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The Woman in Black

It was many years ago, almost a decade when she came to look at Displaces/ an Exhibition on the Theme of Refugees at Shoreditch Town Hall. She was dressed in black. Was she black? Not for me, not for a Mediterranean eye. But in Britain, the city where we met, she is often called a black artist. Black, a colour that stands by her like a claim, like the assertion of the French singer Barbara in her song: “Je suis la Longue Dame Brune”. It took me a few years to discover that anna sherbany not only dresses always in black, takes photos in black (and white) and claims a Black identity but that she has turned the colour into a quest, a conceptual exploration, more: into an artistic pursuit per se. But anna too is born on the shores of the Mediterranean and her black and white photography is impregnated with the contradictions and grey shades of these shores that have known many exchanges and mixtures and witnessed coexisting truths before black became the opposite of white and white the other side of black.

The gazes of the artist anna and her lenses are always subjected to the needs of her concept, but they never fail to beat with the heart of anna the woman, the generous observer. There is enthusiasm and plenty of warmth behind the ideas and in their formulation; this is why you hardly ever see a celebrity, a star or a superhero in her rich portfolio. Her portraits are those of friends, neighbours and acquaintances for it is not charisma or glamour that she is seeking but the ‘texture on skin’, the depth of the folds and creases accumulated through the years on and in our bodies. Her aesthetics are that of the beauty of living and the marks drawn on our skins by the act of living.

 I am looking at her series of portraits exhibited at Woman Art Gallery in New York in 1979. Un-Naked presents men and women, placed in exactly the same space, under the absolute same light and photographed amid the same furniture; the framing is repeated faithfully, only (only?!) one element is altered: the subject is photographed once fully dressed and then totally naked.  ‘Un seul être vous manque et tout est dépeuplé, said  the French poet. (One person is missing and the whole world is empty).  And I feel like saying after Lamartine when I think of Un-Naked: ‘a piece of cloth is taken off and the whole meaning, the entire visual message is transformed. anna was still a young art student and - maybe unknowingly or out of pure self-preservation - she raised a question that became fundamental to a generation of artists and cultural analysts a few years later. The question of identity as a social construction through dress codes determined by the gaze of the others and its repercussion on the making of our own identity is still pertinent and pressing today, more than 25 years after anna showed her Un-Naked in New York.
The visitors to Un-naked were ‘trapped’ in a room where they could not avoid looking at themselves while looking at the images. A large mirror faces them as soon as they step into the room. They were bound to ‘put themselves in the picture’ and interact with the images. The gallery was no longer a container-space, but a forum for dialogue. Here again, I am amazed by anna’s discreet and pioneer creation.

 There is also the series of portraits, Divided Selves- juxtaposing photographs of women posing twice: once in their ethnic outfits, their ‘original’ selves, and then dressed in western style. The artist intervention is in the staging: When dressed in their ‘original’ selves the women look outward from the frame and when their western selves are portrayed, they look directly out at us. Many readings come to mind from the project Divided Selves first shown in Stuttgart at Brigitte March Gallery in 2002, and later at Ben Uri Gallery- London a group show of the International Jewish Artist of the Year, 2004. Yes one can speak of the symbolism and power of dress and looks as a maker of identity or as an agent of empowerment, but it is impossible to ignore the effect of nature versus.societal, spontaneous versus. learned when faced with these powerful juxtapositions.
I look at anna’s portfolio and I pick up another series of readings of the body in space and in colour: A black torso on a white sheet, a white body embracing a black partner both entangled with their own shadow. Entangled physically and metaphorically in the negative reflection of colour politics.

anna clicks again and again on her camera as if she is reiterating and repositioning her questions. She stages her set, places and replaces her model, moves her lights as if she is trying to reformulate the questions that never stop haunting her: her place and ours within the confines of a picture where gender, colour and private - public spaces seem to have been positioned for a unique taking.
The Juxtapositions of anna sherbany cannot be misunderstood. For me the artist is questioning natural vs. societal, colour and colonial hierarchies, the gender dialectics within these parameters. In her work she proceeds as a director in a play in which the theatrical set is a stage conceived to better explore the roles that have been imposed on her/us and presented as objective realities, or as natural-instinctive. The visual pleasure created by the photographs, the dilemmas and ambiguities of the work’s final image (for the artist and the audience) speak of the richness of the art, for like in any true art work, there are no blunt messages, there are no clear limits between black and white, between the negatives and their hardly touched positives. The woman in black is the artist of black and white and that of many shades of grey in between.
Maybe I needed to work with anna sherbany to better understand her approach to creativity and her deep involvement in her art: when we embarked on the project maianna Productions, an exhibition exploring meaning and identity through the reconstruction and manipulation of the posters advertising the cult movies from the sixties, I realised how much anna is first and foremost a photographer; a woman with a camera in her bag. I observed the perfectionist in her snap shooting and endured her insistence on taking the original photograph again and again instead of resorting to the genius ‘cheating’ of Photoshop. Our Graduate was a young black man, not older than Dustin Hoffman, only darker. Our Lolita was an Oriental woman sucking the pipe of a Narguileh instead of licking a lollipop, but anna was at her happiest when she placed discreetly a black and white image of the corpse (whose discovery kept Antonioni’s film Blow-up going) under the surface of our manipulated and multi-coloured poster advertising the film. 
Poetry can both delight and disturb. It can interest folks. It can upset folks. Poetry can convey both pleasure and pain. And poetry can make people think, wrote Langston Hughes. Looking at anna’s portfolio, I think of Hughes words and say photography is black and white. anna’s photography is both pleasant and disturbing. It makes me think.

Mai Ghoussoub
Writer & Artist