Lorna Simpson b. 1960, New York
Two gelatin silver prints and engraved plastic plaque, diptych
51 1/2 x 70 inches (130.8 x 177.8 cm) overall
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee, 2007
Lorna Simpson's deadpan, black-and-white photographs draw from the legacy of 1960s photo-conceptualism to investigate the relationship of image and text. However, as in other art of her generation, a nuanced exploration of identity serves as the foundation of Simpson's work. In Flipside (1991), the artist questions the meaning of what is “natural” in relation to hairstyles and African origins. The left panel of Flipside depicts a black woman with an Afrocentric, natural hairstyle, flanked on the right by a panel showing an African mask, both seen from behind. The work's title, Flipside, thus refers to the fact that both the mask and the woman are seen from the back, or “flip” side. Curving flutes on the mask also echo the “flip” hairstyle of the early 1960s and associate the mask with this refined look. The Afro, a natural style with political connotations, was adopted only later in that decade. The plaque beneath the photos reads: “The neighbors were suspicious of her hairstyle,” suggesting some of the complex social significances of hair. The “B” quality of the flipside of a 45—the popular vinyl record standard in the days of its eponymous hairdo—also alludes to and critiques the way in which notions of hairstyle parallel the reception of African masks in modernism. Both are seen as “primitive” cultural products that inspire and are subsumed into Western art, and yet somehow remain outside dominant art historical narratives.