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Traces of the Body

By 17th October 2020December 17th, 2020No Comments

Marcia Michael, Partus Sequitur Ventrem from the series The Object of My Gaze, (2015-2017). Digital prints © Courtesy of Artist

Marcia Michael, Young Woman from The Study of Kin, (2009) © Courtesy of Artist

“The work for a matrilineal recovery began because I could not find evidence of my matrilineal past, a past I searched the paper archives for, and could not find.”

In her series ‘​The Object of My Gaze​’, Marcia makes her mother the subject and prime objective of her gaze. It is common for parents to diligently document, record and photograph the growth of their own children, but far less common for children to do the same thing to their parents. Society conditions us see youth as desirable and old age, especially in women, as something unflattering that should not be exposed, let alone photographed in all its wrinkled details. Yet, in Marcia’s case, it is not only about revealing the beauty of motherhood, but also, as she reminds us, an exercise in ​“the importance of making and the importance of showing images of Black women.”In fact, whilst photographers like Sally Mann, Nicholas Nixon and other white photographers showed images of their families, the need for Marcia to show hers was questioned during her academic life. ​“I can recall a tutor during my MA who commented why anyone would want to see images of my family. Was she being racist or was she just questioning the need for these images?” In this series, Marcia’s photography not only subverts the notion that mature bodies shouldn’t be seen but goes further, by tackling both the societal discomfort with old age and the societal ignorance of the aging black body. Her mother’s body is portrayed in all its complexity, power and tenacity. Her body is displayed unapologetically, her skin folds now appearing like beautiful drapes of textiles: velvet, luscious leather and veined slates of brown marble. Even in her mother’s nakedness, we don’t see an invasion of privacy nor a sexualised being – we see something powerful, full of knowledge, deeply rooted in a spatiotemporal cluster of memories, celebrations, defeats, laughters and nostalgic smells. We come closer to understanding, in Marcia’s own words, “what the experience of a Black person is.” Her mother’s nakedness is clothed with this shroud of wisdom, beauty and being that transcends the boundaries of the flesh almost to create an invisible but palpable trace around her reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the ‘​flesh of the world​’. In The Visible and the Invisible (Merleau-Ponty) the term ‘flesh’ becomes synonymous with an experience we feel, recognise or experience but fail to fully comprehend: “​the flesh is not matter, it is not mind, is it not substance. To designate it, we should…speak of water, air, earth, and fire… the flesh is in this sense and ‘element’ of Being.” (The Visible and the Invisible, page 139) This flesh of the world, forgotten for far too long or simply obliterated from the consciousness of humankind, is captured here: ​I am baffled by the fact that so many stories of Black people’s experiences when they arrived in the UK have not been told. This means that what the experience of the Black person is, is a catch up within a world in which they were not seen, but present for. Thus, there exists a world which has been constructed that was never really meant for Black people and yet, we have all been allowed to believe that we could fit in this world. However, if we don’t conform, or indeed if we overstep our place in this constructed world, we again, are made absent through various means.” This aura, this trace, which the Black history has left but very few people have managed to see is at the core of Marcia’s photography. ​At the very centre of her interrogation lies the reorganisation of the relationship between the history, personal narrative and consciousness of her matrilineage with the external world, inviting us viewers to do the same. ​“The Black body can only leave a trace and it is this very trace that I try and recapture as a memory in my works.” This concept of the trace – invisible to many but present for those who have been systematically forgotten by history – is best captured in Marcia’s ​series​ on the state of British psychiatric institutions. Here, all the images are eerily devoid of bodies, yet in that emptiness, in this lack, we finally see all the bodies forgotten by history – bodies, more often than not those of black women, confined to medical wards under false pretextes, against their will and with no power to exert their rights as human beings. For Marcia, these empty spaces work as ​“an analogy for the Black experience in and amongst white institutions”, the idea that where there is a gap, it is not always for lack of humans but sometimes for the lack of the very humane.

Marcia Michael, Partus Sequitur Ventrem from the series The Object of My Gaze, (2015-2017). Digital prints © Courtesy of Artist

“The Black body can only leave a trace and it is this very trace that I try and recapture as a memory in my works.”

Marcia Michael probes into the connective tissue of matrilineal history by reclaiming the body from the scrutiny of scientific-style photography, patriarchal objectivity and social conditioning. The body is now something more than just an object to be analysed, but rather a subject to be reconciled with, celebrated and empowered. Through her photographic lens, the wholeness of the body is no longer defined by its biological unity but rather pieced together by the narrative, the story, the dialogue that we are now suddenly invited into. For Marcia, ​“knowing who we are and what we are has been expressed through various art forms and for me, the photographic image allows me simply to know how one body appears to be, so that when it is looked at, it begins a dialogue of multiple experiences, conversations and assumptions. This dialogue is what is important to me.”It is for this reason that despite the fact a lot of Marcia’s photographs show the body in various states of disembodiment, like in her series ‘​Before Memory Returns​’, the power of the flesh’s aura still enables us to see the humane, the lived, the experienced. ​The fragmented clinical bodies expertly labelled, ordered and stigmatised by the ​Galtons​ of the past centuries are now given a story, empowered, made human. Despite the fragmentation of the image, the body does not read as disembodied nor evocative of a very contemporary sense of dislocation. Marcia Michael’s photography might showcase the body as fragmented, but that’s only so we can recombine it, rehumanise it, reconnect it not only to itself but also to the centuries of black diaspora descendents culminating in the vital and urgent message that: to be fragmented does not mean loss of identity or sense of belonging, no, picking up where history books left off can be therapeutic. ​I came to understand that there was a tradition between mother and daughter which was developed through the literary form (black literary matrilineage), that used this relationship to recover histories that were either lost, forgotten, or never spoken of. This retrieval was political and yet the method it took, was absolutely private. Toni Morrison (in Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation) makes this comment which makes so much sense to me, “It seems to me that the best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” I do not strive to make the images appear to be a certain way for, what I do, is capture a moment of expression. Yet, within what is documented, is a sense of serenity, a sense of being and in some way, a sense of knowing. This most definitely has a therapeutic effect on the relationship between my mother and myself, but I hope it also has an effect on what images can do as a way to heal the past and also the future.”

The power in Marcia Michael’s photography comes in the form of a narrative wound with the filaments of our own bodies, histories and experiences. Through her black feminine gaze, Marcia seeks to rewrite, reclaim and open the dialogue surrounding how we perceive, understand and come to know our own history. As we are made partakers in her journey, we too begin to interrogate our place in society and dig deeper into who we really are and, most importantly, who we want to become.

By Gabriella Gasparini

all images © Marcia Michael