550 Self-Portraits Magnify Stereotypes of the Black Body

Davion Alston takes a Fresnel lens to discrimination.

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Oct 3 2016, 5:20pm

"Davion Alston, A Display of a One Way Conversation no-65." Images courtesy of the artist

For the last two years, the emerging artist Davion Alston, has developed a habit of holding up a Fresnel magnifying lens to different parts of his body, and then photographing them. The 550 resulting self-portraits form a series called A Display of a One Way Conversation, which will be on view a part of The Diggs Gallery group exhibition, Do You See Me?, at Winston-Salem State University.

"A Display of a One Way Conversation no-9"

“This particular series, A Display of a One Way Conversation, really talks about object-hood in relationship to subject-hood,” explains Alston to The Creators Project. “I’m shooting myself for the viewer to look at, to take on my gaze, and to objectify certain parts of my body that are seen as stigmatic.” He says, “The use of the magnifying glass in this whole performance I am doing before the camera, is representative of this idea that there are a lot of transactional biases based off identity.” He adds, “In my practice there is of course a challenge to racism, but I was reading Photography on the Color Line, and W.E.B Du Bois said his practice is not about challenging racism but more so negotiating what race is, and at the same time trying to identify the identifiers of racism.”

"A Display of a One Way Conversation no-25"

The series is Alston’s way of calling attention, in part, to the historical stereotyping of the black body. In one image, "A Display of a One Way Conversation no-9," Alston holds the lens up to his ear, enlarging it to about the size of a softball. In, "no-76," the lens inverts his chest, turning it upside-down; "no-49" shows his lips and nose larger than the rest of his face; and in "no-1," the artist looks directly into the camera without exaggeration. The physically cartoonish self-portraits evoke the pervasive caricatures of black figures seen in early Hollywood films and late 19th century medical books, advertisements, exhibitions, and on the labels of household products. The photo series is also a contemporary view of how those early representations of blackness still inform notions of beauty and value.

"A Display of a One Way Conversation no-49"

A Display of a One Way Conversation is representative of concerns other artists have raised about the representation of black bodies throughout the history of America. Carrie Mae Weems’ 33 toned prints, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, appropriates Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz’s "Slave Daguerreotypes" from the 1850s, to reveal how Agassiz’s manipulation of lighting used the medium of photography to present black people as, “a scientific profile,” “a negroid type,” “an anthropological debate,” and as “mammie, mama, [and] mother,” according to Weems. Alston’s images also allude to the erasure of identity found in Whitfield Lovell’s The Card Series II: The Rounds, a series of 54 drawings where Lovell contrasts respectable, neatly drawn portraits of ordinary black people, with a deck of “Sutherland’s Circular Coon Cards” that feature black men as grinning, pitch-black exaggerations of themselves. Alston’s distortions also draw parallels to Hank Willis Thomas’ 2010 photo series, Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, where Thomas strips from the last five decades of advertisements of their logos and text, to reveal black figures are still pictured to play up commonly held stereotypes surrounding black culture.

“I am very much interested in the blackness that I carry,” explains Alston. “I am trying to communicate to the audience that blackness is not an object to be fetishized.” Alston says, “Photography has this way of activating certain negotiations of race.” He adds, “I am also interested in the power of photography and the ways it helped create the conditions in which we view and understand race.”

"A Display of a One Way Conversation no-1"

Do You See Me? opens October 14 at Winston-Salem State University. For more information, click here.

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Making Black Men Visible—By Painting Them Together

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