Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Women and Photography

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KIRA TIPPENHAUER

Kira Tippenhauer. "Four Points of Suspension," 2011; photography, mixed-media collage, 12x12 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Kira Tippenhauer (b. 1986) was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She came to the U.S. for college, earning a B.A. in international relations from Elon University and an M.F.A. from Miami International University of Art and Design. Working primarily in photo collage, her work addresses the politics of visual representation and the codification of queered bodies, broadly defined. In small formats, Tippenhauer combines mutilated self-portraits with facsimiles of scientist/artist Ernst Haeckel's illustrations of animals and sea creatures, creating new "specimens" that a scientific racist like Haeckel might have created to support fallacious theories of polygenism, an 18th-century notion that humanity evolved from different species. Pieces of string tether her disembodied limbs to her collages' backboards, emphasizing the pseudo-scientific scrutiny queered bodies have endured over the centuries. Mounting these collages in shadowbox frames further suggests her investigation into the making of meaning and "the order of things" delineated by Western epistemological models, which are used to establish what knowledge is and how we come to know it. Although Tippenhauer only arrived in the United States in 2004, her position within the African diaspora reflects key changes occurring in the black arts and cultural landscape of the U.S. Many immigrant artists from Africa and the Caribbean are relocating to the U.S. or working between the U.S. and their home countries, mostly for political and economic reasons, thus shifting the experience of African diaspora from the abstract, where it has resided for centuries in the mainstream consciousness, to the concrete. Tippenhauer's case also reveals the diversity and complexity of African diasporans' relationships to blackness. Tippenhauer is a light-skinned black woman with long, wavy hair. Born in an ethnically ambiguous body and raised in a cultural landscape where her beige skin tone, and the privileges it granted, automatically re-classified her as blanc (French for "white" and Haitian code for not "African" or, at the most basic level, not black), she only discovered her blackness when she arrived in the U.S. Her situation, and that of many other immigrant artists, proposes the idea that blackness, and even the entire concept of race, might exist only in relation to whiteness, and is therefore only a construct.

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