You Cannot See Me:
A Brief Visual Analysis of Sierra Faye’s “Comfort in the Undiscovered”
As a Black woman I’ve always noticed a layer of heavy, artificial blackness that seems bound to my skin. I feel it seep into my flesh when I have become, as my grandmother would say, “a fly in buttermilk.” This black substance was created to conceal my actual body and my existence from a particular white gaze: the look from those who need me to stay in a subordinate position in order to maintain their dominance over me. With a look they paint my entire body with layers of blackness that define their superior, yet equally artificial, whiteness. As a result, I form two bodies— one created by the white gaze and one I create for myself in response.
Contemporary Black art often seeks to expose the effects of white power through imagination and experimentation. Because I see and argue whiteness as a constructed idea that serves ideological functions with its culturally accepted significances, I navigated this American positioning through literature and visual arts. Both mediums relate to the political whiteness in that they use understood meanings towards signs to execute an overall goal, or point. Themes in literary and visual art convey messages. The goal in white supremacist discourse is to maintain power. Literature and visual arts have the ability to execute these themes by interpreting reality in imaginative ways. My goal is to examine how Black contemporary writers and artists use their imagination to expose the illogical and imposing elements of white supremacy and to resist the insignificant metaphor attributed to Blackness. Contemporary Black art creates a discourse, based off of previous Black power discourse, that refutes the white supremacist discourse (which has previously and continues to construct blackness) to define their own Black individuality.
In this essay, I use the theory of hyper-visibility to highlight the visual concepts of Sierra Faye’s “Comfort in the Undiscovered” (Figure 1). Hyper-visibility suggests that although people are visible, in that they have a material body, they are not seen, or recognized, in mainstream society. The photograph exposes the model’s physical presence; however, black substance covers her skin, which prevents a human-to-human recognition. I argue that this photograph conveys the phenomenon of Black femmes who are hyper-visible due to a society that refuses to see our actual existence. Rather they only acknowledge what they want to see. The black substance represents the white-imagined myths perpetrated by white supremacist ideology. Black women wear these constructions in the eyes of the public. With the substance the photograph suggests that Black women are characters created for the desire of the white public. The model confronts the glare of the spectators, returning a gaze that cannot see her. This returning gaze asserts her position in humanity. It shows that there is a disregarded being underneath the constructed blackness. Faye’s conceptual photograph figuratively demonstrates many experiences articulated in bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism and Black Looks: Race and Representation and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: an American Lyric. All of these works convey a common phenomenon: Black women’s existence hides behind layers of false identities created to uphold anti-Blackness.
This conceptual image is a part of her 2011 photographic series Inward Significance. It presents a close-up shot of a Black femme's face covered in layers of black substance. Fresh, glistening substance is applied in some spots haphazardly; there is no apparent order or pattern to it. The fresh substance is more opaque than the bottom layer, which covers her face evenly. She stares into the lens with lethargic eyes. Her expression is muted, seemingly silent. Her mouth is slightly ajar, exposing only a few of her top teeth. Her bottom teeth and top teeth do not touch, which implies that she would say something, but the subtle expression makes it seem as though she cannot or does not. Clear fluid surrounds her face; one can see the ends of her hair underneath it. The fluid that surrounds her reflects light, making the darkness of the black substance stand out. There is movement within the body of fluid, which suggests that she either emerges from it or she sinks into it.
The title “Comfort in the Undiscovered” suggests that Black femmes are not discovered, or seen, because the artificial black substance covers their identity. The title also suggests that the anti-Black world is content with only seeing the artificial,
All of what I’m dealing with is about layers. The different substances reflect the layers. It can flake off, it can peel off, it can wash off…When I think about how something has affected me, I think about the substances that I can apply. I use the substances as a metaphor for the layers I’m dealing with within myself. It’s all about a process. ( “Getting Gritty…”)
Faye’s body of work often expresses racism and sexism, both aggressive and microaggressive, and these experiences are seen as layers that many Black femmes find themselves peeling or washing off periodically throughout our lives. Faye also indicates that these layers have a deep effect on subjectivity. The subjects in Faye’s photographs often show the internal struggles of trying to understand their inner being while existing underneath the layers.
The black substance points to negative misconceptions that are imposed on Black femmes and that go unnoticed. In Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks writes: “many people have difficulty appreciating black women as we are because of the eagerness to impose an identity upon us based on any number of negative stereotypes” (86). The American public has a difficult time “appreciating” Black femmes because they have yet to notice us. hooks suggest that this lack of attention is due to stereotypes created by the white imagination. Rather than seeing our actual existence, or how we see ourselves, the public only acknowledges these “negative” stereotypes or the white-imagined myths. In Citizen, Claudia Rankine explores the effects of the white public’s negative stereotypes of Black women. Rankine’s main character, who remains nameless throughout the narrative, represents Black women who must place their own body into another body that is created by the other. Rankine writes: “when you lay your body in the body/ Enter as if skin and bone were public places” (144). Influenced by anti-Blackness, the public uses these negative stereotypes of Black femmes to create an idea of what we should be. We wear this constructed body in the presence of white supremacy; therefore, we are not fully seen.
The black substance is a result of the white imperial gaze. Feminist art historian, Patricia Simons, addresses the “male gaze” in her essay “Women in Frames: The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture” (8). She argues that femmes in paintings done by men are “the object of the male gaze: to ‘appear in public’ is ‘to be looked upon’” (Simons 8). In many paintings, femmes were (and still are) often the presented as objects of desire for the men patron of the gallery. They are often seen in poses where they do not face the onlooker. This being a common technique suggests that men were (and still are) allowed to capture and showcase femme's bodies without their permission, which also suggests that men have inherent ownership of femmes and their bodies. As a way to counteract the men's gaze, artists began to paint and capture femmes returning the gaze. Simons indicates, “the power of the [femme] gaze… was feared or denied when it was likely to be engaged with male looks” (Simon 23-24). It was denied because the gaze of the femmes dared to speak back to the gaze that aimed to construct her.
writers and thinkers often exclude Black femmes from the discussions), the returning gaze has a similar effect. In Faye’s photograph, the returning gaze seeks to invoke action against power. hooks addresses the gaze of the white public that imposes itself onto Black femmes. In Black Looks hooks writes:
Spaces of agency exist for black people, wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back… naming what we see. The "gaze" has been and is a site of resistance for colonized black people globally. In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating "awareness" politicizes "looking" relations--one learns to look a certain way in order to resist. (116)
For hooks, the oppositional gaze is a gesture of resistance; it argues against the misrepresentation of Black femmes (Black Looks 115). A returned gaze has historically been forbidden for Black femmes although the white public can gaze at us, defining us based on their anti-Black ideals. This indicates a “power in looking,” according to hooks (Black Looks 115). With gazing, or prolonged, intentional looks, comes the ability to identify the other. The white public is allowed to gaze, so they have the power to define Black femmes although their gaze is manipulative and the definition is, thus, false. Because Black femmes were not allowed to look back, they could neither define white folks nor refute imposing definitions that concealed them. Therefore, the returning gaze in Faye’s image is political. It commands attention for the viewer to acknowledge the human being behind the layers of myths. It also indicates that the white public is being watched as well, which complicates the power dynamic; the roles of observer and subject are reversed. The returning gaze shows that the white public is now under surveillance by the human underneath the mask.
The black substance also calls attention to what Rankine calls the “historical” self in Citizen. Rankine writes:
A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. (14)
Due to the history of anti-Blackness in American society, Black femmes are perpetually placed in demeaning and degrading positions that seems inescapable. Reverting back to hooks’ assertions of negative stereotyped being imposed on Black women, Faye uses the black substance to represent these stereotypes that appear in layers, signifying the ways in which Black femmes continue to be covered in the substance. The bottom layer covers her entire face, except for the eyes and parts of the mouth, and it is dry as if it has been on her face for a while. The bottom layer of substance remains on her face although fresh substance has been applied. According to Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the history of Black femmes being misseen has been ongoing since the European Man and the African woman “faced each other as conqueror and conquered: African women captives were considered… property of the European conquerors” (13). Faye’s layers show this steady ownership over Black femmes' bodies. The bottom layer of substance remains on her face although fresh substance has been applied. With this technique, Faye argues that the history of being dispossessed lingers with Black femmes. It comes to define their historical self. Surrounding her face is a sort of liquid solution. This surrounding can represent the fluid within an amniotic sac, which supports the claim that Black femmes are born into the American system already coated in myths. Rankine states, “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you” (63). The substance represents the residual effect of the past. The previous anti-Blackness targeted towards Black women’s bodies lingers and influences the anti-Blackness targeted today towards our bodies.
“Comfort in the Undiscovered” uses the shot of the camera to draw the viewer in. Faye’s image does not leave room for the spectator to consider whether or not they are being watched. The confrontation of the gaze is unmistakable and unavoidable. The eerie photograph shows eyes half cast as if she is depleted, drained because she wears centuries of anti- Black experience. The close-up shot forces the viewer not to dismiss the emotions that her face carries. Faye cleverly leaves it up to the viewer to determine the truths behind her fatigue. This makes the argument of the image stronger. Rather than overtly expressing how her current emotional state came to be, Faye uses the combination of the other visual modes to indirectly suggest her current state. Faye trusts the viewer to recall the hidden truths of their privilege and understand what causes her weariness. The closeness of the model in this image forces the viewer to see every element of what the white gaze has constructed her to be.
Sierra Faye uses photography to expose how Black femmes' bodies have been captured in the eyes of the white public. With the use of the black substance, visual cues, and shots of the camera, her photograph argues that we have not been seen and continue to be invisible in American society although our bodies are being used as props in the anti- Black regime. This image conveys hyper-visibility as seen through bell hooks and Claudia Rankine’s texts. Black femmes have a presence; however, the presence that is most often acknowledged in the white public is that of subordination. The person in this image denies that claim with the returning gaze, a rhetorical move that says “look at me because I see you.” The returning gaze forces the white public to see us because we are constantly being forced to see them. The photograph call for a human-to-human recognition as the woman gesture for the spectator to recognize the being underneath the mask.