Lorna Simpson

Twenty Questions (A Sampler)


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Not on display

Lorna Simpson born 1960
4 photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper and 6 engraved plastic plaques
Overall display dimensions variable
Presented by the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of the North American Acquisitions Committee 2019


Twenty Questions (A Sampler) 1986 is a series of four framed gelatin silver prints on paper, the subject of which is identical: the head and shoulders of a black woman in a simple white cotton shift, taken from behind so that the identity of the subject remains concealed. The black and white photographs are accompanied by six engraved text plaques, all in upper case lettering, which are fixed directly to the wall, one above the photographs and five below. The text on the upper plaque gives the work’s title: ‘Twenty Questions (A Sampler)’. The texts on the lower plaques read, from left to right, ‘Is she pretty as a picture’, ‘or as clear as crystal’, ‘or as pure as a lily’, ‘or as black as coal’, ‘or as sharp as a razor’. According to curator Joan Simon, ‘the title of Twenty Questions (A Sampler) refers to the parlour game in which one player thinks of a person, place, or thing, which the other participants try to identify by asking a series of questions’, with Simpson’s work offering a ‘sampler’ of the twenty questions permitted in the game (Joan Simon, ‘Easy to Remember, Hard to Forget: Lorna Simpson’s Gestures and Re-enactments’, in Simon 2013, p.12).

Typically for Simpson’s work, Twenty Questions (A Sampler) employs the characteristics of nineteenth-century photographic portraiture, including black and white photography and the tondo (circular) format, to create what is in effect an ‘anti-portrait’. These features, as well as the economy of the images, their serial arrangement and the device of corporeal fragmentation, also bring to mind ethnographic or (pseudo-) scientific photography. However, Simpson’s works deny the presentation of the subject that is found in nineteenth-century ethnographic photography; in this case by depicting the subject from behind so that the viewer sees only repeated images of the back of her head and shoulders. As curator Lauri Firstenberg has written:

Turned away from the viewer, Simpson’s subjects enforce a denial of the action of the gaze and the exchange of the look. The negating gesture of depicting an inaccessible body, pictured in parts, upsets the task of the portrait, which traditionally has been to offer access to personality, or in the case of the archival document, to identify and classify … Twenty Questions (1986), a refused portrait, works similarly with minimal but evocative and ambiguous clues that hint at the exploitations of the archive.
(Lauri Firstenberg, ‘Autonomy and the Archive in America: Re-examining the Intersection of Photography and Stereotype’, in Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis (eds.), Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, exhibition catalogue, International Center of Photography, New York 2003, pp.317–19.)

The six plaques employ the forms of museum labelling or classification. However, the common phrases used are revealed to be far from neutral. Curator Beryl Wright has commented that early works ‘like Twenty Questions (A Sampler) ... examined the hidden cultural logic operating in popular word games’ (Beryl J. Wright, ‘Introduction’, in Museum of Contemporary Art 1992, p.8). Each of the questions on the plaques addresses gender judgments, stereotypes and clichés (reinforced through imagery associated with colour), contrasting culturally, linguistically and aesthetically defined associations of black and white.

The title itself presents a word game in the use of the qualification ‘a sampler’. This is suggestive of embroidery, needlework or repair (reinforced by the tondo form which recalls a circular sampler or hoop-shaped embroidery frame); forms of creativity or activity associated with domesticity and traditional roles assigned to women, as well as modes of gendered inscription, since they often incorporate text. Thus Simpson alludes to the gender roles and stereotypes that are also raised more explicitly in the questions and through the presentation of unkempt female afro hair. Curator Okwui Enwezor has written of this work: ‘The subject’s face and gaze do not encounter the viewer’s. Yet Simpson goes ahead to lead us into the trap, inviting us to make judgements of her character, to cast aspersions, to damn with an epithet’. (Okwui Enwezor, ‘Repetition and Differentiation – Lorna Simpson’s Iconography of the Racial Sublime’, in American Federation of Arts 2006, p.117.)

In Simpson’s early works, the subject of the imagery is usually the artist herself, though her identity is concealed so that she stands as a universal cipher of the black female body. The white garment she wears is also evocative of the past. While its simplicity appears at first to be generic and timeless, it can be seen to represent the basic white cotton garments worn by slaves and in this way alludes to the erasures of history. Thus Twenty Questions (A Sampler) weaves together a range of issues around racial and gender identity to reveal the status accorded to black women in culture and history.

Further reading
Lorna Simpson: For the Sake of the Viewer, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1992, p.8, reproduced p.27.
Lorna Simpson, exhibition catalogue, American Federation of Arts, New York 2006, pp.117, 119, reproduced pp.12–13.
Joan Simon (ed.), Lorna Simpson, exhibition catalogue, Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis and Jeu de Paume, Paris 2013, pp.12–13, 70–1.

Tanya Barson
August 2013

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Display caption

The subtitle of this work suggests an embroidery sampler. As demonstrations of needlework skill, samplers combined images and words, often including mottos relating to the domestic context or to feminine virtue. The circular images here reinforce the link, recalling the hoop of an embroidery frame. Simpson refers to this traditionally female form of creativity, highlighting connections with contemporary issues of race and gender to reflect on the cultural status accorded to black women throughout history.

Gallery label, November 2015

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