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  • Writer's pictureBeyond the Canvas

Lorna Simpson's fantastical hairscapes

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

"Black women’s heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves, solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors. The hair she paints has a mind of its own. It is sinuous and cloudy and fully alive. It is forest and ocean, its own emotional weather. We are compelled, always, by the phantasmagorical hair, which both invites and obscures. In these pictures, black women’s phantasmagorical hair is like smoke, but nothing is turning to ash. It is a non-consuming smoke, the mesmerizing beauty of smoke as it curls and wafts and draws a viewer inexorably near." - Elizabeth Alexander

My job is done here, I've kind of shot myself in the foot as I cannot think of anything I could say that would add to this brilliantly evocative description of Simpson's sumptuous collages. But I did want to write something that was my own because I find her work spellbinding, so powerful and unique - I simply cannot stop looking at it.

In her collages, Simpson uses 60s and 70s images from Ebony and Jet magazine to explore issues of representation and reimagine ideals of glamour and femininity. These women are so beautiful, so flawless, exquisite and desirable icons of beauty. Once Simpson is done 'embellishing' them, they have flames, tree branches, semi-precious stones, swirls and blotches of vibrant colours on their heads. What is going on here? They have morphed into fierce, all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipotent Sphinx-like creatures.

I am also seeing a humorous element to the artist's work. While this is no doubt an ode to the female universe, I also sense an irreverent, Dadaesque attempt at knocking these models off their pedestal as a way to highlight the obsolescence of this type of imagery.

Riunite & Ice #23, 2018

Flames, 2019

Triple Burned, 2014

Afraid of blood, 2013

Befitting, 2013

Earth & Sky #16, 2016

Earth & Sky #19, 2016

Riunite & Ice #25, 2018

Artist photo by James Wang.

All photos © Lorna Simpson.

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