C-print, Edition 5 of 5. Dr. Kenneth Montague/ The Wedge Collection.