As I walk into a small gallery tucked away on the plaza level of the West Pavilion at the Getty Center Museum, I see 35 powerful images hanging on the walls. In the crowded room, the image I am immediately drawn to is Support Systems. In this 1984 photograph by Todd Gray, a boxer hits a building, symbolically shattering capitalism. Like Gray, all the artists in this exhibition, primarily people of color, radically transform photography to express their own aesthetics, identities, and narratives.
In photography, the white gaze assumes that the photographer is white and their subject is the passive receptor of the white gaze as a subject of fascination, beauty, or shock. It does not demand that viewers see people of color in new ways.
Dismantling the white gaze by allowing traditionally under- and misrepresented groups to photograph their own aesthetics and identities is the challenge independent curator jill moniz takes on in the Getty exhibition Photo Flux: Unshuttering LA.
I recently chatted with moniz to better understand how this exhibition aims to dismantle the white gaze and foreground Black artmaking.
Valerie Tate: Talk to me about the “white gaze” and the relationship between photography and power structures.
jill moniz: Whiteness is predicated on Blackness in very specific ways. There is a ton of literature on the subject, most notably Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask and more recently Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States (1986) that defines the specificity of the American racist project.
The concept of subjecthood [in photography] is fraught because it exists in relation to power dynamics that use photography to fix otherness in the white gaze. Even as the subject or focus of an image, this characterization creates binary systems where “others” could not determine their own meaning, merit, or value.
To dismantle the white gaze in photography means a making/production centered on complexity, and the many ways Black identity and otherness exists inside and outside of the frame.
VT: How does Photo Flux take photography out of the white gaze or work to decolonize portraiture?
jm: My interest is in recontextualizing cultural production away from the white gaze and toward the communities where the work is made and for whom it is made. Curating works from multiple communities and letting these objects speak to each other is a form a refusal that “moves” the narrative away from white categorization and value systems (read: money) toward more horizontally equitable cultural capital and visual literacy.
That power of material and meaning is determined by the maker, not by hierarchical systems and institutions of stratification.
VT: Can you give specific examples of work in the exhibition that work to break the tradition of pinning people of color in a particular location, identity, or stereotype?
jm: Every work in the exhibition does that. All works defy, challenge, or refuse stereotype, category, and an uncoupling of imagery and meaning. Take, for example, [Laura Aguilar’s Nature Self Portrait #1]. It gets at this notion of otherness, this position of the other, of non-White people, of subaltern communities as othered, that lie outside of the built environment. And you know, we are historically categorized as wild or savage or sort of more natural than civilized.
And so for her to place herself back in this context of the natural environment and think about her body with a stone, as a stone, as part of the wild, really liberates her from these categories that were placed on her, and the body shaming.
But also just the sense of identity and reclaiming, in a kind of fugitive way, the power of what it means to be one with the environment, unlike the built environment of—you know, the social sphere, where White people are at the top of that hierarchy and yet so disconnected that they don’t even see the destruction of the natural world that’s happening, as they consume and spread their capitalism around the world.
All these works speak of identity, agency, and authenticity determined by the maker and the moment.
Photo Flux is a reckoning with the art canon’s exclusivity, but it is also an invitation to extend the visual literacy of Getty visitors to include other impulses, intentions, and imagery.
VT: Any final thoughts?
jm: I would like to add that this work is not new. Black and Brown people have resisted categorization and subjugation since contact. Photo Flux destroys the mythology that we are docile recipients of naming and otherness, and articulates that ongoing work by Black and Brown artists who use visual language to speak the complexity of our experiences is part of a substantial tradition of Subaltern aesthetics. It is my honor to work with these communities of artists to make plain that their work is important to us, full stop.
Photo Flux: Unshuttering LA will be on view through October 10, 2021 at the Getty Center Museum. This exhibition builds on moniz’s multi-year collaboration with Getty Unshuttered. To learn more about this exhibition, check out these talks: Beyond the Frame, The Poetics of Portraiture, Photography and Social Practice: Shaping Visual Language, and Photography as Revolutionary Aesthetic.