Lorna Simpson is a multimedia artist and photographer who challenges stereotypes, race and identity through her work. As a multidisciplinary artist, she continues to expand her art style as the world develops and changes around her. Simpson’s photography centres on the Black experience, gender and politics. Her work exemplifies the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Gender Equality, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions by inspiring discussions on racialized communities, gender inequality and prejudice.
Simpson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with her parents and was surrounded by arts and culture. Simpson’s father is of Jamaican and Cuban descent, and her mother is African American. Together, they often frequented museums, art galleries and plays while becoming completely fascinated by all kinds of art. “I was immersed,” shares Simpson in an interview with Aperture Magazine.
According to her Aperture interview, Simpson attended the prestigious High School of Art and Design in New York City, and that is where she was introduced to photography and graphic design. She later received her BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York and later got her MFA at the University of California, San Diego. She developed her skills in documentary photography and photo-text work, which is now a staple of her work.
Simpson adds passages to her photographs to inspire dialogue and offer a different perspective on the images. Another staple of Simpson’s style is her subject's refusal to meet the viewer's gaze. Denying the viewer the ability to make the subject in the photograph submit.
In the 1980s, Simpson pioneered conceptual photography with her photograph-in-text works and large-scale images. A white shift dress became a recognizable symbol of her work during this period. According to MoMA, the white dress “homogenized the different subjects of her photographs” and gave the appearance of femininity without fashion. The simple and textured cotton of the white dress also “evoked clothing worn by enslaved Black people in the American South,” according to MoMA.
Her 1988 print, You’re Fine, comprises four Polaroid prints of a Black woman lying on her side dressed in the shift. The images were dye-diffused and displayed in sequence with each other. Fifteen engraved plaques border either side of the woman and are labelled after directory signs at a medical office, such as "Heart" and “Blood Test.” Above the woman is “You’re Fine" in white block ceramic letters. Below is “You’re Hired,” in the same font and text size. You’re Fine has many interpretations due to the subjective and argumentative nature of the piece. Some read the art as a comment on the dismissal of Black women’s health in the United States.
The words “You’re Fine" are a commonly uttered phrase to women of colour whose concerns are considered insignificant in medical spaces, according to Simpson’s artist statement. You’re Finecommunity, also suggests discourse around the AIDS epidemic and the discrimination against the Black LGBTQ2S+. You’re Fine, brings attention to the injustice and lack of advocation for women of colour and the queer community and conjures the viewer to pay attention to the inequity at hand.
Simpson made history by being the first Black woman to participate in a group exhibition, Aperto '90, at the Venice Biennale in 1990. The same year, her collection Project 23, also made history as the Museum of Modern Art’s first solo exhibition by a Black artist, according to her website. ID stands out in the Project 23 collection, which is made up of two black-and-white silver gelatin prints. In classic Simpson fashion, the photos are accompanied by engraved plastic plaques. The left image is of hair braided close to the scalp, with the word “identify.” To the right, stands a Black woman whose back faces the camera with the word “identity.” She is wearing a black cotton dress. Her hair is curly and cut short, reflecting light.
The difference in words mirrors the common practice of society identifying and stereotyping Black women based on their hair and skin colour. ID, encourages viewers and audiences alike to acknowledge their biases towards women of colour and face them. If one can admit their prejudice it allows the opportunity to challenge and break stereotypes creating a more inclusive environment for all.
In a 2021 interview with TATE, Simpson shares, “It is all risk at the end of the day, I am never really sure if my piece works... The process of making it and thinking about it is interesting and challenging, and that’s 90 per cent of the way.” In the last few years, Simpson has shifted mediums from photography to painting and abstract collage work. Inspired by her grandmother’s collection of vintage Ebony magazines, Simpson’s latest project is called Sky Pin Up and focuses on Black models from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Sky Pin Up, explores the portrayal of Black women’s bodies, hair and identities in the media landscape.
“My work is ever evolving,” expresses Simpson in a Hauser & Wirth interview, “I go where the idea leads me.” Simpson continues to create collages for her Sky Pin Up project alongside an advocate for women of colour, and inclusivity for the queer community in the United States. She is most active on her Instagram page, where she shares her artwork and daily life.