Congratulations to Laura Johnson, who successfully defended her MA thesis, “Uncovering the Embedded Histories of Gender, Race, and Hairstyling in Lorna Simpson’s Natural History (2018).” After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in the history of art and visual culture, Johnson moved to Salt Lake City to pursue a graduate degree in the field at the University of Utah. We're happy to feature her research, which will also be presented at an interdisciplinary conference at NYU this fall.
Lorna Simpson’s 2018 work Natural History addresses the politics of hair for twentieth-century African American women, employing collage to uncover and disrupt the racist rhetoric underlying beauty advertising from 1900 through 1960. I argue that Simpson’s artistic strategies, namely critical collage and the manipulation of readymade materials, destabilize such dominant narratives. Each frame in Natural History features the photograph of an African American woman cut from the front page of Jet magazine and pasted onto a lithographic plate charting mineral varieties. The lithographic plates recall the visual language of scientific racism, which charted human skulls in a similar fashion. Accordingly, my thesis examines nineteenth-century pseudoscientific racism, which classified racial types on the basis of physical attributes, often utilizing lithography to document these contrived theories. I consider how twentieth-century beauty advertisements mirrored this racist rhetoric by eliminating dark skin and short, tightly curled hair in before-and-after comparisons. Replacing the altered hair of each woman with imagery resembling an Afro and a headwrap in Natural History simulates the before-and-after comparison through a reversal that foregrounds features the beauty industry sought to suppress. This reversal also emulates the shifting politics during the mid 1960’s and 1970’s which celebrated natural hair, dark complexions, and an African-derived aesthetic. My thesis seeks to expand upon existing scholarship that primarily focuses on Simpson’s photography and overlooks her collage practice. The available literature predominantly interprets her photographs as addressing racial stereotypes and the visual language of advertising. I argue her collages engage similar themes. By expanding these dialogues, Simpson’s collages emerge as critical sites where the embedded histories of race science, beauty advertising, and hairstyling are revealed.
Pictured: Natural History, Lorna Simpson, 2018; portrait of Laura Johnson