Clemence, 2012, digital c-print, 87 x 70 inches.
Jackie Nickerson uses photography to look at Africa today, focusing on the place where land and human life connect: agriculture, which accounts for 70% of employment on the continent and 25% of its GDP. Nickerson visits Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, exploring the ways in which this relationship takes shape in different areas. Though complex, their agricultural practices have gone largely undocumented.
The result is Terrain, a series of photographs that offers a new approach to portraiture, one which completely fuses the subject with their work, implicating people as an agent of change in the environment. Nickerson’s portraits of unidentifiable farm workers show them either harvesting or gathering industrial crops such as tobacco, maize or banana, drawing attention the issue of human intervention in the natural landscape, and how this is altered by crop specialization, subsistence farming, and food security. By erasing the identity of the individual so that the portrait comes to represent the group, Nickerson asks to look at the complicated and symbiotic relationship between humans and the environment. It is not only we who act upon the world, but also we who respond to the changes we create.
A selection of these photographs is on view in Jackie Nickerson at Samsøñ Projects, Boston, MA, now through March 26, 2016. These images were originally published in a book under the title, Terrain (TF Editores). In the introductory text, Cape Town journalist Sean O’Toole reveals one of the more compelling challenges of the project, when looking at a Pan-African dynamic: “Terrain makes no distinction between ethnicity and geography; it erases very real linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences. It is a risky strategy. Although sometimes overstated for effect, there is a common-held perception in the global north of Africa as a vast undifferentiated space.”
Aware of this bias, Nickerson sets out to offer a statement about the shared realities of Southern and Eastern Africa, removing any stale sentimentality from her work. Inspired by realist painters like Jean-François Millet, Nickerson favors the theatrical nature of the photograph while removing the romantic elements from it. As she observes, ““For me, hard labor is a mixture of violence interspersed with very peaceful breaks, where, in this quiet moment, the power and energy of the exercise becomes apparent in the physicality and physiognomy of the person working.”
As a result, Nickerson’s photographs embody an identity that comes of action, rather than individuality. With the face obscured, the archetype of the worker emerges and can be considered on its own terms. Nickerson observes that, “gazing steadily at the point at which one element meets another, Terrain asks us to think about these imprints left by the material processes of work as the evidence of our presence on the earth, and to think about how contemporary human beings, living in a western urban environment, can relate to the metaphysics of the labor which enables our lives.”
All photos: ©Jackie Nickerson. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.