The following is a selection of recent and archived articles on or about my work.
The Detroit Institute of Arts Film Theatre to screen The Meaning Of Hope
A Film By Artist Bill Gaskins on Saturday February 16 at 2PM
Press Release: January 14, 2013
The Meaning of Hope is a moving new twenty-minute film by Bill Gaskins that extends his acclaimed work in photographic portraiture into cinema, challenges the one-dimensional representations of the City of Detroit through emphasis on the faces and voices of some of its citizens, explores the most fundamental human resource and expands the public’s knowledge of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 2011, Gaskins was the Endowed Chair of Visual Art at Wayne State University when he developed the project.
This special premiere of Mr. Gaskins’ film will be followed by an on-stage panel discussion moderated by Valerie J. Mercer, DIA Curator of the General Motors Center for African American Art. Panel participants will include filmmaker and artist Bill Gaskins, poet, playwright and the 2011 Kresge Eminent Artist Bill Harris, and DIA film curator Elliot Wilhelm. This event is sponsored by the Whitney Foundation. Admission is free.
While twenty-first century Detroit is the geographic location for The Meaning of Hope, these portraits of a select group of its citizens place each person as characters in a different kind of romantic adventure film that is a mash-up of poetry, portraiture, history and cinema about hope—the most fundamental universal human trait—from the perspective of Detroit, rather than a film about Detroit.
Because digital media screens of all shapes and sizes that isolate individuals from each other dominate our culture and relations with each other, the movie theatre is one of the few spaces remaining where the attention of individuals is focused and uninterrupted in public, and at the same time, on a collective experience. Consequently, The Meaning of Hope will be exclusively experienced in the black box of the cinema.
“While in fact Detroit is the city of hope, hope is not commonly associated with the city of Detroit. I am interested in seeing if The Meaning of Hope can impact that perception.” I believe that contemporary art can help us make sense of the times we live in and inspire conversations of substance between strangers that help us to see our common selves through the perspective of others. Cinema is an art form with the potential to uplift and inspire as well as entertain and excite.”
From a professional and academic base in photography and the history of photography, Bill Gaskins explores questions about photographs, portraiture and the myths of photography and American culture. His approach to photography as both producer and critical spectator has garnered attention through commissions, artist residencies, grants, public lectures, solo and group exhibitions, exhibition catalogs and books.
As a professor of art, Bill Gaskins has taught at The Ohio State University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Missouri, the College of Art, Media & Technology and the College of Art and Design Theory and History at Parsons School of Design, and The New School for Public Engagement. Presently he is the Visiting Associate Professor of Art in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning at Cornell University.
For more information contact Elliot Wilhelm, Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts Film Theatre 5200 Woodward Avenue Detroit, Michigan 48202 313-833-7900
The New School News
April 16, 2012
Part Of The Solution: Pioneer Activist
Grace Lee Boggs Visits The New School
Over the course of the past year, New School students and faculty have been actively engaged in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Through marches, teach-ins and other activities they have demonstrated a commitment to social justice that reflects many of the core values of the university. This weekend, The New School, through its Office of Social Justice Initiatives (OSJI) and Student Senate, will further these goals by hosting a rare New York appearance by Grace Lee Boggs, a pioneering activist, who at age 96, has participated in most of the significant social and political movements of the past century.
On Saturday, April 21, Boggs leads a workshop with 30 students who are involved in various forms of activism and organizing at The New School. This includes Melina Pelaez, a graduate student in Sociology at The New School for Social Research: [Grace Lee Boggs visit to campus] creates a space where students can gather for urgent, critical and meaningful conversation about political issues they care about, an alternative space outside of a classroom setting created by students for students.,
On Sunday, April 22, Boggs engages in a conversation at Tishman Auditorium with Pelaez and Bill Gaskins, a noted photographer, scholar, and teacher at Parsons and The New School for Public Engagement. The conversation takes the historic 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. speech Where Do We Go from Here?, as a starting point. The event is free and open to the public, and the entire New School community is encouraged to attend.
"I am part of the generation who basically said that if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem,", said Gaskins, who met Boggs in 2011, when she took part in his first cinematic project, The Meaning of Hope, inspired by a 1967 sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After participating in a workshop given by Boggs, Gaskins invited her to come to The New School. "On the heels of the global Occupy movement, and The New School’s Occupy movement, I thought it was important to provide an opportunity for the students to learn what Grace says is ‘understanding the difference between rebellion and revolution’. Her method is very Socratic. She helps us realize that the answers to our questions are all within us, and we have more power than we realize. You are left with a greater sense of responsibility rather than a sense of burden in her presence.,"
Larger social justice initiatives at The New School include a university-wide committee composed of students, faculty, and staff, and an administrative office (OSJI) overseen by the Provost. There are fundamental questions we need to be asking at this moment because of what we represent as an institution,, says Jesse Villalobos, associate director of Social Justice Initiatives. What are our individual and collective roles in bringing about social justice, here and in our society? And in what ways might we be advancing or hindering equity? Having Grace Lee Boggs on our campus is an opportunity to engage with someone who has been involved in so many social movements that have shaped us. She brings a wealth of experience, knowledge, and wisdom, all of which are imperative when we think about intergenerational collaboration. As Grace often says, another world is not only necessary, but another world is happening.,
The New School News
September 18, 2011
Faculty Members Receive 2011 Distinguished Teaching Awards
At the president’s installation ceremony on Thursday, September 15, four faculty members were honored with 2011 Distinguished University Teaching Awards, the highest recognition The New School bestows for excellence in teaching. This year’s award winners are
Bill Gaskins, part-time faculty member in Photography, Parsons The New School for Design
Shannon Mattern, assistant professor of Media Studies, The New School for Public Engagement
Miriam Ticktin, assistant professor of Anthropology and International Affairs, The New School for Social Research
Gary Vena, part-time faculty member, The New School for Drama
“What better way to represent the outstanding quality of our faculty, our highest regard for them, and our shared commitment to excellence in teaching as a core value of this university than with this prestigious award?” asked Tim Marshall, provost and chief academic officer. The Distinguished University Teachers were nominated by their students and colleagues and then chosen by a faculty committee. According to Marshall, the 2011 recipients emerged from a pool of nearly 300 nominations, representing more submissions than any previous year since the award was initiated in 1988.
“This record-breaking participation, with the majority of nominations coming from students, is a landmark in the 23-year history of this award process,” said Marshall. “It demonstrates how students today are taking a proactive role in expressing their high regard for their faculty.” Following Marshall’s introductory remarks, the dean from each recipient’s respective division spoke about this year’s winners and their accomplishments.
Introduction of Bill Gaskins
The New School 2011 Distinguished University Teaching Award Winner
Remarks by Joel Towers, Executive Dean, Parsons School of Design
Bill joined the faculty of Parsons ten years ago. As a photographer and historian of photography he has taught classes in our school of art, media and technology and our school of art and design history and theory. Among our students, he is one of the most sought after faculty. He brings to his teaching a deep commitment to learning and he challenges the canonical narratives of art and design education that have for too long been narrowly construed. One of his recent students described it best when she wrote; “ Bill is genuinely passionate about teaching and believes in his student’s potential. He doesn’t shy away from race, gender, or economic status, but confronts them head on and he is deeply respectful and truly engaged with his work. In Bill’s own words he is, and I quote, “informed by my activities as an artist, scholar and citizen. The objectives in my studio courses at Parsons are to teach each student to become socially, culturally and technologically literate; to become smarter than the technology they use; and pose conceptual, technical and formal questions that lead to meaningful work.”
Bill is always pushing us to be better, more inclusive—more insightful. He’s provocative, in both patient and sometimes, impatient ways; and I’m grateful for both. Because there is an urgency and fire in Bill that makes for great teaching and the kind of energy that prevents the creeping complacency of institutions. That energy is especially needed in art and design education and practice because both design schools and design professions remain woefully underrepresented racially and ethnically; and not only is that wrong, it’s self-defeating. And as Bill is right to point out, it’s not just underrepresentation among student and faculty bodies; it is the nature and content of our curriculum that needs to change. Now I happen to believe that The New School has done a better job than most. But we can and must do more. And Bill has done a lot to help us as a school insure that we do a better job of confronting these challenges and act as a leader when it comes to diversifying how we educate our students.
Finally I think it’s worth noting that Bill is also Part-Time Associate Teaching Professor in The New School for Public Engagement in Media Studies. So while he is nominated from Parsons, Bill is truly a distinguished university teacher, and it is my honor to present him to you, President Van Zant, Provost, Marshall and the assembled academic community of The New School for recognition of his excellence in teaching and for his deep care and commitment to the future of the University.
Wayne State University Department of Art and Art History News
September 13, 2010
Distinguished photographer, educator, Bill Gaskins, prepares for faculty residency at Wayne State, including a special video portrait of Detroiters inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “Hope.”
Professor Bill Gaskins is preparing to bring his unique and profound perspective on art and the African American experience to Wayne State University as he will be a visiting faculty member during WSU’s winter 2011 semester, starting in January. Wayne State University appointed Gaskins as inaugural holder of the Elaine L. Jacob Endowed Chair in the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History. Gaskins will teach a photography course, will meet individually with graduate students, will participate in public lectures and will immerse himself in the arts and culture milieu of Detroit. Distinct among his activities at Wayne State University will be the creation of his project titled The Meaning of Hope, a video production in which Gaskins will have children in Detroit answer the question “What does hope mean to you?” while a broad cross-section of the citizens of Detroit reads excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech titled Hope, juxtaposed with the views of people in Detroit who have lost hope. “I want to create a work that engages this city in an important dialogue about a concept that most people beyond Detroit wouldn’t associate with its citizens or the city itself,” said Gaskins. “Participants in The Meaning of Hope will be engaged with a contemporary artist in a collaborative process of creating a portrait of a people and a period of time in the history of this city.” Once finished, The Meaning of Hope will take the form of a three-channel video projection exhibited on campus.
“We are thrilled to welcome to Wayne State University an artist with the vision and insight Bill Gaskins brings and we greatly appreciate the support of the Elaine L. Jacob Endowed Chair,” said Dr. Matthew W. Seeger, interim dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts. “Ms. Jacob’s appreciation for the arts and commitment to enhancing student experiences at her alma mater continues to have a profound impact on the quality of education we provide. This endowed chair faculty position elevates our programs’ visibility, diversity and quality and illustrates once again the deep commitment our alumni have to supporting excellence.”
Elaine L. Jacob is a native Detroiter who received a BFA in industrial design from Wayne State University in 1942. Her career spanned the early history of plastics development and led to her becoming the first woman president of the National Association of Container Distributors. She helped develop the plastics division of her family’s glass container business, M. Jacob and Sons, founded in 1885 by her grandfather, Max Jacob, whose house now serves as Wayne State’s president’s residence. Her generous donation to endow an art gallery on campus led to the creation of WSU’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery in 1997, a top venue for exhibitions of important local, national and international contemporary art. Elaine L. Jacob remains active in the arts community through, among many distinctions, her support of Wayne State University and her service to California’s Gualala Arts Center.
The James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History is a division of Wayne State’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, educating the next generation of visual artists and art historians. Wayne State University, located in the heart of Detroit’s midtown cultural center, is a premier urban research university offering more than 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 31,000 students.
The Charlotte Observer
July 27, 2008
The Cadillac Chronicles
Photographer Bill Gaskins explores the stories
Behind black men and the cars they cherish
By Richard Maschal
On a June Saturday nine years ago, Bill Gaskins stood on a street in Baltimore watching a fleet of
Cadillacs cruise by – dreamboat cars with tailfins, chrome bumpers and whitewall tires, 20 to 30
of them, each owned by a black man.
He had heard about the revival of a tradition in that city's African American community: the Cadillac Parade, with marching bands and carnival rides. He traveled from his New Jersey home to see it.
Looking at those machines, the photographer knew he'd found his next project.
Gaskins launched “The Cadillac Chronicles,” a collective photographic portrait examining the relationship between black men and their vintage Cadillacs, those typically made between the 1940s and 1970s.
The Cadillac for decades has been a symbol of American power and pride. For many black men, as for many other Americans, buying a Caddy meant stepping into the middle class. But their relationship with the car also comes with negative stereotypes – the man who can't afford anything else but has that big car parked out front, stereotypes Gaskins wants to challenge.
After photographing in the Newark, N.J. area, he's brought “The Cadillac Chronicles” to Charlotte.
Through August, Gaskins, 55, is a fellow at the McColl Center for Visual Art in uptown. His grant provides him with a place to live, a studio, and, most precious of all, time. He's looking for black men with Cadillacs interested in being part of his project. His focus is not just on cars but on people, those he photographs and those who will view the results.
“I'm predisposed to the portrait because at the root and core of what I do is the desire to connect, communicate and collaborate with people,” he says.
A rich vein
When he's not making art, Gaskins commutes from his home in Princeton, N.J., to lecture at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. So when he talks about photography, he goes into it with depth – and passion.
He believes we live in an image-drenched culture, flooded with pictures from the Internet, television, video, advertising and family album snapshots. These images are disposable, soon discarded for other images.
The goal of the artist, Gaskins says, is to make images that will last, that trigger something in the viewer.
His intensity comes from his background.
He grew up in Philadelphia, where his father had, as he says, not a blue collar job but a “no collar job,” driving a forklift at the Domino sugar plant. His parents supported his aim to be the first in his family to go to college but were taken aback when he announced at 14 that he wanted a career in art.
He had seen television artist John Gnagy make drawings and paintings and thought he'd like to do that. His parents challenged him: Was art relevant? What benefits would it have for him and others? What would be the outcome?
Those questions – and his answers – form a credo for Gaskins.
Digging into his subject, he mined a rich vein. Beginning in the 1930s, Cadillac marketed to African Americans, one of the first businesses to do so, creating a relationship that boosted sales.
Gaskins found the car has a place in black art, writing and music. Examples: James Van Der Zee's Depression-era photograph of a black couple in racoon coats and their Cadillac; Mildred Taylor's
“The Gold Cadillac,” a young adult book on a black family encountering prejudice on a drive to the
South; William DeVaughn's '70s hit “Be Thankful for What You Got.”
Gaskins can quote the lyrics: “Just be thankful for what you've got/Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac/Diamond in the back, sunroof top/ Diggin' the scene/With a gangsta lean/Gangsta whitewalls/TV antennas in the back.”
But when he began taking pictures, Gaskins hit a snag.
He photographed a Cadillac owner he met at the Baltimore parade, posing him next to the car. “I was dissatisfied, but I couldn't articulate why,” he says of an image he decided looked too much like advertising, too “disposable.”
Over time, Gaskins sharpened his approach. He changed cameras and moved closer to his subject. And he began taking diptychs, two distinct but related pictures placed side by side. By so doing he drew the reader in and added complexity to his images.
Not about the car
Walking around a table in his McColl Center studio, Gaskins uncovered the photographs he's taken so far.
Here's a man in a dust mask and rubber gloves, a science teacher restoring a car. “He'll drive 600 miles for a (door) handle,” Gaskins says.
Another picture shows a man in front of a black convertible. In one frame, he drinks an orange soda and in the other pours it on the ground. The man has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction but has been clean for 24 years. Gaskins told him, “There's no way I can go past the cemetery without thinking of you.”
He photographed the man and his car before a row of tombstones.
Gaskins is not only interested in machines but in stories. “It simply couldn't be (just) about the cars,” he says. Before releasing the shutter, he talks to his subjects, not about their cars but about themselves. And he uses their stories to conjure images such as the man with the orange soda.
“A lot of these stories I didn't expect to get, and that's been the joy of this project,” he says.
For some black men, Gaskins says, the Cadillac is a source of pride. They may know neighbors, family members or friends who worked on a Detroit assembly line.
But while relatively few black men could afford a Cadillac, negative stereotypes also attach to them and the car – the image of a poor man living in a shack with the big car outside.
By creating pictures that strike sparks in the viewer's eye and mind, Gaskins wants to push them past stereotypes.
“I want to humanize those stereotypes,” he says. “The challenge is to see ourselves in the struggles and the weaknesses of other people.”
The Kansas City Star
August 18, 2002
Johnson County: Cultural Wasteland or Visual Arts Hotbed
Author: Alice Thorson; Art Critic
"Perception . . . Johnson County is a cultural wasteland."
Last spring when the Arts and Humanities Association of Johnson County wanted to lure residence to a
cultural advocacy meeting, it circulated an invitation emblazoned with this claim.
"Now what is this?" wondered Bruce Hartman, director of the Gallery of Art at Johnson County Community
College, when the provocative invitation landed on his desk.
From Hartman's perspective—one he shares with many members of the Kansas City art community—the
perception that Johnson County is a cultural wasteland is a mis-perception . . .
The Sprint Art Collection, created for the edification and enjoyment of Sprint employees, represents both a cultural and an economic boon to the region. Installed throughout the firm's world headquarters in
Overland Park, the collection of 450 pieces includes works by high-profile national artists such as
Chuck Close and Kerry James Marshall.
But patronage begins at home for Sprint. According to the collection's curator James Martin, nearly one
quarter of the artworks were created by Kansas City artist, and 30 percent of the collection was purchased from local galleries.
Martin emphasizes that the collection contains "just as many traditional subjects as abstraction."
But as evidenced by a recent photographic commission from Bill Gaskins, in which the artist challenges
destructive ideals of beauty, it does not shy away from art that explores cutting-edge topics.
As an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 1998-1998, photographer and cultural critic Bill Gaskins exerted a lively and intelligent presence in the Kansas City art scene. He frequently focused on the topic of race and the racial attitudes expressed in high and low culture.
During his two-year stint here, Rutgers University Press published Gaskins' Good And Bad Hair, a book of photographs celebrating African-American hairstyles as a form of cultural expression. He has since moved on to a teaching post at the Parsons School of Design in New York.
This month Gaskins is finishing up a major photographic work for the Sprint Art Collection, specifcally commissioned for the company's enployee fitness center. The piece "Exercising Benefits" (2002), continues the artist's practice of combatting destructive cultural messages—in this case, unreachable ideals of the body beautiful.
The work features three triptychs utilizing a light-box format of back-lighted images on film. In each triptych, a central panel features a phrase of text—"no body is average," "no body is the same," no body is perfect"—flanked by photographic closeups of Sprint employees using the fitness facility.
"My name," Gaskins says in his artist's statement, "is to inspire each viewer to reject an anorexic model of health and fitness and to embrace the reality that nobody—no body—is similar, perfect or average."
Good And Bad Hair
by Jacqueline Frances
Third Text 44 Autumn 1998
When we both lived in Atlanta a couple of years ago, my friend J.B. and I became fascinated with what she called “The Hair Show.” While our own hair statements—J.B. Marcel, my pulled back locks—worked for us, we quickly recognized that we were out of our league. On the subway, at the shopping malls, in offices and on college campuses, we saw hairstyles that were not only fly, but fierce. In Atlanta, strangers stop each other to ask about hairdressers and homemade growth recipes, to inspect whether tresses are ‘real’ (and, if not, where you could buy them), and to compliment when props are due.
That Atlanta was a key site for Bill Gaskins’s photo series, Good and Bad Hair, then is hardly surprising to me. Traveling there and to other American cities, such as Washington, D.C. and New York, Gaskins photographed a gamut of black hair styles in the nineties. These black and white portraits have been seen in U.S. exhibitions and 60 of them are reproduced in Gaskins’s 1997 publication, Good and Bad Hair.
Both ‘Afrophobia’ and ‘Afrophilia’ spurred Gaskins’ project. In the book’s preface, he recalls his childhood memories of judgments handed down on black hair: in his African American family and community, ‘good’ hair was straight, long and easy to manage, or at the least, something approaching the coifs of white models in shampoo ads. ‘Bad’ hair, the opposite of all of the above, was considered a problem to be solved with pomades and tools designed to tame the kinky.1 While the results have been discussed as symptoms of assimilation, erasure and negation, Gaskins argues that even when phenotypically black hair is chromatically or chemically adjusted, an African sensibility and racial agency prevail; he writes: “…be it bone straight or a crown of locks, there are African influences on all of these styles.” His preference for natural do’s and his pleasure over their growing popularity notwithstanding, Gaskins admires all insistently creative black hairstyles: to him, they visualize what Zora Neale Hurston termed the African American “will to adorn.”2
Gaskins’ subjects sport hairstyles that belong to the realm of the fabulous. Along with blown-out Afros, finger curls and wavy conks, there are the multimedia, sculptured upsweeps; elaborately coiled synthetic geometric designs shaved in. Many of the pictured individuals were professional hairstylists and models whom Gaskins saw at large hair-care conventions, such as ‘The Proud Lady Beauty Show’ in Chicago. Like Andrew Dosunmu, director of the forthcoming film documentary Hot Irons, Gaskins picked up on the theatre of hair industry gatherings, where most everyone is determined to ‘feature.’ On and off the runways, one finds poised performers, fully aware of the expressive power of hair: it’s conveyed in the portraits of “Bill” striding through the lobby at one convention, his braided extensions falling across his shoulders and dark shades, and of “Tasha,” who organizes her locks into a tall cascade. Separately, they know that their hair represents.
As interested as Gaskins is in hair as adornment and symbol, his photos do not compartmentalise the body in order to focus on the coiffures. Indeed, in most cases, tattoos, rings, earrings and gold teeth successively entice the eye. Gaskins’ sitters are identified: on the page facing each photograph are centered, one-line captions bearing the sitter’s first name (or in a few cases, simply gender or occupation), as well as locale and date. This descriptive text is purposely brief, never threatening the preeminent image. Many of these figures are so compelling as to make that nearly impossible anyway. A young man who goes by “Arrogant” wears a turtleneck with this name embroidered on the high collar and a fist-handled pick in his neat Afro. “Tiny” stands with her arms akimbo, a pose that perfectly counterbalances her tall, diaphanous bouffant.
Gaskins has a clean and spare visual style. His gelatin silver prints report a range of skin tones and hair colors with surprising description, as in the image of “Red,” a light-skinned and freckled woman with bleached, crimped locks. The physicality of hair texture and its reflective sheen is borne out in flat tops (“Pat”) and Ceasar-cuts (“Ronald”). Shooting from every angle short of the aerial—profile, frontal, real and from below—Gaskins discovers the most flattering aspects of each subjects bearing. Backgrounds are blurred, neutralised or darkened, and figures generally situated at the front and horizontal nucleus of the picture plane. Occasionally, when a body is placed off-centre, as in the portrait of “Pat,” the compositional unity is sustained by a rhythm of curves and the struck balance of light and dark areas. Produced on an intimate scale and within the parameters of black and white photography, the photos have a material elegance. (In exhibition, the photos are printed on eleven by fourteen inch paper, then mounted on twenty by twenty-four inch ground).
With Good and Bad Hair, Gaskins joins a number of contemporary artists inspired by hair. Unconcerned with hair taboos, David Hammonds and Albert Chong have incorporated shorn and ‘dead’ hair in their assemblages and installations. In their sculptures, Bisa Washington, Eve Sandler and Sonya Clark use synthetic hair or conventional media that simulate the look of the real thing to make monuments to black beauty standards for women. Videographer Lydia Douglas questions these very standards in her short, Black Women and the Politics of Black Hair. Hair has become a visual category, a narrative vehicle for history, autobiography and politics. These interventions prompt the inevitable question: in form and content, how much can hair ‘mean?’
Years ago, an acquaintance, making a point about the economic inequities that ravage African American lives, suggested that even our hair—straightened, relaxed and bleached—lay outside our conscious control. (His exact words: “If we had to show something that we owned in this country, we’d have to take a knife and scrape the grease from our heads”). But for interlocutors like Gaskins, among the most attractive qualities of black hair as subject and medium is that creative authorship seems beyond debate.
However they register in multi-level struggles against cultural hegemony, these coiffeurs defy fixed notions of black identity. In considering the photos of “Kenny,” whose bone-straight mane falls over the lapels of his jacket, and of the closely shorn head of “Nicole,” it becomes impossible to ignore how single issues rarely govern lived experiences. In the way we all do, Gaskins’ subjects assert race, gender, sexuality, and so forth (and not in the same manner all the time). Their presentations of themselves and Gaskins’s equally complex representations demand our most thorough readings.
- In her probing essay, ‘Beauty Rites: Toward An Anatomy of Culture in African-American Women’s Art’, International Review of African American Art, 11 1994, p11, Judith Wilson noted Claude McKay’s mention of black preoccupation with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hair in his 1940 publication Harlem: Black Metropolis.
- Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Characteristics of Negro Expression’ in Negro: An Anthology Made By Nancy Cunard (ed), Nancy Cunard, New York, 1934 reprinted by Negro Universities Press, 1969, p39
The Kansas City Star
March 22, 1998
A Tangled Situation
Artist hopes his celebration of black hair and independence isn't conked by racial ignorance
Author: ERIC ADLER; Staff Writer
Artist Bill Gaskins knows there is an inherent danger in his black-and-white photographs of real black American men and women bearing surreal hairdos.
The danger, he knows, is that people - black people and white people, but particularly white people - will gaze at his array of pictures, now on display in a show, "Good and Bad Hair,'' at Kansas City's Society of Contemporary Photography, and in a new book of the same title, and find little more than amusement there.
That they will look at the photographs of Kink and Coke with their hair chemically “conked'' into a velvety sheen of Nat King Cole perfection, or at India with her tresses twisted, feathered and piled into a tower of serpentine delight, or at Nicole, as smoothly bald as Kojak, or at Michael, with his shimmering chestnut extension drooping to his waist as plumb-bob straight as Rapunzel's - and think it all, in a harlequin way, is little more than a zany collection ! of ornate pates. Entertaining.
But know this about Bill Gaskins: One: The socially driven artist, who has received national accolades for his work and who last year became a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is not out to entertain you, or for you to see his photos as a still-life minstrel show for collective snickerers.
Two: See these individuals as Gaskins sees them and you'll never view the African-Americans who wear these daring 'dos the same way again.
Gaskins, of course, knows there is no folly in these follicles. To look on them as no more than clownish proteinated abstractions of vanity is to miss the point. Or more acutely, it misses his point.
In these 'dos, Gaskins sees reflected pride, resistance, communion and unconscious ancestry. Although his subjects may not see it - and, indeed, many did not - he sees it. That, alongside all other personal reactions one may glean, is what his photographs a! re attempting to evoke.
"This,'' Gaskins said as he to! ured his exhibit, “is a statement being made. '' The statement is that here - in a culture where TV images of bouncy slow-motion sheaves of pert and sassy Caucasian locks send the message that the white standard of beauty is head and shoulders above all others - are African-American men and women who will not stand down.
“I think the thing that connects all these images and what all these people have in common is that they like who they are,'' Gaskins said. “They like who they are, which is a difficult thing for African-Americans to do given the cultural racism that exists in America, given all the images and all the codes that don't infer or suggest, but directly say, 'Unless you look like the Euro-type, you are less than beautiful. '
“There is a famous piece by the (African-American) artist Carrie Mae Weems,'' Gaskins continued.
“It is the image of a black woman in front of a mirror. She has text on the bottom. 'Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? ' And Snow White is answering back, 'I am . . . and don't you forget it! “
“So given those codes and given those white and colored signs that most people can't see, but that still stand out in our culture with respect to the issue of beauty, it is no small feat that any of these people feel good about themselves. It is work. ''
“Some people have asked me why I didn't do these people in the studio,'' he said. ``What I was interested in was, one, how they saw themselves and, two, how these expressions through hairstyles of their self-images virtually changed the environment they were around and reduced it to insignificance. '' Thus, in every portrait, the background is either obscured or blurred.
“They stand out against their backgrounds,'' Gaskins said. ``It is why they are also centrally composed. Because these are people who, if they were ignored by a photographer, much less anybody else, were going to have a very bad day. '' They are! central to their worlds. Gaskins, moreover, notes that adopting such public postures with such dramatic hairstyles is not done without the risk of cultural and personal censure, from both black and white people.
“In the case of white people,'' he said, “I think it is threatening because, one, it is different.
Two, it is not understood.
Three, it is out of their control.
“In the case of some African-Americans,'' he continued, “I believe it is a class-based opposition,'' borne of the belief that people such as those in his photographs - Tiny with her gel-plastered hyper beehive, Tamara and Tireka, with their hair towering in twisting ribbons several inches high - present negative African-American stereotypes.
In fact, Gaskins said, when his photograph of Tamara and Tireka was scheduled to appear in the end paper of The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1996, one African-American member of the editorial staff raised stern objections to the work as racist, calling the subjects lower-class ``hoochy girls,'' or party girls.
“She saw this as negative,'' Gaskins believes, “because she saw this as representative of a class that she sees herself as disconnected from, is embarrassed by, that brings shame on black people and does not want herself or other African-Americans to be associated with.
“As a consequence, she wanted to exact some censorship on this image. '' For those who see a political, even subversive, in-your-face message in the hairstyles, Gaskins counters with a line from Lina Wertmuller's 1972 movie, ``The Seduction of Mimi'': “The way you put your pants on is political. ''
“There are very few things that are separated from politics,'' he said.
Such extraordinary hairstyles, he said, are just one way some African-Americans express personal resistance and self-worth as they negotiate what he calls “the plantation of the 1990s. '' That is, white corporate America.
“There are myriad ways of negotiating in those spaces,'' ! he said. ``Some of us go to night school. Some of us bring books that get the attention of anybody who sees us reading them, like the autobiography of Malcolm X. And others do it through adornment. It is a way of staying whole. '' Maybe it's even more than that.
For fundamental to Gaskins' view of dramatic African-American hairstyles is his belief that those who wear them are not doing so just out of a need for self-expression, identity or resistance to a singularly oppressive standard of beauty.
He also believes they are influenced - albeit unconsciously - by what he calls “ancestral recall,'' an innate desire for drama and self-adornment harkening to esteemed African heritages.
“Our will to adorn,'' Gaskins said, “is something that is based in African traditions from Ibo to Ife to Masai. '' Look to the hairstyling traditions of these African societies, he said, and ``you'll see them (reflected) in Tamara and Tireka; in India, who adorns the cover of the book. You would certainly see it in the photograph of Stan! ley, with his hair in a rising pyramid. '' It is a connection, Gaskins believes, worthy of honor and one, perhaps, that others are appreciating as well.
Indeed, Gaskins said that if there is one response that has surprised him the most regarding Good and Bad Hair, it is the reaction of white audiences.
“One of the things that the book and the exhibition has allowed white viewers to do is something that, in many ways, is verboten in American society,'' he said. ``And that is to openly admire black bodies. Not only to openly admire them, but to see them as art, to see black bodies as beautiful, and to say so. ''
The Kansas City Star
Sunday January 5, 1997
“A World of Black And White:”
Photographer Bill Gaskins Challenges
Racism Through Education and Art
By Alice Thorson
Bill Gaskins seems oblivious to the harsh fluorescent lights, the uncomfortable molded plastic chairs and the fact that for most people, it’s the dinner hour.
In fact, he's in his element throwing out, then dissecting, a virtual stampede of ideas with a small group of University of Missouri-Kansas City students who have volunteered—yes volunteered—to join the assistant professor of art in a stuffy classroom on a gloomy Wednesday night.
The students meet weekly to soak up, mull over and respond to a variety of topics that their lively mentor broaches in quick succession. On one evening a few months back, the first item for discussion was the notion that artists should deal in feelings and not analysis.
Gaskins believes that the contemporary artist must be a thinker as much as a maker.
To work you need criteria; in order to have criteria you need an ideology, he asserted. Ideas are Gaskins passion. A photographer and cultural critic as well as an educator, he's on a three-year appointment as visiting artist and assistant professor at UMKC. He is a font of ideas himself. And you won't meet a man more committed to routing bad ideas that breed prejudice and stereotypes, ideas that limit people’s potential and undermine their sense of self-worth.
An exciting addition
As a black man, Gaskins is acutely aware that African Americans have felt the impact of a lot of bad ideas.
I’ve never forgotten hearing William Buckley say something in the 1960s “The Negro has made no significant contribution to Western Civilization.” Gaskins related in a recent interview.
“No group has been more studied, critiqued, examined and measured against, yet so little is known about them.” He reflected.
Through numerous published articles and positive portrayals like his photographic series titled Good And Bad Hair, Gaskins has devoted much of his career to righting society’s wrong-headedness about race.
“Its exciting having him here,” said Frances Connelly, chairwoman of the art and art history department at UMKC.
Connelly learned of Gaskins through a friend and in November 1995 traveled to Chicago to meet him.
At the time, Gaskins was a visiting artist in photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“What really struck me about him is his engagement in his written and his photographic work with the kinds of issues we’re all struggling with these days,” Connelly said recently.
“A big part of his ethic is that the artist is an integral part of the broader community, and that his work is about that,” she added. “His Race and Representation course is a good example of Gaskins’ concern with how images shape how we see ourselves.” Students in all departments are invited to enroll in the course, which Gaskins is offering this semester.
His written description of “Race and Representation” begins with a series of questions; “What is race? What is the function of race and racial categorization? How has race been visualized in our culture?”
“As producers and spectators of visual images,” he notes, “It is critical that each of us examine the social constructions of race-as-difference, the ideal of whiteness, and how they perpetuate through visual culture.”
Gaskins is part of a whole generation of scholars who look on images as not neutral depictions of what is there, but as ideologically loaded constructions that reflect the values, prejudices and ideas of their makers.
Take for example last years film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young black artist who died of a drug overdose after being the toast of the overheated 1980’s New York art world.
Gaskins reviewed “Basquiat,” directed by ‘80’s art star Julian Schnabel, in the November 1996 issue of the monthly journal New Art Examiner.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” asks the headline.
Plenty, according to Gaskins, who sees “Basquiat” as part of a tradition of white directed films about African Americans including “Cry Freedom,” “Glory,” and “Mississippi Burning,” that reduced central black figures to mere props for white male saviors.” He also criticized Schnabel’s portrayal for embellishing racial stereotypes.
“Songs of My People,” an exhibition of black photojournalists—the Nelson Gallery was one stop on a tour—erred in the other direction, according to Gaskins. In his 1992 review of the show for the cultural tabloid Afterimage, he applauded the exhibit’s assault on negative stereotypes of African Americans, but he worried that the shows emphasis on upbeat portrayals did not give a truthful picture of the realities of black life.
“There is a disturbing sense of contentment in the images,” Gaskins wrote, “made as they were during a period of great stress and turmoil for black Americans.” How to account for this discrepancy?
Gaskins thinks that the shows organizers were overly concerned with pleasing whites. He didn’t mince words when it came to saying so: This moderate non-threatening portrait of African Americans acts as a sedative for a racially tense America and ensures the commercial success of “Songs of My People” with a crossover audience.”
Gaskins spent five years assembling images for his own photographic project, “Good And Bad Hair.” Featuring black and white images of everyday African Americans sporting a variety of hairstyles—braids, bouffants, conks, shaved designs—the series celebrates black hairstyles as a form of cultural expression an “will to adorn” that connects African Americans to their African ancestors.
One of the most obvious expressions of what Gaskins calls an “Afrophobic” cultural attitude is a standard of beauty that “excludes full lips, dark skin and so-called kinky hair.”
“Today,” he observed in a written statement about the series, “more African Americans are rejecting the notion that anything about our physical features are ugly or bad, choosing instead to celebrate our essential physical features.” Images from Good And Bad Hair are featured in a group show now on view at the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean in the City University of New York. The exhibit, organized by the institute’s curator, Horace Brockington, also features works by such leading African American artists as Andres Serrano, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems and Lyle Ashton Harris.
“They’re all addressing issues of how we live in our own little stereotypes as blacks or in the broader society,” Brockington explained. “One things black people are totally preoccupied with historically is hair. We’re obsessed with that. It’s one of those cultural icons you can’t escape.”
Gaskins’ “Good And Bad Hair” series fit Brockington’s goal of examining what African Americans consider important in their own traditions.
Sometimes this has nothing to do with Western ideas of what’s important. Brockington said. “We have cultural hierarchies within the race itself—skin color, whether you went to Harvard or Howard,” he explained. His show, titled “Act/Language: Power & Display,” focuses on “our values systems and how we put that in our art.”
Gaskins produced some of his Good And Bad Hair images during an artist residency at Light Work, an artist-run photography center in Syracuse, N.Y. Jeffery Hoone, Light Work’s director was so impressed with Gaskins’ photographs that he decided to give him a show. Hoone especially admires the works openness toward the issue of “letting hair be natural, or making it conform to standards of beauty that come out of the dominant culture.” “It asks all of those questions rather than providing answers,” Hoone said. “His artistic sensitivity and the intellectual capacity he brought to it really made the project come together.”
Degrees and discoveries
The wrought iron gates of Temple University were a fixture of Gaskins’ childhood. The house in north Philadelphia where he grew up was just a few blocks away.
“I never saw anybody black go in or out of those gates—not even black people cleaning up,” he recalled.
Gaskins walked through those gates with his bachelor of fine arts from Temple’s Tyler School of Art in 1979.
He was the first member of his family to graduate from college. Gaskins credits his parents, who insisted he read the newspaper and keep up with current events and a high school teacher Samuel Brown, with setting him on the right path. Brown, a former WPA artist (and the only African American to be included in the 1939 exhibition “New Horizons in American Art” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), would start every class with the same question, Gaskins said.
“Que Vadis?” (Where are you going?), Brown would ask.
“He was the first person to help me understand I had to have self-knowledge,” Gaskins recalled.
Before enrolling at Temple, Gaskins immersed himself in black films and plays, read the writings of Amiri Baraka, John A. Williams and James Baldwin.
“Baldwin was really significant to me,” Gaskins recalled of this period. “He was the first African American who was attempting to appeal to the intelligence and humanity of white people through his essays.”
From 1975-79, Gaskins majored in photography at Temple. After graduation he worked in television, then as a commercial photographer.
“I found a security in commercial work, ”Gaskins said. At the time the idea of “making a living doing personal work” had not occurred to him.
A decade passed and he decided to go back to school. He earned master’s degree from Ohio State University and followed it up a master of fine arts from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore.
‘When the lion tells the story’
Gaskins is proud to report that his published articles outnumber his exhibitions.
“The importance of writing as well as producing is one of the things I desperately try to get across to students,” he said. “We have to be engaged with having a voice in the journalism and scholarship of our production.”
In Gaskins’ view, black artists and scholars have a crucial role to play in American society.
“The minds of white people are changed,” he reflected, “by the presence of African Americans who don’t sing or dance and don’t have a basketball in their hands, but produce cultural and intellectual products that make a difference in people’s lives.”
Gaskins began writing at Ohio State. One of his first major articles was an essay criticizing media coverage of the Los Angeles riots for New York’s Institute for Alternative Journalism. Even though participants in the violence were not exclusively black, the media seemed fixated on black looters, he observed. The result, Gaskins charged, was the creation of “an insidious and unconscious word-image relationship that unfairly merges blacks with the nations criminal image, becomes a dehumanizing tool and redefines the words we use to talk about race.”
Gaskins has since published numerous articles that look critically at how blacks are portrayed in American culture, from Life magazine photographs, television and film to big art shows like the Whitney Museum’s 1995 exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.”
Gaskins is bothered by the “pop culture separates African Americans from education.
The popular image of Bill Cosby does not include an account of his academic
achievements at Temple University, nor Oprah Winfrey’s at Tuskegee.
“If there’s going to be a significant turnaround, more and more African American faculty who know what it means to be African American in America have to be in academia,” he asserted.
He recalled an African proverb to illuminate what he sees is at stake.
A father regaled his son with stories about a hunter and a lion, which always ended with the lion’s subjugation. “When will the lion win? Asked the child.
“Son,” his father answered, “the lion will win when the lion tells the story.”