3 Photographers Expose Race in America c. 2016

Who gets to look at the camera? Who cannot look at the camera? 'Looking Through: Photography, Race, and Identity' explores these complexities.

by Antwaun Sargent
Feb 29 2016, 10:25pm

Shikeith, #Blackmendream (film still). All images courtesy of the artists.

The exhibition Looking Through: Photography, Race, and Identity captures racial realities that are painful and contemporary. Photographers Shikieth, Gareth Smit, and Stacey Tyrell employ photographic approaches that explore blackness in vastly different contexts.

The show at Adelphi University centers on narratives that attempt to unpack what global blackness means to the photographers—Smit is white South African; Tyrell is Canadian of Caribbean descent, and Shikeith is African American— and their own identities in the narratives that run throughout the exhibition.

“For me, the most exciting aspect of the exhibition are the relationships between the different artworks,” explains the exhibition's curator, Hannah Smith-Allen. “Smit’s documentary project on Eric Garner puts the exhibition into a contemporary context and asks viewers to consider racial identity in the wake of recent police abuses. Shikeith’s work almost seems to respond to Smit’s photograph,” she says.

Stacey Tyrell, Ismay 42 years, from Backra Bluid series

Thematically, the photographs displayed in the show explore how identity functions at the margins. Smith-Allen says, “Tyrell’s work is unsettling. Viewers must study her photographs before they understand how they were made. Thus, she asks that viewers never assume that they ‘know’ anything about race by looking quickly. Tyrell writes that, for her pictures, she transforms herself from a black woman into her white ancestors.”

Shikeith, The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it

In all the works presented in Looking Through: Photography, Race, and Identity conversations surrounding intersectionality of race are present. In Smit’s portrait of Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s 65-year-old mother, he reveals what grief looks like. Shikeith’s The Moment You Doubt Whether You Can Fly, You Cease Forever To Be Able To Do It ponders the meaning of how contemporary notions of black manhood can limit an identity.

The exhibition also raises questions about the history of representation in the Western art world. Shikieth and Tyrell use their personal racial experiences to inform the images they produce. Their works are acts of self-portraiture that defy the traditional white gaze.

Gareth Smit, Almost a year after the death of Eric Garner, a small group of protestors led by his family members meet occasionally to demonstrate against police brutality and in demand for justice. Garner's 65 year old mother, Gwen Carr, still attends many of these protests.

Conversely, Smit’s photographs filter a community of color through a white male gaze. The distance between the subject and photographer in Smit’s photographs presented alongside Shikieth’s and Tyrell’s personal photographs work to present what Smith-Allen describes as “a complex vision of blackness.” Smith-Allen explains, “These artists make clear that black lives matter by revealing the complexities of the lives of individual black men and women.”

“Ultimately, I hope that this exhibit asks viewers to consider the following questions: Who gets to look at the camera? Who cannot look at the camera? Who turns there back to the camera and why? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?”

Gareth Smit, Church members perform at the First Baptist Church in Stapleton, nearby Tompkinsville, Staten Island, NY. The African American community in Staten Island have suffered under systemic racism endemic to an island that traditionally is the most conservative district of New York City.  

Stacey Tyrell, Cait, 12yrs. and Alyson, 12yrs., from Backra Bluid series

Looking Through: Photography, Race & Identity continues through March 6, 2016 at Adelphi University’s Ruth S. Harley University Center Gallery. For more information, click here.


An Artist Discovers His Black Heritage Through Photography

In Mickalene Thomas’s Photographs, Black Women are Muses

Collage Portraits Explore Violence Against Queer Black Males