Behind the Mask: Photographers Reflect on Black Vulnerability

by Rachel Morillo

We Wear the Mask



A densely packed group show, We Wear the Mask foregrounds contemporary photographic takes on Black desire, rage, and vulnerability. Curated by D’Angelo Lovell Williams, the show reflects themes in his own practice — specifically the pulling from personal history and experience to call attention to the layers of Black lives. Like the famous Paul Laurence Dunbar poem the exhibition takes its title from, each piece treads a fine line between revealing truth in its rawest form and remaining opaque to those without this shared experience.

The featured works draw viewers in closer, enticing with the promise of an intimate reveal while maintaining a critical distance through their reliance on symbolism or abstraction. In three black and white photographs of varying sizes from Keisha Scarville’s ongoing series Mama’s Clothes, for example, clothing acts as a surrogate for the artist’s late mother, allowing Scarville to surrender completely to her weight or hold her delicately in her mouth. Somewhere between portraits and still lifes, the photographs are meditations on loss which conjure new relationships to other realms.

This theme of embodiment through objects is reflected across the gallery space in a trio of images by Nakeya Brown, whose work focuses on the politics of black beauty and womanhood through still life images, as well as AK Jenkins’s self-portraits in the next room, which use sports paraphernalia to open up questions around gender/masculinity.

Some of the featured images use literal masking to project intimacy or familiarity without revealing too much. Clifford Prince King’s photographs of quotidian moments, for instance, speak clearly of Black queer desire while also enshrouding his subjects in mystery through his framing and composition. Similarly, Faith Couch’s installation represents Martin Luther King’s famous speech from the March on Washington as a photograph of a moment. Employing redaction — famously associated with the FBI’s own surveillance of the Civil Rights leader — Couch’s appropriation highlights King’s rage and indignation above calls for peace.

Despite a strong thematic thread woven throughout, the space often feels too overstuffed to let each work breathe. Still, together they speak of the pain and triumph of Blackness through gritted teeth, masked in serenity and beauty. Wearing such masks means never revealing the true extent of one’s pain or interiority, but also highlights the power in knowing the world can only see what one allows to be seen.