Ayana V. Jackson’s exhibition An Archival Impulse claims to take inspiration from Hal Foster’s idea that, through confronting the archive, new systems of knowledge can be created. Jackson’s artistic interrogation targets representations of non-European bodies during the 19th and 20th centuries, a period of significant colonial expansion in Africa and the Americas. This history of representation comprises a vast field of imagery and thousands of individual archives with their own particular contexts, intentions, and circulations. Jackson specifically refers to the Duggan-Cronin collection in South Africa, a series of ethnographic photos by the Irish-born photographer Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin, who first began documentation of native South Africans when they were laboring in a De Beers mine where he had taken a job as a security guard. Other sources cited in the exhibition text include the imagery of nonwhite people who were forced to perform their so-called primitive lifestyles in the human zoos that toured Europe, as well as a more generalized body of images by anonymous photographers who pictured inhabitants of the global south.
From these wide-ranging provenances, Jackson selects recurring themes and reconstructs portraits with herself cast as every subject, enabling her black body to perform again the tropes and motifs that plague the broad history of depictions of people of color. One formal intervention that provides cohesion between the images is the refusal to integrate subject and setting. In some portraits, backgrounds are simply a white or gray tone, with no surrounding detail to ground the central figures. Other photographs layer an image of the artist’s body over a negative print of the environment, revealing the image’s inherent digital fabrication and invalidating any interpretation of it as truth or authentic record. This choice asserts a potent commonality among historical images that presumed to document nonwhite bodies: They were largely staged by white photographers to reinforce their own perceptions of people of color. The through line of Archival Impulse thus arises as an investigation into the fetishizations of otherness born from the white European psyche and how this outlook has shaped ethnographic photography, portraiture, and broader visual culture.
Jackson’s use of her own body in her photographic practice is an impulse that reverberates in art history. It’s hard not to recall Cindy Sherman’s utilization of her body in iconic series like Untitled Film Stills and Centerfolds, both aimed at probing stereotypical representations of women. Much of Jackson’s work shares this feminist critique, aptly mining the intersection of race and gender that operates in much of her source material. The work What Will You Tell Them About Me?/Do You Feel Pain? (2013) portrays a topless woman in leopard panties, beaded necklace, and beaded anklets lying on a table and facing the viewer. The background is a high-contrast negative image of a wild landscape, lush with trees. Here the artist performs the cliché of the hypersexual female of color, a fantasy of primal desire constructed for Western male consumption as an exotic and erotic counterpoint to Victorian and Puritan carnal inhibition. It’s an easy step to draw lines from this history to portrayals of sexualized females of color in contemporary advertising.
With its title, the work Does the Brown Paper Bag Test Really Exist?/Will My Father Be Proud? (2013) refers to the pressures African American families to assimilate into affluent and educated circles of a white-dominated society. This image depicts Jackson as all six female figures in a family portrait, each with a distinct hairstyle and Victorian-era dress. The multiplicity of the artist’s figure within a single image serves to highlight the perceptual mindset that produced much of the source materials she mines: a unifying projection that found many individuals of color interchangeable with one another.
Some of the works in Archival Impulse appear like traditional portraits, but their titles direct viewers to the searing heart of Jackson’s exploration. Case # 33 VI (2013), a depiction of a woman from the waist up and from behind, and Prototype/Phenotype (2013), a frontal and a profile view of a seated woman, restage the nonwhite body as catalogued for its defining features. They call forth both the mug shot and the medical journal in their clinical objectification.
The image Death needs no textual information to convey its reference. Here, a woman’s naked body hangs from a noose that appears to emerge from a leaf canopy. She is centered in the composition, hovering over a negative image of a fenced landscape full of large trees. This background is mirrored, seamed down the middle, thus revealing its fabrication. The history of visual documentation of lynchings has been thoroughly analyzed, notably by the art historian Dora Apel, whose research underscored this practice in the American South as one that was often orchestrated for the camera. Death (2013) revives that composition again, reminding us that this imagery was created and circulated to reinforce existing ideologies of whiteness and blackness.
Archival Impulse unmistakably takes up Foster’s charge to confront an archive; indeed, Jackson’s practice operates as an incisive critique of the troubling history of documenting the nonwhite body that has haunting residues in contemporary life and visual culture. Within this body of work, though, it isn’t clear what new systems of knowledge Jackson is creating, despite raising expectations by quoting Foster in her artist statement. Her interrogation, however, is an essential and revealing project, one whose merits and potential permutations know no bounds.
Ayana V. Jackson: Archival Impulse is on view at 33 Orchard through December 21, 2014.
 “Duggan-Cronin Gallery, Kimberley,” South African Tourism, http://www.southafrica.net/za/en/articles/entry/article-southafrica.net-duggan-cronin-gallery-kimberley.
 Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs, Defining Moments in American Photography (University of California, 2008).