Below is a portion of an interview edited for clarity with Simpson as well as York University Professor Christina Sharpe, Ph.D., at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which was where the SMFA at Tufts celebrated Simpson. Sharpe was Professor of English at Tufts at the time she sat down with Simpson a well-known feminist critic and the author of “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects” and “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.” Her work is devoted to the same ideas that Simpson has explored and questioned in her work.
Christina Sharpe: I was introduced to your work when I was in graduate school at Cornell through an image of “The Waterbearer” that appeared on a syllabus. The text [on the image] reads, “She saw him disappear by the river, they asked her to tell what happened only to discount her memory.” I wonder if you could talk about that early work in conceptual photography, the combination of image and text?
Lorna Simpson: The work is from either 1985 or 1986. When I graduated from college, I was contemplating my work in the field of photography. I was able to showcase my work that I was a photographer; I had viewed many of my work and how photographers displayed it, but there was a presumption regarding the way that these photographs were perceived. This led me to contemplate a different way of looking at images with the intention of understanding.
“The Waterbearer” actually comes from a fond memory of my father’s cousins, as my father came from Cuba and Jamaica and they would speak about their time during their time between Jamaica and Cuba and other family gatherings that were secrecy about. In these stories, as well as when reliving memories, I observed that there was a tendency to cut short or an inclination not to fill in the gaps. Also, there was the notion that memory can be a tense issue in some way, which means that what one would like to say regarding memory does not always get a chance to be acknowledged. I believe that “The Waterbearer” was a reflection on the issue.
‘The Waterbearer’ (1986). (c) Lorna Simpson. Through the Artist as well as Hauser & Wirth.
Christina Sharpe: I’d like to provide us with a bit of information about other conceptual photographers that influenced you. What were the people you had conversations with? Who influenced your work? Who was it you wanted to challenge or interrupt?
Lorna Simpson in the latter part of the 1970s the scope of photography and art history was rather narrow. Therefore I spent a significant amount of time in the Lower East Side, and as well in Harlem. What was intriguing about this, as well as working as an intern for Harlem’s Studio Museum in Harlem, was that I got an idea of a different realm of practice. I was able to see that there was a gap between the things I was learning and what I was experiencing around me and also that the content offered to me as education was very narrow.
I was in a myriad of amazing circumstances that opened my eyes to the art of today. David Hammons was a major influence on my work. Also, there was Charles Abramson, and maybe even Adrian Piper.
In a recent endeavor, Simpson repurposed images from Jet, an out-of-print publication that was targeted to African-Americans. ‘Jet Over the Shoulder,’ 2018. (c) Lorna Simpson. Courtesy of the artist as well as Hauser and Wirth
Christina Sharpe: Your latest piece of work represents an evolution from the previous work. Clearly, your style has changed. I’m curious if you’d be able to examine the work that makes use of, as an example, those older images from the magazinesThe magazines Jet and Ebony and images that you have found, as well as discuss your approach towards sculpture and painting.
Lorna Simpson, I was fascinated by going to the University of California San Diegoin the early 80s since it was the era of performance art. I was part of the crowd who were interested in performance art]. ]… although it wasn’t an art that I felt particularly comfortable with personally, I think my fascination with the “performative” aspect of my work resulted from my involvement in this community.