The young photographer John Edmonds traveled to Ghana last January, searching for something he couldn’t name. Having recently begun collecting and photographing African sculpture, he thought the trip would lead to a greater self-knowledge.
“I’m an African-American using African objects, so it was important to me to understand the source,” he said during an interview in Brooklyn. The pieces he’d been studying were masks and figurines crafted for the tourist market, raising questions of authenticity that were linked in a complicated way to racial consciousness. He was also navigating the minefield of cultural appropriation: Would such decorative art assume a different significance when used by an African, African-American or white photographer in a shoot?
These are some of the socially resonant issues that Mr. Edmonds investigates in “A Sidelong Glance” at the Brooklyn Museum, his first solo museum show, which accompanies the award of the inaugural UOVO Prize for an emerging Brooklyn artist. To add a wrinkle, his photographs also explore his queer identity. In the exhibition, several portraits depict handsome, shirtless Black men alongside an array of African objects. “He’s really interested in the connection between collecting and photography as acts of possession and desire,” said Drew Sawyer, curator of photography at the Brooklyn Museum.
African sculpture has been central to modernism. “Black people have always known they were the inspiration for art,” said Mr. Edmonds, 31, who shoots on film with a large-format view camera. “The African art object has influenced, as we know, everything within the lexicon of culture, from entertainment culture to painting and sculpture.”
In the early 20th century, avant-garde artists in Europe and the United States embraced sculpture from Africa (and later Oceania) that they classified as “primitive.” The 1907 painting “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which manifested Picasso’s fascination with the African masks at the Palais du Trocadéro ethnographic museum, is the revolutionary exemplar, but a 1926 photograph by Man Ray, “Noire et Blanche,” presents the premise more directly. Man Ray posed his lover, Kiki de Montparnasse, holding a Baule-style mask next to her head. Her eyes are closed, as if she is dreaming, and the curves of her eyebrows, eyelids and lips — as well as the flatness of her hair and the oval of her face — are as stylized as the features on the mask. Along with his fellow Surrealists, Man Ray believed that women have a profound connection to the irrational and the primal, qualities that he associated with African art.
Mr. Edmonds composed a photograph in the current show that constitutes a response. Called “Tête de Femme,” it shows a Black woman who, like Kiki, is holding a decorative African mask on a table. But this woman keeps her head upright and her eyes open, gazing confidently at the camera (and the viewer). It is one of a small series by the artist that reimagines Man Ray’s iconic photograph. “I made three pictures — one person who identifies as a woman, one as a man and one as gender-nonconforming,” he explains. “A lot of my work has to do with unlearning gender.”
Made in 2018 (the masculine version appeared in the 2019 Whitney Biennial), the series inaugurated Mr. Edmonds’s inclusion of African objects in his photographs, using tourist pieces that belonged to the Brooklyn family of a friend. The objects he later began collecting himself derive from the crafts market, too. He relates to these pieces not as an art historian, but as someone who uses and shares them — which, indeed, more closely approximates the role that rare sculptures served in their original environments.
When Mr. Sawyer and his co-curator, Ashley James, asked iMr. Edmonds if he would be interested in photographing the museum’s recently acquired collection of African sculptures, the artist relished the opportunity. The collection had been formed by the eminent African-American novelist Ralph Ellison. “I found it to be quite beautiful,” he said. “It’s a collection that’s been largely not seen. Photographing these objects was assigning life to them.” Continuing a tradition that dates to Man Ray, Walker Evans and Charles Sheeler, he photographed the sculptures frontally and from the rear, evoking a mood rather than simply documenting an archive. “I’m interested in these objects as little presences that are looking at and looking away from the viewer,” he said.
Instead of conventional white and gray modernist backdrops, Mr. Edmonds photographed the objects against shimmering gold cloth. He also carefully varied the scale of his prints in the exhibition, combining small images of the Ellison objects with larger portraits of friends. “He works in black and white and in color, and at different scales, and sometimes as portraits, sometimes as still life, and sometimes as combinations,” said Jane Panetta, director of the Whitney Museum collection, who co-curated the 2019 Whitney Biennial. “He’s disrupting expectations about photographic seriality.”
He is also subverting a tradition of white gay photographers, from Carl Van Vechten to Robert Mapplethorpe, who eroticize Black male bodies. Mr. Edmonds’s models are subjects as well as objects. A muscular shirtless man with dreadlocks is sitting on a table that supports a cluster of African statuettes. They are all objects of desire. If a white artist made this portrait today, he would be open to charges of objectifying Black bodies in an act of post-colonial fetishism. However, it is Mr. Edmonds’s humanizing of his subjects that, even more than his race, exonerates him of that accusation. He is not presenting his model simply as a body to lust after but as a man absorbed in contemplation of the African art with what Mr. Edmonds describes as a “look of discernment.”
The engagement of African-American artists with African art gained momentum during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. In the exhibition, Mr. Edmonds includes a portrait of a man in a fedora who seems entranced by a Senufo sculpture of a woman. This photograph breaks stylistically from other pictures in the show. The sepia undertones as well as the retro clothing evoke the Harlem Renaissance, especially the photographs of James L. Allen, whose portrait from about 1930 of the graphic designer James Lesesne Wells examining a Kuba vessel is a direct ancestor of Mr. Edmonds’s picture.
The earliest photograph in the exhibition is a 2017 portrait of three young Black men wearing durags. (The connection to Africa, which otherwise unifies the exhibition, is subtle here: the headgear is green, red or black, the colors Marcus Garvey chose for the Pan-African Black liberation flag.) Mr. Edmonds has also produced several series of photographs based on fashion styles, including hoodies and hairdos. (A generous sampling is contained in “Higher,” his 2018 monograph.) He associates these portraits with Renaissance paintings he saw as a boy on visits to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where he was raised by a mother who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency as an office administrator and a stepfather who is an engineer. After graduating from the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Mr. Edmonds earned an M.F.A. at Yale and moved to Brooklyn.
His photographs make wide-ranging art-historical allusions from Titian and Michelangelo to Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a photographer who was born into an eminent Yoruba family in Nigeria and employed ritual objects in homoerotic images. Mr. Fani-Kayode died in London of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. “He’s somebody that I have a huge amount of admiration for,” Mr. Edmonds said. He relies on artistic precedents, as he does on the friends whom he enlists as models, to further a process of self-awareness. “In life, at times we run away from ourselves,” he said. “I’ve gotten closer to the people I want to photograph and in doing so, I’ve gotten closer to myself. That is something art can do.”
On his journey to Ghana, Mr. Edmonds attended traditional religious ceremonies. Raised as a Baptist, he regarded with fascination the old African beliefs that exist like a palimpsest behind the Christian institutions there. On the last day of his stay, Mr. Edmonds was initiated into the Akan religion. The ceremony ratified a cultural bond with Africa that his photography had been exploring. He wears a wire-metal ring on the ring finger of his left hand to commemorate it. “I have religion — you don’t have to call it religion to have religion — but I think in my time there, it was supposed to happen,” he said. “In a way, that is what I went to Africa for, without knowing it.”
John Edmonds: A Sidelong Glance
Through Aug. 8, 2021, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, [email protected]; 718.638.5000