Who Are They?

Who is Lorna Simpson?

Lorna Simpson is an American artist, born in 1960, who lives and works in New York.

She uses photography, video and collage to explore identity – which means what makes us who we are – using her own experiences as a black woman to inspire her work.

Lorna Simpson, ‘Five Day Forecast’ 1991
Lorna Simpson
Five Day Forecast 1991
Tate
© Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York

She is most well known for her powerful artworks that combine photographs with words. In these works she questions and challenges narrow and conventional ideas about women, culture and race.

Because she uses photography to explore ideas rather than just taking photos of things she sees around her, she is sometimes described as a conceptual photographer.

Lorna Simpson was one of a group of artists who became well known in the 1980s for exploring themes and ideas relating to identity politics in their work. Identity politics focuses on the lives and experience of those who are often marginalised in society such as black people, women and gay people. (Marginalised means pushed to the side, forgotten about, or not treated as important). Identity politics aims to make others aware of the issues and unfairness that these marginalised people have to face.

Lorna Simpson, ‘Photo Booth’ 2008
Lorna Simpson
Photo Booth 2008
Tate
© Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York

She started off taking photographs of things she saw around her – but soon realised that she wanted more directly to explore the ideas and issues that she felt strongly about. So she began to take carefully posed photographs in her studio. By putting words alongside the photographs she could express even more powerfully what she felt.

Let's look closer

Let’s look at her artwork Five Day Forecast 1991 to find out more about how she uses words with photographs. Five framed photographs show a black woman dressed in a simple white dress (similar to the simple cotton clothes worn in the past by slaves).

Lorna Simpson, ‘Five Day Forecast’ 1991
Lorna Simpson
Five Day Forecast 1991
Tate
© Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York

We don’t see the woman’s face so we don’t know anything about her. However we get mixed signals. She seems vulnerable because of the starkness of the photograph, but her folded arms give her a bit of an attitude, so she also looks strong and in control.

There are words above and underneath the photographs. What do you think Lorna Simpson might be saying in this work? (Don’t worry; there is no one right answer…She is getting us to think, as much as anything!)

Five Day Forecast was made at a time when Lorna Simpson was doing lots of boring office jobs while she was trying to make it as an artist. She was never quite sure what to expect from one day to the next. So the words Monday-Friday above the repeated photographs perhaps suggest a monotonous, repetitive working week. But there is also a bigger meaning.

Underneath the photographs are more words, all of them beginning with ‘Mis…’ such as ‘misinformation’ and ‘misremember’. These words are quite long and complicated can you work out what they mean? Here’s a clue: usually when ‘mis’ appears in front of another word it suggests something negative. All these ‘mis’ words are about communication – or lack of it!

The pun on ‘mis/miss’ also plays on her female identity and questions the way women are seen and treated in the workplace and more generally in life.

Making the cut!

More recently, Lorna Simpson has made art using pictures cut from old Ebony magazines that she got from her granny. (Ebony is a magazine aimed at African-American women). Lots of adverts in the magazines are for beauty products and show women ‘before’ and ‘after’ using a product. Lorna noticed something strange about these pictures:

‘They’re very funny because the women don’t look like before and after, like they needed make-up or improvement, it’s more like their attitude changes in some kind of weird way'

Film still from Tate film with Amandla Stenberg, Mars and Lorna Simpson

Film still from Tate film with Amandla Stenberg, Mars and Lorna Simpson

Simpson explores the experience of people who are often marginalised, and shows us their attitude and strength, using hard-hitting words and images, as well as humour. This is what makes Lorna Simpson’s work so cool.

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