A Conversation with Justyna Badach

Justyna Badach, refugee, Philadelphia-based artist and museum professional, has brought her work to Syracuse. Badach’s Land of Epic Battles solo exhibition, on display now at Light Work, explores the hyper-masculine world of Islamic State group recruitment videos and exposes the futility of war.

Being able to create art about violence and masculinity is important to Badach, both as a woman and as an immigrant. Land of Epic Battles is a series of large, handmade dichromate prints composed using film stills from IS training videos. The Daily Orange talked with Badach about her work before her February 1 opening reception. The exhibition is on view through March 2, in the Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery.

Jony Sampah: Can you please tell me what you’re working on?

JB: Well, I’m still working on the Land of Epic Battles series. There are a couple images in that series that I’m working on printing. And then, there’s a couple of offshoots of that body of work that I’m developing currently.

JS: How would you characterize your art? What is the mission of your art?

JB: Well, I have a research-based practice that involves looking at masculine tropes and how they’re communicated through popular culture. So, this is sort of the foundation of my work, and also I am looking at how I, as a woman artist, fit into the long history of masculine tropes within art.

Untitled Video Still (Palmyra #2), 2016

JS: What influenced this project?

JB: I actually have been working with appropriated imagery for a bit. In 2001 I had another body of such work in a solo show at White Columns. It was called Untitled: Epic Film Stills. And those were from movies like Wyatt Earp and Young Guns. I was also going through those films and looking for the single frames of landscape that appeared to be unclaimed, and primarily I was interested in that because I am an immigrant, a refugee, and the space of those films was very macho. It seemed to be very much tied into how I could access that space, both metaphorically and physically, as a woman and an immigrant, and kind of appropriate that history for myself. I was looking for these landscapes that were empty and I was picking up the single frames out of those movies. So I was working both as a censor and an editor within the context of those films. What I found is that these films seemed to fall into several categories, like mountains, plateaus, sunrises, and sunsets. And the images tended to look very similar from one film to the other. So those were then arranged into these kinds of sequences and printed (they were color, kind of very bright colors reflecting colder color). At that time it was still filmed that was being used, so very much a palette of Hollywood cinema. And then they were printed and mounted to curved aluminum so that they look like sculptural forms that float in space, resembling drive-in movie screens. I had a solo show of that work at White Columns in New York City that opened the Friday right before September 11th. So this show had been open for three days when the bombing occurred. The gallery is on 13th street, so the show closed, and I always felt like the work was cursed. The pieces were purchased, but they weren’t really shown again after that. I had put that work aside and started another body of work that involved the interiors of men’s homes and how they create these museums of the self.

Untitled Video Still (Killing the Apostates in Revenge for the Monotheists, Khurasan), 2016

JS: What are your long-term goals as an artist?

JB: My long-term goals are to continue making work, to push the boundaries of the medium, and to also push the boundaries of what kind of work is considered acceptable for a woman to create. A lot of the work that I do, the response that I get is like, when I was doing my bachelor series, people would ask me if my husband was okay with that, as if I need permission. And with this work, a lot of people ask, “Are you scared?” The idea of a woman working with subject matter that is violent, or to some extent threatening, is not readily out there. I think if a man were doing this work, it would have a very different response because there is this tradition of glorification of war. Most of those tableau-type paintings were done by men and it was, again, geared for a male audience. As a woman, I’m interested that we also live in a world that’s affected by war and violence. So I think it is important to have the female voice in that conversation. And so for me, that’s my goal: to really interject the female voice into what is essentially a global situation that we are also part of and yet oftentimes we are left out of the conversation.

JS: How did your relationship with Light Work start?

JB: I had a residency at Light Work in 2011 and that was the start of the relationship. I spent a month there working on printing the bachelor series and they’ve been tremendously supportive throughout my time as an artist. They’ve printed for me and John Mannion, who’s the printer there, is a huge resource. I just find them to be very open and willing to take on challenging work. I think because they’re a non-commercial space. They don’t have to worry about work that might be challenging or confrontational and yet important in terms of the dialog. I get their publication, Contact Sheet, and I just feel like they are a beacon for really important work that’s happening. They’ve had a lot of foresight in terms of recognizing artists who are doing important work and getting their foot in the door and giving them support at really critical stages in their careers.

JS: How do you think Light Work has helped you bring your art to the world or achieve your goals as an artist?

JB: For me, when I did the residency, it was a huge help to have a month to work on just my own work. I tend to be pretty rigorously focused on work but having the time to just be there, seven days a week, working on things, was really great. I tend to think that I could get more done than I do and so sometimes I’m really frustrated. Because I have all these ideas for work that I can’t produce as quickly as I have the ideas. So having the support of their staff was really crucial. And I did have a lot to do with that body of work, more than I thought before I arrived. And out of that residency, I basically had a traveling solo show and a publication and an artist’s book. So, they were hugely important. I think had I not had that residency, it probably would’ve taken me a year, maybe even a year and a half, to finish all the work that I did in a month there. And then in this case, I feel like we’re in a precarious time right now due to this discussion of ISIS and the global network of terrorism and what it means, and also of men, and how the social changes are taking place now in terms of where men fit into society, and what drives joining these groups and getting immersed in this dark culture on the web and becoming consumed in it. I think it is an important discussion to have. Because there are clearly changes happening in the social fabric on the global scale and these terrorist groups are symptoms of that. I feel like much of the discussion revolves around government propaganda or trying to calm the masses, yet it’s not really addressing what’s driving people to join these kinds of groups. So I think that Light Work, rather than pushing work that’s decorative or easy, has taken a huge step. And again, the catalog is a huge thing for me, to have the work together in book form along with this larger body of work. Because the images are not singular. They’re meant to be seen as more than one or two images. So the opportunity to have a sequence of images together, which is how I tend to work, is really important to understanding the work overall. And it’s really important, what they’re doing for me as an artist now that the work has come together as a body.

“Land of epic Battles” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

“Land of Epic Battles” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

JS: Let’s talk about gender. You previously mentioned how your work is influenced by you being a woman. How do you think being a woman makes you view these things differently?

JB: There’s a philosopher, Alain de Botton, and in The School of Life, he talks about changes in current society in terms of rituals that propel people from being children into adults. So, he says that, traditionally, mandatory military service in Eastern Europe served as a kind of ritual as you went from being a child to being an adult and marked a certain stage. Once you passed through this stage there was a level of respect and belonging, but now many of these societal spaces have been dislodged. That military service no longer exists for men. For women, he also talks about how marriage and childbearing are no longer important. But he says that women have adapted better to the breakdown in these social norms and in many ways they have benefited women. But men somehow have kind of become boys who are lost. So, they’re looking for a sense of belonging. Botton says there are actually two places that men could go: either to this global consumerist, competitive market that’s essentially about making money and accumulating wealth, but with no point. You’re just accumulating and competing for the sake of competing, but there is no meaning attached to it. Or you drop out. And he talks about the many boys who drop out and what they’re drawn to. The body becomes this point of sacrifice. It’s something that’s basically used up. And so, in that respect, as a terrorist somebody can easily say “okay” to blowing oneself up, since the body is this useless thing to be sacrificed, it has no meaning. That could be something attractive for somebody in that frame of mind. As a woman, I think often times I’m somebody looking from the outside in at a violent culture and trying to understand that. And I think in many ways, as I said before, women are fundamentally affected by male culture because we’re still living in a male culture. And so, the decisions that men make about wars, about conflict, women suffer the consequences of that and yet have very little voice. And I think there’s a cultural glorification of conflict and consumerization of conflict. Even reality TV is all about driving conflict, right? As a way of selling to audiences. I’m trying to understand all that, and as a woman, I feel like it’s just such a dangerous territory to be slipping into culturally and socially.

Untitled Video Still (Ahmed al-Rifi Shrine Ta Afar), 2016

JS: Why did you choose to bring your art to Syracuse?

JB: I think amazing art happens in many places. If I were interested in a commercial gallery, Syracuse probably is not the place because there just isn’t the collector base. But you guys here at Syracuse University have an amazing art history program. You guys have an amazing school of journalism, there’s also an amazing art program. You guys are actually in a place where there is a lot happening. This kind of belief that art only happens in big cities, I think is foolish. I don’t think that big cities are necessarily the best places to make art. And I don’t think that the audiences for art are necessarily the best in big cities because you’re essentially competing with so many different things. Sometimes work that’s more difficult and requires a little bit more time of the viewer is just going to get glossed over in a big city because there are flashier, easier things to see. So, I think Syracuse actually is a really great place with a lot happening. There’s a huge intellectual community, and it’s very highly respected, and a network of people who are doing really great things. So I’m really excited to be here.

JS: What is your opinion on the NEA/NEH/CPB cuts and how do you think they affect people’s attitudes towards the arts?

JB: I actually am a museum professional. I work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So, the Trump budget on the arts affects me on so many levels as an artist, but also as somebody who is entrusted with caring for the cultural heritage of this country and keeping it safe and visible for future generations. The NEA has been an easy target for ultra-conservative politicians and groups since the 1980s. It’s very sad because, I think on many levels, how a society treats its art programs and cultural programs speak volumes about who they are and what that society values. If you look at countries that have corrupt governments, or governments that are weak and falling apart, they also tend to lack art, funding. And in many ways, the arts are intricately tied to innovation and to intellectual development in this country. People come specifically to the United States because of the arts. People go to museums, they want to go to the MET, they want to go see Lincoln Center. And so the cuts are a huge step backward. But I also think the arts are an easy target because it is easy to say, “Well, the arts don’t serve a purpose.”

Untitled Video Still (Killing the Apostates in Revenge for the Monotheists, Khurasan), 2016

JS: My last question is, how do we get people to care about the arts?

JB: I think dialog is important. There will always be people who are not going to care. Art is a little bit like a gift, and the person needs to be ready to receive it. You might be giving them the gift today, but they might not be ready to receive it until ten years from now. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it to them. Because in ten years they might have this awakening and say, “Wow, I remember when I saw that and that’s what that meant.” So I think it’s important to engage people in the dialog. And it’s important to have art that not necessarily just about them.

I know there’s a push for creating work that people see themselves in and, yes, that is important. But it’s also important that people see others in the work because they need to step outside of their own mind and be able to step into the mental space of somebody else. It’s just as important that they inhabit a world that’s completely unfamiliar, foreign, that they didn’t realize existed. That’s how you expand yourself and your psyche.

Justyna Badach’s family arrived as refugees in the United States in 1980. She currently resides in Philadelphia, where she is an artist, educator, and museum professional. Her work has been exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad and is in the permanent collections of Cranbrook Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Museet for Fotokunst Brandts, Odense, Denmark. Her artist book is in the Special Collection at the Rice University Library, Houston, TX, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA and Haverford College. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including; Queensland College of Art Griffith University in Brisbane, Art Wonderland Space in Copenhagen and the Temple of Hadrian in Rome to most notably in the US at the Corcoran Gallery, D.C., Portland Art Museum, James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, and Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago among others. Badach participated in the residency program at Light Work in 2012.

Light Work Receives 2018 NEA Art Works Grant

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Jane Chu announced on Wednesday, February 7 that Light Work is one of 936 not-for-profit national, regional, state, and local organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Art Works grant. In its first 50 years, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded more than $5 billion in grants to recipients in every state and U.S. jurisdiction.

Today, the NEA announced awards totaling more than $25 million in its first major funding announcement of the fiscal year 2018, including an Art Works award of $40,000 to Light Work to support Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program and production of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual. The Art Works category focuses on the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts.

“It is energizing to see the impact that the arts are making throughout the United States. These NEA-supported projects, such as this one to Light Work, are good examples of how the arts build stronger and more vibrant communities, improve well-being, prepare our children to succeed, and increase the quality of our lives,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “At the National Endowment for the Arts, we believe that all people should have access to the joy, opportunities, and connections the arts bring.”

Light Work’s director Shane Lavalette commented, “Thanks to the National Endowment for the Art’s sustaining support of our residency program, we are able to offer today’s emerging and under-recognized artists the time, space, and resources they need to develop their important new work. We’re continually grateful to the NEA for their recognition of Light Work as one of the leading arts organizations in the country.”

Every year Light Work invites between twelve and fifteen artists to come to Syracuse to devote one month to creative projects. Over 400 artists have participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program, and many of them have gone on to achieve international acclaim. The residency includes a $5,000 stipend, a furnished artist apartment, 24-hour access to our state-of-the-art facilities, and generous staff support. Work by each Artist-in-Residence is published in a special edition of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual along with an essay commissioned by Light Work.

For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.

To learn more about the 2018 Artists-in-Residence, read our announcement on the Light Work Blog.

To become a supporter of Light Work yourself, consider making a contribution by beginning or renewing your subscription. We encourage you to help us achieve our goal of matching the NEA’s generous support. Contribute today and get something back in return. Browse limited-edition prints, signed books, and Contact Sheet at  www.lightwork.org/shop

All subscriptions will assure that you receive the NEA-supported issue of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual 2018 next summer. Preview spreads from Contact Sheet 192: Light Work Annual 2017 online here.

Light Work, UVP, and PAL Project Awarded Grants from Joy of Giving Something, Inc. (JGS)

Light Work, Urban Video Project (UVP) and Photography and Literacy Project (PAL Project) are pleased to announce the receipt of $300,000 in grants from the Joy of Giving Something, Inc. (JGS). Distributed over the next three years, the funds will support education initiatives, artist residencies, and exhibitions dedicated to the photographic arts. Light Work will receive $150,000 and PAL Project and UVP will receive $75,000 respectively.

The JGS grant will help Light Work continue to realize a core vision of supporting emerging and under-recognized photographers who are exploring different photographic narratives and technical approaches to the medium. Light Work Director, Shane Lavalette stated, “We’re absolutely honored that JGS has recognized Light Work to be among the nation’s most impactful artistic programs, and are thrilled to receive this significant award at a moment in which the support of creative work by artists is as crucial as ever.”

Stephen Mahan (right), director of SU’s PAL Project, discusses a photo with a Fowler student. photo credit: John Dowling

PAL Project Director, Stephen Mahan, spoke to the opportunity for growth the grant affords the organization. “With this generous grant from JGS Inc., PAL Project’s Syracuse University mentors will continue and expand their ongoing mission to give voice and empower Syracuse city youth through the use of photography and creative writing. Application of this grant towards scholarships, exhibitions, publications and photographic equipment will foster the development of our student’s potential and self-esteem, giving our students greater opportunity to utilize their creativity, energy, and voice in self-satisfying and socially relevant directions. This funding allows us to grow the Project into a more robust curriculum with a wider reach. We are very thankful.”

Installation view of “Fireworks (Archives)” by Apichatpong Weera

In anticipation of the grant announcement, Urban Video Project Director, Anneka Herre stated, “UVP is truly excited to receive this recognition and support from JGS to put towards the strengthening of our uniquely public moving image exhibition and events programming. Given both current threats to funding in the arts and the importance of public art in creating dialogue, these funds come at an opportune time and mean a great deal to us.”

Established in 1999 by the late Howard Stein, The Joy of Giving Something, Inc. (JGS), is a foundation dedicated to the photographic arts. The Joy of Giving Photographs from the JGS collection are made available as loans to major museums around the world. JGS is also committed to advancing the arts in education. Working in partnership with museums, schools, and community organizations across the country, JGS has established scholarships to support students pursuing post-secondary studies in photography or media art. Additionally, through its Resolution program, JGS provides opportunities for teens to publish and exhibit their work in the context of social awareness.

Reflecting on this legacy Light Work, Executive Director, Jeffrey Hoone stated, “Over 20 years ago I worked with Howard Stein to form The Joy of Giving Something, Inc. (JGS) as a charitable institution to support programs in photography and forward-looking projects in the arts. Before Mr. Stein passed away in 2011, JGS supported a wide range of exhibitions, publications, and educational programs. Mr. Stein generously donated his substantial photography collection to JGS and through a series of auctions, the Foundation has raised funds to continue the charitable work in the arts that Mr. Stein started so many years ago. As a board member of JGS, it is a great honor to continue the good work of Mr. Stein and to be able to support the next generation of image makers and forward-thinking artists.”

Light Work and Urban Video Project Artists Awarded MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grants

Light Work and Urban Video Project congratulate 1985 Light Work Artist-in-Residence Dawoud Bey and 2010 Urban Video Project (UVP) artist Trevor Paglen on winning the prestigious MacArthur Foundation 2017 “Genius” Grant!

“Light Work Executive Director Jeff Hoone was thrilled to see former Urban Video Project and Light Work artists among the list of this year’s grant recipients, stating, “The visual arts have always been very important to the cultural climate of the University and we are very proud that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized so many of the artists who have participated in the programs at Light Work and the Urban Video Project. It is a great benefit for our students to have had contact with these important artists, and we look forward to building on these strengths and successes in the future.”

Each of the 24 “Genius” Grant recipients are selected for having “shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Grant Fellows will receive a $625,000 award from the foundation “as an investment in their potential,” paid out over five years with no strings attached.

The 2017 “Genius” Grant awardees join an illustrious cohort of former Light Work and Urban Video Project affiliated artists, including Robert Adams, Wendy Ewald, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ann Hamilton (UVP), Alfredo Jaar, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle (UVP), Fazal Sheikh, Cindy Sherman, Bill Viola (UVP), Carrie Mae Weems, and Deborah Willis.

Reflecting on this legacy, Light Work Director Shane Lavalette stated,

“For over forty years, Light Work has been an important place for artists from around the world to conduct artistic research, develop new projects, and exhibit their work as part of our programs in Syracuse. The MacArthur Foundation’s continued recognition of numerous artists whom we’ve had the pleasure of working with underscores the significance of the work they have contributed to the field and the value of supporting such creative minds. We certainly can’t take any credit for their genius, but we’re thrilled to get to know so many brilliant artists and to be able to be a part of their legacies.

Dawoud Bey, “Jason,” from The Eatonville Portfolio, 2003

Dawoud Bey was selected by the MacArthur Foundation Grants committee for his “expansive approach to photography that creates new spaces of engagement within cultural institutions, making them more meaningful to and representative of the communities in which they are situated.” He participated in a Light Work residency program in 1985. In 2009 Bey’s photographs were part of Embracing Eatonville, a group exhibition in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery in Syracuse University’s Schine Student Center. Bey’s limited-edition archival print, Five Children, was part of the Fine Print Program, and selected images from his body of work are part of Light Work’s expansive permanent Collection.

Born in Queens, Dawoud Bey began his formal training by apprenticing to local commercial and fashion photographer Levy J. Smith and later studied at the School of Visual Arts. He completed his undergraduate work at Empire State College and his MFA in Yale University’s graduate photography program. A former Guggenheim and NEA fellow, Bey is currently Distinguished College Art and Associate Professor of Art at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998.

The Studio Museum in Harlem hosted Bey’s first one-person exhibition in 1979. He has since had numerous exhibitions worldwide, including The Art Institute of Chicago, The Barbican Centre in London, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven.

Installation view: Trevor Paglen “Code Names”

Trevor Paglen was selected by the MacArthur Foundation Grants committee for his “documentation of hidden operations of covert government projects and examining the ways that human rights are threatened in an era of mass surveillance.” Paglen’s Code Names was part of Urban Video Project’s architectural video installation at the Everson Museum of Art in 2010.

Paglen is an artist, writer, and experimental geographer whose work deliberately blurs lines between social science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to construct unfamiliar yet meticulously researched ways to see and interpret the world around us. His visual work has been exhibited at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, Berlin’s Transmediale Festival, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the Istanbul Biennial (2009), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and the Taipei Biennial (2008). Numerous publications have also featured his work, including Aperture, Art Forum, Modern Painters, Newsweek, The New York Times, and Wired. Paglen has received grants and commissions from Art Matters, Artadia and the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology, and Rhizome.org. He is the author of three books. He holds a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in geography from UC Berkeley.

For more information about these and all of Light Work’s artists, please visit our Artist Index, Artist-in-Residence Program, Exhibtions,Chronology, and Collection.

Announcing the 2018 Light Work Artists-in-Residence

Every year Light Work invites between twelve and fifteen artists to come to Syracuse to devote one month to creative projects. Over 400 artists have participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program, and many of them have gone on to achieve international acclaim.

The residency includes a $5,000 stipend, a furnished artist apartment, 24-hour access to our state-of-the-art facilities, and generous staff support. Work by each Artist-in-Residence is published in a special edition of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual along with an essay commissioned by Light Work. Work by former Artists-in-Residence is also part of the Light Work Collection.

We are pleased to announce the 2018 Light Work Artists-in-Residence!

Atong Atem
Atong Atem

Khalik Allah
Khalik Allah

Jess Dugan
Jess Dugan

Preston Gannaway
Preston Gannaway

Fumi Ishino
Fumi Ishino

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson

Justine Kurland
Justine Kurland

Kate Ovaska
Kate Ovaska

Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Guillaume Simoneau
Guillaume Simoneau

Aaron Turner
Aaron Turner

Vasantha Yogananthan
Vasantha Yogananthan

See past Artists-in-Residence at www.lightwork.org/air
Applications are now open for 2019. Apply at lightwork.slideroom.com

The Inaugural Light Work Photobook Award

Light Work is pleased to announce a new partnership with publisher MACK to honor an artist with the Light Work Photobook Award. The inaugural recipient is a photographer Mahtab Hussain, for his monograph You Get Me?. Hussain previously participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in March 2015 as part of a yearly partnership Autograph ABP in London. The publishing of You Get Me? has also been made possible with support from Arts Council England.

The Light Work Photobook Award is given each year to an artistic project that deserves international attention. As with all of Light Work’s programs, in selecting the artists to receive this recognition an emphasis is made to highlight emerging and underrepresented artists of diverse backgrounds.

Mahtab Hussain is an artist who uses photography to explore the important relationship between identity, heritage, and displacement. He earned his B.A. from Goldsmith College, University of London, and two M.A.s from Nottingham Trent University and City University London. Hussain’s artwork has been shown across many venues including the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Library of Birmingham, New Art Exchange Nottingham, Sumarria Lunn Gallery, Galerie Huit – Arles Open Photography Salon, and Viewfinder Gallery Brixton. Hussain is the recipient of numerous awards and commissions including Arts Council England, Arts Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Curators Choice Award, Culture Cloud at New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Format 13 Portfolio Review Award.

Press for this groundbreaking project includes features in The New York Times, British Journal of Photography, BBC News, Buzz Feed, and The Guardian, among others.

Mahtab Hussain
You Get Me?
MACK/Light Work, 2017
Hardcover, 120 pages
ISBN: 978-1-910164-84-6
First Edition

Photographed over a nine-year period, You Get Me? by British artist, Mahtab Hussain is a book centered on the experiences of young working-class South Asian Muslim men in contemporary Britain. Largely a book of portraits, it also documents the local environments of these men, picking up on manifest signs of multicultural identity. The photographs in You Get Me? are interspersed with evocative extracts from Hussain’s numerous conversations with Muslim men, principally in London, Nottingham, and Birmingham. Bringing issues of identity, masculinity, displacement and belonging to the fore, the book addresses concrete experiences of these men against a backdrop of derogatory media representations. Confronting the politics surrounding immigration and identity in Britain, Hussain at once celebrates the implicit agency of his photographic subjects, while recognizing their struggle to determine a sense of self.

Pre-Order a first edition SIGNED copy of our 2018 Book Collectors Offer You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain and you will also receive a complimentary subscription to Contact Sheet (a $115 value) for only $75!

Light Work at The Photography Show 2017, Presented by AIPAD

Light Work is proud to exhibit at the longest-running exhibition dedicated to the photographic medium, The Photography Show presented by AIPAD, March 30 – April 2, 2017 at Pier 94 in New York City.

Find us at The Photography Show to view and purchase limited-edition prints from our Fine Print Program, as well as a selection of signed photobooks. All purchases will begin or renew your subscription to Contact Sheet!

For a preview of what we’ll be showing, visit our profile on Artsy.

See you soon, NYC!

Light Work Receives 2017 NEA Art Works Grant

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu has approved more than $30 million in grants as part of the NEA’s first major funding announcement for fiscal year 2017. Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $40,000 to Light Work to support Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program and the production of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual. The Art Works category focuses on the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts.

“The arts are for all of us, and by supporting organizations such as Light Work, the National Endowment for the Arts is providing more opportunities for the public to engage with the arts,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Whether in a theater, a town square, a museum, or a hospital, the arts are everywhere and make our lives richer.”

Light Work’s director Shane Lavalette commented, “We are extremely grateful to the NEA for their sustaining support of Light Work’s residency program and the publication of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual. We look forward to working with another exciting group of artists next year to offer them the time, space, and resources they need to create important new work. ”

Every year Light Work invites between twelve and fifteen artists to come to Syracuse to devote one month to creative projects. Over 400 artists have participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program, and many of them have gone on to achieve international acclaim. The residency includes a $5,000 stipend, a furnished artist apartment, 24-hour access to our state-of-the-art facilities, and generous staff support. Work by each Artist-in-Residence is published in a special edition of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual along with an essay commissioned by Light Work.

For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.


To learn more about the 2017 Artists-in-Residence, read our announcement on the Light Work Blog.

To become a supporter of Light Work yourself, consider making a contribution by beginning or renewing your subscription. We encourage you to help us achieve our goal of matching the NEA’s generous support. Contribute today and get something back in return. Browse limited-edition prints, signed books, and Contact Sheet at www.lightwork.org/shop

All subscriptions will assure that you receive the NEA-supported issue of Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual 2017 next summer. Preview spreads from Contact Sheet 187: Light Work Annual 2016 online here.

Gallery Talk: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Join our current exhibiting artist Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa for an informal gallery talk about his exhibition One Wall a Web and his role in curating and jurying The Trouble with Flesh: New Work by MFA Candidates.

Stanley will speak Friday, December 2 at 5pm and there will be time for questions and conversation following.

RSVP on the Facebook event here.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s One Wall a Web is an exhibition that gathers together work from two discrete photographic series that he made in the United States: Our Present Invention (2012–2014) and All My Gone Life (2014–2016). Both the series and the exhibition draw their titles from the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. One Wall a Web not only explores the mutability of archival images, but the ongoing presence of history in the present day. According to Wolukau-Wanambwa, the exhibition attempts to address “the normalcy of fear, separateness and violence in a moment suffused by them, but also in a culture riven by the habitually limited prescriptions of images.”

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is a photographer, writer, and editor of The Great Leap Sideways. He has contributed essays to catalogues and monographs by Vanessa Winship, George Georgiou, and Paul Graham, written for Aperture magazine, and is a faculty member in the photography department at Purchase College, SUNY. Wolukau-Wanambwa participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in May 2015.

A Conversation with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s One Wall a Web is an exhibition that gathers work from two discrete photographic series that he made in the United States, Our Present Invention (2012-2014) and All My Gone Life (2014-2016). The resulting show at Light Work and accompanying issue of Contact Sheet comprise two distinct strands of photographs: the first, a series of appropriated archival 4×5” negatives; the second, a series of original photographs. Wolukau-Wanambwa says of this exhibition that it “attempts to address the normalcy of fear, separateness, and violence in a moment suffused by them, but also in a culture riven by the habitually limited prescriptions of images.”

Shane Lavalette: I always like to ask other artists how things started… For you, how did you get interested in images? What were the influences and ideas that compelled you to work photographically?

SWW: I honestly don’t remember, but it must have been when I was very very young. Images have always been an active part of my life, in both the visual and verbal sense of the word. I can say that I picked up a camera for the first time with the intention of going out into the world and making photographs with a capital “P” after getting seriously interested in film, and that burgeoning interest was tremendously affected by my subsequent discovery of the work of the first generation of Magnum photographers in my late teens and early twenties.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spreads from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

SL: As a photographer you are in some ways still channeling a “documentary” practice, but you work in multiple modes of image-making and collecting. Can you tell me a bit about the impetus for each of the two bodies of work that make One Wall a Web, and the idea to bring them together?

SWW: I’ve never felt the urge to disavow the term “documentary,” or to position my work in some other terrain or mode. I consider the work across both series in all its forms to be documentary photographic work. I think that the way in which the term “documentary”—and its associated meanings—has been sequestered into a narrow and disingenuous relationship with “reality” is not a reason to abandon it, but an imperative to reclaim it in all its myriad complexities. So I’ve never felt myself to be at war with either the documentary mode or its traditional canon. In many ways, I think the work in both Our Present Invention and All My Gone Life reflects a slow process of working out the influence of someone like Walker Evans, on the one hand, and Christopher Williams, on the other. A close look at Evans’s “Tin Relic” photographs in American Photographs makes it easy to see that genealogical connection.

I owe the idea of drawing the two series together to Roger Willems, who sat with me and looked over them and suggested that they could and should be interwoven. I had treated them as two separate consecutive entities, which in many ways they still are, but they have deep filial ties to each other, and my hope is that they enrich each other on the walls and on the page in useful ways.

The earlier part of that question is much harder to answer, though. I think if I’m honest, the work flows from a mixture of rage, incomprehension, reverie, deep-seated fear and very, very fragile hope. I discuss some of the genesis of the series in my essay in the issue of Contact Sheet that accompanies the exhibition, but the impetus in the strict sense was most powerfully a feeling that our conventions are failing us and have been for some time, and a belief that, while some of the divisions that separate us from one another have gradually or rapidly been sundered, others are retrenching in fearsome ways, and a great deal is at stake in the mess of all that. Those instincts figured strongly, and then there were, of course, the gradual revelations of the photographs as they came in fits and starts and sent me back out into the world to try and look again.

But I think you’re also asking me what the work itself is about, and I would say that it’s an attempt to look at the ways in which we are separated from one another, an attempt to look at the various forms of violence and fear that that separateness produces, an attempt to think through the usefulness of violence and fear, the arbitrariness of it, the pitilessness of it, its history and its irreducible links to the complex agency of the photographic image, and to patriarchy in a broad sense.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Untitled archival negative, from the series “All My Gone Life” (2014-2016)

SL: Yes. We’re living through a tumultuous moment, in many respects. As an artist and teacher, I’m wondering if you can speak to your feelings about this, and your roles in creating and participating in important conversations.

SWW: Unquestionably, the place where these issues are most urgent for me is in the classroom, where I’m responsible for trying to figure out how to help a generation of students learn to question the legacy they’ve been presented with, as well as the ways they’ve been taught to see it, and to encourage them to stake a claim to finding their place in all this tumult. The most profound risk in that endeavour is that they become apathetic or begin to despair, but the odds are extraordinarily steep—especially for public school art students like those I teach at Purchase College, and, as we know all too well, particularly for students of colour.

The students in my classroom embrace circumstances in which whole tectonic plates that undergird their worldview are pulled apart, and they do so regularly. That takes a certain kind of courage sorely lacking in those who have the power to effect systemic change. I feel an obligation to try to meet that courage, not only in the classroom but in my work, whether written or photographic, and it’s an enormous privilege to get to do those things for a living.

I do sometimes worry that my mission statement for teaching hasn’t changed much since I applied to graduate school five years ago, but then I read that Mike Ditka had said. . .

My choice is that I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on. I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now if they don’t want to look for them, then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work.

. . . and I’m reminded that the question of seeing matters a very great deal, even—if not especially—in art school. I remember in a roundtable organised and published by Artforum at the height of the debacle at USC Roski, Frances Stark said that art “is a magical technology.” I believe that wholeheartedly. I believe it more, paradoxically enough, even as images act as a pretext for, and a retroactive justification of the murder of unarmed people of color at a pace and with an abandon that’s extraordinarily hard to fathom. Art can make us present to ourselves and to each other in tremendously complex and visceral and—perhaps most exciting of all—timely ways. That seems like a worthy task, and a goal worth fighting for to me.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

SL: Most definitely. It’s not necessarily that there are more awful things happening around the globe today, but as we have become increasingly visual and increasingly instant, images and videos have become so present in our consumption of news. It’s powerful and amazing, and often difficult and distressing. We never want to find ourselves desensitized to these images and stories, and yet it seems that daily we must find a way to process them.

SWW: I think in relation to the proliferating videos and images of forms of state and non-state violence, the struggle is to meet the kind of model of spectatorship that Ariella Azoulay outlines in The Civil Contract of Photography. In it, she argues that photography makes possible a set of social relations that demonstrate the implicit existence of a civil contract between people that is not mediated by the state or any other institutional force. Her book identifies in this “civil contract”—and thus in the sociality of photography—a “civic duty toward the photographed persons who haven’t stopped being ‘there,’ toward dispossessed citizens who, in turn, enable the rethinking of the concept and practice of citizenship.”

That might sound a little abstract—at least as I’ve poorly paraphrased her work—but if you think about the radical reversal in the kind of looking we can bring to JT Zealy & Louis Agassiz’s slave daguerreotypes as against the mode of looking they were intended to produce, it quickly becomes clear that we can address ourselves to those people depicted in—and subjected in—those images in a way that Agassiz and Zealy would have rejected. We can do so precisely because we can respond to a humanity in them that the photograph reflects, even if it was disavowed in the political orthodoxy of Columbia, South Carolina in 1851.

That’s an instance of us responding to a “duty toward the photographed persons” which in turn enables us to “rethink the concept and practice of citizenship.” It’s especially relevant in contemporary terms in relation to the systemic inequities that separate those who enjoy the rights and protections of full citizenship from those who do not, whether we think in terms of race, class, gender or religion. The inequities of American citizenship are being revealed in this relatively recent and unceasing stream of videos, and they present a tremendously important challenge to us in terms of the responsibilities and pressures that go along with citizenship and looking.

Azoulay’s is a high bar to meet, particularly because the frequency and the pitilessness involved in these murders—as I would often describe them—is so devastating and impossible to absorb. In that sense, one might argue that her idea is too utopian, but I’d argue that we live in country—the United States—that is reflecting back to us in increasingly lurid and distressing detail the limitations of a set of conventions that have been failing for some time, and that have been killing people by the hundreds and thousands in the process. What good is conventional imagination in those circumstances, and how is its adoption not an implicit endorsement of the status quo? On the one hand, it’s easier not to be utopian if your identity doesn’t constantly leave you exposed to the imminent risk of death. On the other hand, as David Graeber has argued, the neoliberal project was never economic but socio-political, and one of its principal victories has been the radical dismantling of political imagination. Pictures can help here, I think.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spread from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

SL: You studied Philosophy and French at Oxford University in the UK, before completing your MFA in Photography from Virginia Commonwealth University here in the US. America is very much your home now, yet you straddle the ocean. How did being a “foreigner” to the US inform your perspective, and your photographic process?

SWW: Not to be funny, but I obviously realised before even moving here that I could very easily be shot dead for doing nothing illegal or inappropriate whatsoever, and that I particularly ran that risk in interactions with the police, and that I could hope for little to no institutional support in such circumstances were I to fall victim to them. That thought—and the attendant terrors and risks and accommodations it requires to live with it daily—is never all that far from my mind in this country.

But I remember this very questionable line from Edward Zwick’s 1998 film, The Siege, where Annette Benning’s character, who has worked in the Middle East as a CIA operative for many years, says that Palestinians “seduce you with their suffering.” Leaving aside the troubling reversal of power dynamics implicit in that description of Palestinians’ power over the American government, I think it would be fair to say that I fell in love with the art that suffering has produced or inspired in this country long before I had ever visited it. I’m thinking of the wound in Billie Holiday’s voice, for instance, or the fire in Nina Simone’s, or the “incipient delirium” Tod Papageorge identifies in Robert Frank’s The Americans, or the zealotry of De Niro in Taxi Driver.

It seems to me that where other European nations might understand themselves as brute historical facts, America conceives of itself as a project, which makes history and the future significant in a distinctive and remarkable way. It’s a place permanently in process, not as an incidental feature of how time works, but as an explicit and integral feature of this country’s DNA.

In Fred Moten’s 2003 essay, “Black Mo’nin’,” he quotes extensively from a book by Nathaniel Mackey called Bedouin Hornbook, in which Mackey writes the following about the use of falsetto in Al Green’s music:

[T]he uncanny coincidence is that the draft of your essay arrived just as I’d put on a record by Al Green. I’ve long marveled at how all this going on about love succeeds in alchemizing a legacy of lynchings—as though singing were a rope he comes eternally close to being strangled by. … [T]he deliberately forced, deliberately “false” voice we get from someone like Al Green creatively hallucinates a “new world,” indicts the more insidious falseness of the world as we know it. (Listen, for example, to “Love and Happiness.”) What is it in the falsetto that thins and threatens to abolish the voice but the wear of so much reaching for heaven? … [T]he falsetto explores a redemptive, unworded realm—a meta-word, if you will—where the implied critique of the momentary eclipse of the word curiously rescues, restores and renews it: new word, new world.

I think these are the sorts of experiences—incubated in periods of extraordinary distress and injustice—that have been “alchemised” into much of the American art that I love, and they first drew me to the United States. Then there’s the vastness of the country, the compendious nature of it, and the impetus that that vastness provides for constant curiosity, which is essential for a life in the arts. The word “possibility” is certainly fraught in our times, but it seems more sayable in a country obligated—in however limited a fashion—to be positively disposed toward transformation and the future if it is to be itself at all.

As to how being a foreigner here has affected my process, it certainly makes certain interactions much easier because people in many parts of the country are unused to meeting black men with posh British accents. That certainly buys me a little time, and it often mitigates people’s scepticism to some extent, or transforms it into curiosity, which is so much easier to work with when you’re out trying to make pictures of the world. I am free to claim ignorance in many situations where one might reasonably expect an American to know better, and I do so quite often if it gets me closer to what I want or need. Though it’s utterly ridiculous to do so, many Americans take me more seriously because of my accent, which is especially hilarious because British culture falsely prides itself on not taking oneself seriously, which means we are experts at talking shit, and I do this as often as I can.

But at the same time I have a certain freedom that I treasure in making work here that comes from my ignorance, and the license it gives me not to accept a particular order of facts or a particular history as the thing against which to measure whatever hypothesis I’m attempting as I work. My friend Bryan Schutmaat introduced me to Richard Hugo’s essay, “The Triggering Town,” five or so years back, and Hugo’s argument about the small town a poet needs to write from has stayed with me ever since:

The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you’ve just seen for the first time. At home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn’t always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally.

What that means for me as a photographer and a foreigner is that I need not be hidebound by biography, or by some instinct to conform to objective fact in attempting to get at something true and significant. I think Philip-Lorca diCorcia said in The Genius of Photography that “a photograph can tell you something true, just not about that particular person or place,” and I tend to believe that that freedom is essential, and that that complexity has everything to do with where and how we encounter one another as strangers in this world. So I’m intent on working in that gap, or attempting to embrace the inevitable contradictions that come along with that sort of ambiguity, and I find I can do that quite instinctively here, because America is a town I’ve “just seen for the first time.”

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

SL: I’m curious to hear more about your process, both of image-making and the collecting of found 4×5 negatives. Are you exploring antique stores or watching online auctions all of the time? And now that you’ve woven these projects together, are there moments where a found negative has sparked your interest in going out to find a photographic subject, or vice versa, where a photograph you’ve made has sparked a profound connection with one of the found negatives?

SWW: I actually acquired all the archival negatives online without leaving the comfort of my own home, so I’ve not had to step foot into a thrift store or go to a flea market to obtain any of the appropriated photographs in All My Gone Life. In that sense this work emerged from a diametrically opposing methodology to Tacita Dean’s FLOH, for instance, where she collected vintage photographs from flea markets over a number of years and then culled them into an elliptically sequenced run of images in a beautiful book.

But All My Gone Life also includes a series of my own 4×5” photographs alongside these appropriated negatives, and eBay made it possible to search for and acquire negatives specifically, rather than prints. That distinction was important to me. It meant embracing an equivalence according to which my photographs are of no greater significance than those I’ve appropriated, and it meant reckoning with the photographic rhetorics I have inherited from the past. As I make this work, I understand myself to be participating in a history in which I’m implicated and imbricated in a variety of ways, and that history shapes my sense of the choices available to me. That’s one of the fundamental issues that the work across both series attempts to address: the extent to which the environment in which we live acts on us, and the extent to which we act on it, the extent to which our choices are shaped by disavowed but fundamental forces, whether historical or contemporary… So there was a resonance there that seemed meaningful, and working with archival negatives also offered me the opportunity to think about voices and authorship as they’re invoked by my subject matter in a polyphonic way.

As to your question about influence, it’s tricky to be certain about how the archival negatives affected the production of my own photographs as those two strands developed in parallel. I’m not denying for a moment that they had a reciprocal impact on each other, but it’s difficult to be sure about how to disentangle those things…

The most clear recollection I have of the differing emphasis that the archival negatives produced in my sense of the work was in the way they made me think and feel much more acutely and consistently about the body. Rukeyser’s “Despisals” poem draws an equation between one’s body and the city, and argues against the dereliction of either one. I think I hadn’t really delved into the complex forces that cut into and through the body, and their relation to our sense of self and of place quite as much as I could have by the time I finished the first series, and the archival negatives impelled me to redouble that effort in the second.

As I made my own photographs and acquired the negatives of other photographers, I started to notice certain resonances or productive tensions between the pictures, but I didn’t read the appropriated negatives as roadmaps for new photographs to make or, conversely, my own photographs as an inventory for new negatives I might acquire. I’m most interested in, and excited by, the unexpected ways in which the pictures resonate visually, and I’m intent on trusting my faith in the notion that visual meaning is an expression of other equally significant meanings, and therefore I trust that the pictures can lead the way. It might seem an odd thing to say, but I find I’m most thrilled by the interconnections between the archival negatives and my own photographs when they strike complementary “notes,” and begin to sound like they’re meant to be phrased in relationship to one another, so I try to hold onto that instinct as I move between the two.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Untitled archival negative, from the series “All My Gone Life” (2014-2016)

SL: These projects and the exhibition itself draw their titles from the writing of poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser, in particular her poems “Waterlily Fire” and “Despisals”, which you have quoted. What powerful texts. How did you first encounter her writing, and in what ways do you see it in conversation with your images?

SWW: I have to admit that I discovered Rukeyser’s poetry in the most anodyne way. I have had the Poetry Foundation app on my phone for a number of years, and on occasion when I’m waiting for something or someone, I use its “random” feature to discover a new poet and start reading their work. I did that in 2011, and I stumbled across Murmurs from the earth of this land”, and was dumbstruck. I couldn’t recall the last time I had experienced that sort of force of recognition and estrangement. She seems able to collapse space in on itself, and draw astonishingly eloquent, utterly illogical links between those everyday concepts that mould the limits of our everyday reality.

It was a while before I read “Despisals”, which is the poem that gave me some amorphous but powerful sense of direction as I made the first series, Our Present Invention, whose title comes from a stanza in the poem where she writes:

Among our secrecies, not to despise our Jews
(that is, ourselves) or our darkness, our blacks,
or in our sexuality wherever it takes us,
and we now know we are productive
too productive, too reproductive
for our present invention —

Rukeyser crafted something that struck me as both beautiful and forceful, most especially in her insistence on the interdependence of opposites—on their dialectical relationship—and on the porosity of the physical and the retinal. It seemed to offer me a way in at a point when I was fumbling around at the edge of nothing much.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Untitled photograph, from the series “All My Gone Life” (2014-2016)

SL: I love that, when the world just quietly presents something at the right moment.

SWW: I’ve been fortunate to go out photographing with Irina Rozovsky on a couple of occasions over the past few years, and it’s incredible to observe how unerringly unusual things happen when she’s out working. I’ve only ever seen a squirrel tamer when wandering around in her company while she’s making pictures…

I think there’s something to the notion that you can lock in to some numinous frequency at which the world offers you up gifts utterly germane to what your work is about. I think that it happens if you keep going out, and keep attending to what your photographs seem to say and need. I think photographers are always in a dance with luck, and while for some people, the extent to which fortune plays into photography undermines the creative act itself—or our claims to it—I’d argue that it’s creative to set about being in the world looking in the way that we do, and that chance is something to be embraced wherever possible.

Manuel De Landa introduced his book, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, with this Lucretius quotation that really gets at the virtues of steering off the beaten path and welcoming chance and deviation as constitutive parts of life:

When atoms are travelling straight down through empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places, they swerve ever so little from their course, just so much that you would call it a change of direction. If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom on atom would be created. Thus nature would ever have created anything.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spread from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

SL: There’s an unsettling humor about One Wall a Web, especially in the way you’ve sequenced and paired photographs. While flipping through the image selections the other day, you really couldn’t help but laugh out loud at a few of them. It seems that sometimes the humor found in certain images is brought on as a way of dealing with the absurdity and juxtapositions. Recognizable characters like Shirley Temple and John Wayne are interspersed with portraits of everyday people, still lifes, and landscapes that are—though sometimes subtly—politically and socially charged. Can you talk about the humor in your work, as well as the gravity of it as a whole?

SWW: I remember reading Fredric Jameson’s essay on Hans Haacke in the Unfinished Business catalogue five or six years ago, in which he discusses Haacke’s approach to making political art in the era of simulacra, and he argues that “it is no longer possible to oppose or contest the logic of the image-world of late capitalism by reinventing an older logic of the referent (or realism). Instead, at least for the moment, the strategy which imposes itself can best be characterised as homeopathic: ever greater doses of the poison—to choose and affirm the logic of the simulacrum to the point at which the very nature of that logic is itself dialectically transformed.”

That essay is thirty years old at this point, but if you think of the political satire in Haacke’s Taking Stock, for instance, and consider Donald Trump’s candidacy for President—and the very, very real possibility that he might win—it’s apparent that we have not transcended the challenges of a neoliberal political and cultural order driven by spectacle. Or, to put it another way, I’m opting for “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

The fissures that my work points toward, or tries to unpack are visceral, often deadly, and of deep and urgent significance. I don’t take them lightly. But I think any number of the profoundly entrenched conventions that undergird patriarchy are both arbitrary on their face, and utterly ridiculous upon close examination: Cliven Bundy and his posse can confront federal law enforcement officers with automatic weapons in a standoff after refusing to pay grazing fees and emerge unscathed, while unarmed black men obeying police instruction are fatally shot in the back at traffic stops or while climbing the steps to their homes. While three drug offenses can get you life in prison, evidently Bernie Madoff masterminded a $65 billion fraud that bamboozled the regulatory infrastructure of the US government entirely on his own

The game is patently rigged, and that fact is both tragic—in the devastation that it causes daily—and farcical—in its patent inconsistencies—at the same time. I remember listening to Slavoj Žižek a year or two ago arguing in a lecture or an interview that the best strategy of resistance against neoliberal capitalist conventions was to find points of weakness where its hypocrisies could be clearly seen, and to exacerbate that weakness until the logic is robbed of its powers of normalcy or self-evidence. I’m after something similar in the work’s use of humour, albeit I don’t mistake picture-making for collective political action of the sort that is clearly and urgently required in great measure.

My hope is that the groupings and sequences of my photographs can exacerbate the intrinsic hypocrisies of the cultural conventions that they address—perhaps in comical or at times dyspeptic ways—and that certain things which are typically understood to be diametrically opposed can be shown to exist in proximity—or better yet interdependence—with one another: terror with desire, visibility with erasure, civility with subjection, fantasy with reality and so on…

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spreads from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

SL: The issue of Contact Sheet that accompanies your Light Work exhibition has been an opportunity for you to experiment with your work in book form. Is this something you plan to elaborate on at some point, maybe as a monograph or artist’s book, when you feel the projects have reached a close? Where are you going next with this work?

SWW: I’m basically finished as regards making the work. There are less than a handful of straggler images that I feel driven to make so I can sleep easy with leaving the second series behind, but I’m already itching to photograph other things, which feels like as good an indication as any that it’s time to move on. I hope to have a chance in the coming couple of months to tie off those loose ends, and I also hope to publish the two series in a single book at some stage in the near future. The generous invitation from you and the team at Light Work to show the work feels like the beginning of a process of putting it out into the world, and I’d very much like for a book to be a central part of the work’s entry into the lives of other people.

I’m also certainly very eager to put the work up on the wall, and the show will be a wonderful chance to see how those who are utterly unfamiliar with me, or with the series, might encounter and make sense of these images and read them in the context of their own daily lives. I relish the distinctions between the discursive context of the photographic book and the exhibition space, and after four years I have a fairly large number of images from both series which can be put to work in different ways, depending on whether they’re destined for the wall or the page, so that’s something I’m really excited to try out. But it does feel like where I want to go next with the camera is someplace quite distinct, and I hope that I can grapple with new and better problems as I do so. That’s something I’m only in a position to hope for because of the platform this work has given me as a point from which to look out toward something new.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

Shane Lavalette is an American photographer, the founding Publisher/Editor of Lavalette, and the Director of Light Work in Syracuse, New York. He holds a BFA from Tufts University in partnership with The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lavalette’s photographs have been shown widely, including exhibitions at the High Museum of Art, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Aperture Foundation, The Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, The Center for Photography at Woodstock, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and Musée de l’Elysée, in addition to being held in private and public collections. His first monograph, One Sun, One Shadow, was published in 2016, and a solo exhibition was presented at Robert Morat Galerie in Germany. The exhibition is slated to travel to Kaunas Photography Gallery in Lithuania and Le Château d’Eau in France in 2017. Lavalette’s work has been featured by The New York Times, TIME, NPR, CNN, The Telegraph, Foam Magazine, Hotshoe, among others, and his editorial work has accompanied stories in various publications, including The New York Times Magazine,The New Yorker, Esquire, Bloomberg Businessweek, Vice Magazine, The Wire, Wallpaper, Monocle, and The Guardian.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is a photographer, writer, and editor of The Great Leap Sideways. He was an artist-in-residence at Light Work in 2015, has contributed essays to catalogues and monographs by Vanessa Winship, George Georgiou, and Paul Graham, written for Aperture magazine, guest-edited the Aperture Photobook Review, and is a faculty member in the photography department at Purchase College, SUNY.