“Our personal history is often rooted in the identity of our families and what the writers of history, often the usurpers, choose to depict as historical fact. I try to reveal the distinct possibilities of these often conflicting allegories with imagery depicting the contradictions in historical fact, the omissions in historical academia, and the narrative of the imagination of the hope of ones place in history.”–artist S. Ross Browne
Painting- “The Huntress” 2010, by S. Ross Browne
I’m always on the lookout for art of the speculative that subverts history and our expectations. Enter artist S. Ross Browne’s exhibit Self Evident Truths. In this 2012 exhibit, mostly women of African descent are portrayed. Each is dressed in early or late medieval European armor or royal dress, in poses that mimic popular Western art of the time. Each however manages to hold onto a distinctly non-European identity–rooted in their elaborate and richly decorated locs, a part of the modern African Diaspora now familiar throughout the Black Atlantic with its own royal/regal history that links to an unknown but celebrated African past. In several of the images, the women wear clothing tinged with symbols of death–ghostly skulls, and what looks like the embroidery from the hull of a slave ship.
Browne’s paintings remind me of those of Kehinde Wiley, who I’ve written of previously, which similarly takes modern black figures (more often than not marginalized urban males), and places them in the middle of historic European artistic settings/backgrounds/styles. In Browne’s case, unlike most of Wiley’s work, there is a distinct focus on black women–thus highlighting a double-marginality. They are given names like “The Liberator” or “The Huntress,” and “The Persistence of History.” And their poses and demeanor–sometimes with broadswords–exude power. They are women who seem perfectly in place in their settings, as if they were born to be there. Like Wiley’s work, Browne’s art evokes thoughts of Steven Barnes alternate history Lion’s Blood, as the dynamics of power in our mundane world are reversed, and in the clash of hairstyles with dress the societal lines between “high” and “low” culture are similarly blurred and redefined. Or perhaps there is no clash, but instead a hybridity that melds together cross-cultural symbols of power and historical memory.
According to Browne, the exhibit “represent a study of sociology and genetic identity and perceived historical relevance….The images are sometimes derived from historic fact and at other times they are fictionally derived from my postulations of historical possibilities.”
And “historical possibilities” is what speculative fiction is all about.