“Four Women” combines powerful photos with words
Wednesday 29 October @ 14:55:03
by Hannah Lewis
J. Otis Powell! spells his name with an exclamation point and demands truth, sincerity and accountability. He has dreadlocks and disarming gentle eyes. Bill Cottman is an engineer with the aesthetic of someone who likes clean lines and smooth surfaces. He was drawn to the majestic scenes of Ansel Adams until he discovered black photographers like Roy Carava depicting everyday life. Cottman and Powell! are artists presenting their prose and photography collaboration “Four Women: Stories of Freedom, Identity and Responsibility,” at the Katherine Nash and Homewood Studio Galleries in November and December.
The 10 sequences of Bill’s photographs and J. Otis’ text that make up the exhibit are arranged like a story book. In fact, a book is what Bill intends to turn “Four Women” into ultimately. J. Otis is inspired by Bill’s pictures of his mother, Evelyn, mother-in-law, Patricia, wife, Beverly, and daughter, Kenna, not because he knows three of them personally, but because of the idea. In an age of celebrity worship, “we are making a big deal about four women who are not celebrities,” he said.
J. Otis Powell! writes about this photo of Beverly taken by Bill Cottman in early seventies
Wisconsin as part of “Four Women: Stories of Freedom, Identity and Responsibility”
I met the two men in a coffee shop in late September to look at and talk about the collaboration. Bill opened a three-ring leather-bound binder, complete with scale print-outs of all the sequences in the show. He withdrew the sequence “Beverly: Basic Training,” and spread the pages out on the table for me to look at, laid out as it will appear on the gallery wall.
J. Otis began reading the text aloud as I studied Bill’s photographs. “The image in the blurred background is unmistakingly African: her mystery and her immortal beauty, attest to her intrepid personality, one which she inherited from Ancient Egypt.”
These words were inspired by a photograph of Beverly, a young black woman in the early seventies, buying groceries at a country store in Wisconsin. She is in the background and in the foreground are three older white people—two customers and the clerk. The three in the foreground are looking away from her with expressions that could be interpreted as disinterest or disdain. They turn their heads from “a past they refuse to see, the herstory of their ancestors,” a reference to Africa as the birthplace of humankind.
She is centered and slightly out of focus, looking straight ahead with an expression of resolve and mild irritation.
To J. Otis, the story in the photograph is racism, unmistakably. She’s the only one with any humanity in this picture, he observed. I impulsively almost asked, as if in defense of people who could be my neighbors or relatives, how do you know what they are thinking or feeling? But I bit my tongue because that was not his point. As an African American originally from segregated Alabama he knew the story innately. “More deadly than Cancer, fear gnaws at our souls like greedy termites in the very structure of a dwelling we know as home.”
J. Otis finished reading the first paragraph and my hand holding the grocery store picture twitched. Bill, alert for my response to how the words flowed with the images, pushed the next page of photographs in the series toward me. J. Otis’s words then became celebratory as he talked about the ancient Egyptian, Nefertiti, translated as “the beautiful woman has come.” My eyes wandered over pictures of Beverly dancing, of her young face reflected in a mirror as she put on eye makeup, and of Bill’s younger saucy girl pulling down her glasses to look back into his camera lens.
“How could those sharing the frame with this woman acknowledge her beauty without feeling ashamed? How could they look upon her with reverence and not denounce the iniquity they have been trained to believe? Then again, how could she, in their midst, not be as beautiful as her training has made her?”
J. Otis finished the oration as I came to the last photograph of a distant silhouette against a bright white sky on the moonscape of a sand dune, one arm outstretched as if gesturing.
“Today speculation persist that she was seen traveling to the future and is still among us,” he finished.
Bill and I both exhaled. For me the relief came from not having gotten lost on the journey. Through it, I saw a story book character come to life—an unwavering black woman in the background of arrogant white order catapulting into the foreground of her own life as dancer, mother, grandmother and lover.
Bill is present in the photographs because the lover, mother, mother-in-law and daughter are his family. But in telling his own truth with skill in his art form, he creates a world open to interpretation. Likewise, J. Otis’ poetry confirms truths not biographical, but universal, like hatred and love.
Four Women: Stories of Freedom, Identity and Responsibility is a 2002 McKnight Fellowship Photography Exhibition by Bill Cottman and text by J. Otis Powell! The whole project is spread across both galleries; “Beverly: Basic Training” will be at the Katherine Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota, West Bank Arts Quarter. Nov. 1 to Dec. 19. Opening reception, Fri., Nov. 7, at 6 p.m. Homewood Studio Gallery, 2400 Plymouth Ave. N., Mpls, Nov 2 to 30, 2003. Opening reception, Sun. Nov. 9, 3-6 p.m. Artists’ performance/talk on Tues., Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.