Making Reference: Jamie Robertson
Jamie Robertson is a visual artist and educator from Houston, Texas. She earned a BA in Art from the University of Houston in 2012 and a MS in Art Therapy from the Florida State University in 2014. She is a former recipient of the Pearlie Roberson Award for her joint Frenchtown Mural project. As an educator, Jamie is interested in cultural community development through creative youth development. Her creative practice explores history and identity in the African Diaspora through photography, printmaking and sculpture. Her work was featured in the 18th Annual Citywide African American Artists Exhibition at the University Museum at Texas Southern University and FAMU Foster-Tanner Fine Arts Gallery Through the Lens: Identity, Representation & Self-Presentation. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Studio Art with a concentration in photography and digital media at the University of Houston.
BEF: Hey Jamie! Could you share a bit on what your photographic process looks like?
JVR: Before I begin any project, I collect reference material in the form of photographs, paintings, album covers and books. Research is fundamental to my process; before I even pick up the camera, I read. I read any and everything related to the work I want to make. In regards to Making Reference, I collected visual references as well as scholarly articles. I initially, thought that I would try and recreate a lot of the images I collected; like Amans, Creole in a Red Headdress. Once I begin shooting, everything changed. Things just kind of flowed and I went with it. I trusted that because I had absorbed so much research that it would ultimately come out in how I held myself in front of the camera.
BEF: What are some of your ideas behind the particular series, Making Reference?
JVR: Making Reference is an ongoing series of self portraits influenced by representations of Black Women in art history and popular culture. Ethnographic photographs from the Caribbean, South America and North America along with paintings from those regions serve as reference points for my self portraits. Using my body and adornments such as gold hoop earrings, eyeliner and orchids, I explore my perceived identity and question how I see myself versus how others see me. Making Reference draws on the tradition of studio portraiture, in which many a colonized body was subjected to without their consent. The portrait studio, a controlled environment, was a site of exploitation of people of color; where they were often posed in stereotypical situations. Their likeness then reproduced for the viewing pleasure of European eyes; the colonial gaze. This series allows me to explore the history of Black Women in the Americas and how they were seen while simultaneously allowing me the agency of self-representation to confront perceptions of my own identity.
The entire series was shot from the comfort of my own home. I don’t work with an assistant, so there is a lot of me running back and forth to see how the images are coming out. I shoot until I grow tired. On the post-production side, I try to make very little edits in photoshop and I always try to print my work. Seeing my work printed and hung on the wall helps me be more objective. It helps me see what the series is communicating and where it should go next.
BEF: What are some of the historical images you reference?
JVR: Aside from Creole in a Red Headdress, Agostino Brunias paintings from Dominica are a huge reference point for me. I also collected studio portraits from the 1800s via the Library of Congress and New York Public Library. There is a plethora of ethnographic photographs from former French colonies like Martinique and Guadeloupe. At the bottom of the portraits, the ethnic classification of the women is listed. I have never seen a name. A lot of the photographs I have found were postcards. One of my favorite portraits is titled A Mulatto Woman of Dutch Guiana. The photograph is this gorgeous portrait of a Black Woman wearing the traditional Kotomisi of Suriname. The photograph has been used in a several text that serve as some entry point of ethnographic studies(dare I even say eugenics). The intention of why this photograph was taken differs from my experience of it. Aside from the portraits, I was also interested in album covers and literary characters. Afro-Cuban singer La Lupe’s Es La Reina album cover is a simple turquoise background with her in all white; evoking Black femininity through afro-religiosity.
BEF: There are strong visual cues to femininity that play a large role in your self-portraits. What do these symbols mean to you in regards to the African Diaspora?
JVR: I’ve always been interested in ideals of beauty and femininity across the African Diaspora. The Black female form doesn’t fit in the classical canon of female beauty. Our femininity historically has been reduced to non-existent or fetishized. However, Black women have always expressed their femininity in spite of this. The Tignon Laws, laws stating that Black women had to cover their hair, is a perfect example of Black women finding ways to communicate their feminity to world. The tignon or headwrap was meant to oppress and keep White men from pursuing Black and mixed race women in 18th century colonies. It backfired, as women used beautiful fabrics and wrapped their hair in extravagant ways that brought more attention to their beauty. As I continue Making Reference, it is important for me to keep utilizing adornments like headwraps, gold hoops, flowers etc. because they are not just about femininity and beauty; they are also political. By doing so, I am aligning myself with forms of Black femininity. How we adorn ourselves is our expression of identity and culture. Beauty becomes empowering.
BEF: Does the region of Texas you currently reside in influence the development of this work?
JVR: Yes! Living in Southeast Texas definitely plays a huge role. I currently reside in Houston, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States. As Houston has continued to become more and more diverse, my perceived ethnic identity has become subject to question. I am often mistaken for every other ethnicity other than what I actually am. Regardless of the viewers’ perception or “guess” to my ethnic makeup, mixed-ness is a running theme that is always implied. The vast majority of African Americans are mixed race but it’s a sensitive topic, as the relationships that produced our mixed-ness were nine times out of ten non-consensual.
There are so many women walking around with the same phenotypic traits as me but they may identify as Central American or Creole or Colombian etc. We all kind of fall into this ethnically ambiguous category of women deemed “exotic” or “mixed”. It’s not a new phenomenon, women who look like me have always existed. I see that from the historical imagery and text I have collected.
BEF: There is a contrast between how the viewer perceives you versus how you perceive yourself as a black woman of color. Do you see this work as adding or changing the canon of the black female image?
JVR: I feel like my work adds to the canon. A lot of the ability to change the canon, lies with the viewer and where we are as a society. There is a lot of confusion around race and ethnicity in the United States. I am fully aware that someone may look at my self portraits and not see a Black Woman. That’s just the reality of where we are right now. There is an abundance of light skin, racial ambiguous women on social media and in popular culture. The “Mixed” look is marketable and globally appealing because anyone can project a relatable identity on to the mixed body. The art world feels different. Representations of the Black Female beyond stereotypes, are limited. It’s like they don’t quite know how to engage with us outside of nudity or violence. There are exceptions but very few. I rarely see genuine expressions of Blackness considered as high art by the powers that be.
BEF: Hair seems to be an important component in these images. Why was it important for you to do cross-generational hairstyles? How does this inform your own identity?
JVR: All the hairstyles I wear in my self portraits are the ones I grew up wearing or currently wear. Twists, braids and natural hair are very much a part of my identity as a Black Woman. Hair is the telltale sign of Blackness. Our hair is different from other groups of people; hence other people’s fascination and disgust of it. For Black Women, it’s a point of contention. Braids, dreads and afros are still seen as unprofessional for the workplace. Hair isn’t just hair. It is cross-culturally linked to beauty and femininity in women. Black Women and girls are constantly getting the message that the way our hair grows out of our scalp naturally is unacceptable. That message comes from outside as well as inside our community. My mom kept my hair in plaits and cornrows as a little girl. I, of coarse, wanted straight hair because in the 90’s there were very few Black Women in the media wearing their natural hair. I embraced my natural hair around the age of 14 and haven’t really looked back.
BEF: In what ways does this series inform your community development and/or art therapy practice?
JVR: As an educator and Master’s level art therapist, I have always been interested in community, culture and history . So much of being an educator is giving to your students and putting others needs before your own. In pursuing a creative practice, I thought that my work would take on a more social practice aspect. I’ve worked in creative education for seven years so I was sure that would be a part of my work. Nope. At this moment in time, my creative practice serves my need to create while my role as an educator fulfills my desire to serve and help others. I see Making Reference, as an extension of my interests as an educator but an opportunity for self care and creative expression. The more I work on my own creative practice, the more I will have to give to my students. As cliche as it sounds, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
BEF: Do you have any new projects or events that you are currently working on?
JVR: I do! Making Reference will be in the exhibition Without Labels at the Ali Historic Cultural Arts in Pompano Beach, Florida. The exhibition is scheduled for February 15th- April 12th. I am also working on a series dealing with the history of Leon county. My family is from the county and it will highlight their experiences as African Americans in East Texas.
BEF: Thank you for sharing your work with us, Jamie!
JVR: Thank you!