Revista ZUM 13

The voice of the voiceless body

Viviane Sassen & Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida Publicado em: Monday December 4th, 2017

The girl is sitting on the dirt floor, in the shade of a tree. Her hair is braided and she is wearing a colorful blouse and skirt. With her back to the camera, her pose has little of spontaneity about it. It seems that she has been told how to pose. Her face is not visible. The shadow of flowering branches encounters her hand, resting open on the ground as if it were another flower.

The boy is shown in profile. He is wearing shorts, or perhaps an old pair of pants. He is gulping down milk from a plastic bottle. We only see part of his face, as he concentrates on what he is doing. He does not look at us either. The milk overflows, running over his neck, dying his chocolate-colored skin and drawing on his back a tree root shape.

The boy and the girl are there, before our eyes, as abstract forms. They have neither face, nor story, nor name. They are presented to us as voiceless images, as all of them are, and defy our curiosity. They tell us nothing. We must suppose that they are still alive, and will soon haunt us like two ghosts. The photographer responsible for their poses is more present than they are. We see her directions in the position of the body of the girl and in the design that the milk traces on the boy’s back. The vision of the Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen is to be seen everywhere, in the posture of their bodies, in the coloring, in the considered exuberance or poverty of the clothes she has chosen.

However, the absence of spontaneity, the evident hand of the photographer in the composition does not avert our questioning: Who are they? What have they to say to us? What is their story? They are not scarecrows. Indeed, they radiate questions which extend beyond the mute photographs, which do not succeed in quietening us.

In her series Flamboya (2008) and Parasomnia (2011), as in her later works, Sassen, who has become internationally famous for her work with major fashion houses such as Stella McCartney, Miu Miu, and Louis Vuitton, seems to play with our expectations of her subjects’ bodies. The result of her journeys to Africa, and her return to Kenya, where she spent her childhood, the black bodies of the protagonists of both series are political, prior to being the bodies of people with their own stories to tell.

Their faces are frequently immersed in shadow, wrapped in white smoke, covered, outside our field of vision, obliterated, only suggested, hidden by colored lights – and the bodies are posed in choreographed, anatomical compositions, as in the photo of two men, caught suspended in an embrace, or in another, in which a boy wearing white pants is washing a pickup truck.

In 2012, the American photographer Aaron Schuman recalled the words of Sassen from a talk she gave at the 2010 Brighton Photo Biennial, which showed a selection from the series Flamboya: “The shadow turns a person into a kind of symbol. It’s not about the particular person anymore; he or she represents an idea. So, it’s much more about the universal than the personal. It’s about what we don’t see.”

However it may be objectionable to treat the human body as a representation of an idea, Sassen’s statement does not conceal the fact that the reach of her images is only partially confined to her intentions. The human body is an extraordinary trap against the artistic and political uses which people may make of them, not to mention that the interpretation of an image, as with any interpretation, frequently extends beyond the proposition of its creator. The human body speaks, even when we want it to remain quiet and at our service. In contrast to photographs of nature (which Sassen also takes), those who she portrays only say what they want to say, speaking in a language that we do not always understand, one that at the same time presupposes and dispenses with tradition.

If we often read into an image something that the person who produced it did not intend, on the other hand – and precisely because a person is not an object – the human figure (clearly to be seen in Sassen’s work on the forms of the Kenyan, Ghanaian, Ugandan, Zambian and Tanzanian models she photographs) resists depersonalization and unleashes a torrent of questions and calls. To show people as if they were things or ideas is an impossible mission, because their presence does not conform to captions, declarations or introductions. The presence repels ingenuity and grandiose expectations as much as the human body betrays what the human eye wishes to make of it. If the girl sitting in the shadow of a tree affronts us as a still-life, her existence encourages us to hear this still-life speak, even if she chooses to remain silent. The hands of the photographer are not entirely free to do what they want with their subject. On the contrary, the subject actively resists, or accepts surrender, maneuver, manipulation.

The stories of Sassen’s models transcend themselves, they go beyond us – we who contemplate their image – through Sassen’s nostalgia for her childhood (which is, by definition, impossible to transmit) and the vortex of filth and candor with which we choose to appease what would be our own responsibility for centuries of degrading representations of the African people by the West.

We hastily ask ourselves what is our right in relation to the appropriation of these bodies and their representation than we ask ourselves what is their story, where do they come from, and what kind of world do they reveal.

It is not just a personal story – with its accidents, its intimacies, failures, adventures, mishaps, modest glories, and lost paradises – that which we deny a person when we deny their humanity, but also the access to beauty (even if we cannot say where that beauty resides or identify it). Our real or fictitious affiliations influence not only our vision and the collective history, but also the history of the images.

The human body is a political body because no human body is the first one that existed, and everyone supposes the history of an unequal balance of powers. No human body, however, is just a political body, Sassen reveals to us, whether or not that is their intention.

Repelling death

In the history of images, there are few instances where the black body enjoys the right to speak only when it wishes, to choose what it wishes to say, or – more decisively – to say nothing, if it so wishes. We inflate it with our flawed gaze, with the tempting symbolism which emerges as we settle a score with the past, and we neither see or hear beyond our own reflection, transforming it into visual merchandise, a symbol of our inability to let it say nothing at all to us – that it exists independently of our curiosity.

Sometimes Viviane Sassen’s subjects have fallen asleep, like the boy lying on the green fishing net, tangled in it like a fish left behind by the fishermen, maybe dreaming. At other times, as with the photograph of the young women sitting on the steps of a concrete staircase and seemingly united by their interwoven braids, we encounter them in a state of languor that we only let ourselves feel when we are with our intimate friends (or females friends, to be precise).

There is no-one less interested in being a symbol or an idea than them. They are not things. They are people. Be they male or female, they do not want to know of our noise, nor what we have to say about them. As with anyone who is the focus of a photographer’s lens, they repel the photograph as if repelling their own death. Sassen does not seem to wish to make them speak or send us a clear message. (Perhaps treating them as ideas is the way to let them persist as a continuum of questions without an answer.) If they are an idea, they are not enough to be a language. If they say nothing, however, it is not because that flows from the way Sassen chose to represent them, abstracting them from their context and the reality of their relationships as pure chromatic and compositional entities, but by virtue of their enigmatic presence, as is all human presence.

Inquisitive Figures

The camera is often betrayed by its subject. The spell the subject casts upon it is constant and enduring. The camera shows what the subject lets it show, and in the end nobody wins, precisely because a person is neither a thing nor an idea. And also because behind the camera is another person, whose history, body and drama we tend to forget.

We must remain silent if we are to hear Sassen’s young women and men, and we must forget ourselves if we intend to listen how they enjoy the cool in the light or in the shade, or when immersed in day to day activities, or their intimacy or their abandonment of the body.

Humanity is as determined to claim a place for our version of history as in the right to direct our silence. But this right, as pressing as the right to a voice, defies the public because it does not feed their need for chit-chat nor its loquacity, and lives from its ability to listen. The ears are as important as the eyes in the face of these photographs. We must listen if we are to see, and be prepared not to hear anything, even if we remain silent. It is not enough that we prepare ourselves to ask: “Who are you?” We must be prepared for the answer to be: “I am your brother; your sister: nobody.” Sassen manages, to the contrary, to return to her subjects the possibility of a refusal to talk to us. It is a treacherous approach for an artist, because, saying nothing, they also say nothing of what she wanted them to say. One of the greatest achievements of her work in Africa is to make her public statements about it redundant. Sassen’s photographs put her at risk in a way that those who look at them are not, because her statements about them become dispensable. Suddenly the composer becomes mute, giving place to the composition, united in the same muteness, with which we do not really know what to do. If her girls, boys, young women and men are still-lives, they are insurgent, unpredictable, and we can never be certain that they will not turn against her and us.

They have no story, nor name, but in their anonymity, they are inquisitive figures. Their mute state is that of any work of art: we do not understand their languague, it is the most they can say to us. Nobody prepares us to understand the thoughts that they give to us. The shadow that conceals their faces is not a way of avoiding a conversation or turning it aside, whistling, but the beginning of a conversation. By imposing their muteness on us, Sassen’s photographs show us that we will not dictate the rules of this conversation and that we are at stake. No-one has ever been able to teach a statue to memorize a script, nor to teach anyone how to speak to a statue.

Black body

Sassen reduces politics to a visual reality, aware that such an exercise puts her beyond any moral safeguards in the world in which we live and in the time in which her images were made. Sometimes, the bodies of others simply tell us they are not interested in what we have to say about them. We can speak, but they do not hear or want to hear us. Our interpretations are nothing to them, like our greetings, which are only met with indifference. Our words buzz around their shining existence like insects around a light. To photograph others is, at times, a sign that we cannot hear them, sometimes it is a way for us to speak for them, and other times it is a way for us to refuse to take on the role of their ventriloquists.

Sassen show us that the only way we are used to gazing upon the black body is in an abstract way. Her photographs navigate in unstable territories, precisely because the history of our viewpoint cannot be distinguished from the mud of the collective history of the images. In revealing to us the bodies of a group of women, men and children as compositional realities, she returns to the observer the burden of controversy. If her images provoke us, and eventually repel us, it is because we have ceased to be able to admit the black body as a human body long before we saw them. Her photographs explore the depths of our perception of the black body and expose them, pulling the rug from under us: rarely do we ask ourselves when it was that we refused to view the black body with an innocent eye.

Her merit is not that she works with a prepolitical palette, as if her images were the first to be taken in the world, but comes from the way in which they reveal, perhaps unwittingly, the denial of a personal existence to the black body, showing at the same time that all palettes are political.

All the subjects of Viviane Sassen’s photographs are individuals with some history. In fading their faces into the shadows in front of our eyes, her photographs almost distract us from this. Who is the slender girl with the abundant, lush hair, or what is the boy sitting under a green light thinking about? We cannot know. Viviane Sassen bewitches us, asking us to forget to wonder who the people she shows us are. However, the masterful geometry of her composition leaves intact the ambiguous condition of her subjects, whose meaning and horizon her lens is, thankfully, far from able to fix. ///

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