Essay
Fri 23 Feb 2018 - 9.00

The Project

Imperial Courts is a voluminous and intricate body of work concerned, at its root, with the constancy of community among the black and brown residents of a housing project in Watts, Los Angeles. The work comprises three hundred and ninety-three black and white photographs, as well as a series of videos produced inside the housing project, spanning a period of twenty-two years from spring of 1993 to spring of 2015.

The work was commenced in response to the insurrection that followed the acquittal in 1992 of four LAPD officers filmed savagely beating Rodney King. The work was concluded during the combustible spring of 2015, when Americans again took to the streets in protest and insurrection. This time they did so at the death of young, black, unarmed Freddie Gray from a severed spinal column suffered while in police custody.

Thus this work is framed by a violence Dana Lixenberg chose not to describe in her images—a violence whose spectacle she refused even as she set about making pictures. But Imperial Courts is nevertheless inseparable, not merely from the bookends of this twenty-two-year history, but from the symbolic violence, and the visceral inequities that result from the equivalence in American life between blackness and threat.

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Lixenberg’s project not only spans a generation, but comprises pictures that singly and reciprocally register innumerable generational changes in the lives of many families. A pictorial index that runs to one hundred and fourteen pages at the rear of her beautiful book marks the name and date of each subject photographed in the work. A majority of these portraits are ringed by further miniature pictures, which are laid out like the tesserae of a sprawling family mosaic around each central picture.

It is through a dynamic reading between these images that we can begin to take some fractional measure of a cruel contrast that develops quietly throughout the work: the residents of this neighbourhood change—often dramatically—from picture to picture, but the condition of the setting of the photographs simply does not. Despite the eruption of interest in south central Los Angeles that followed the release of the Rodney King video in 1991, despite the vociferous public concern, despite the wellspring of outrage and fellow feeling, little here seems to have changed.

Hairstyles have changed dramatically if we compare young China’s rollers from 1993 with the bob her daughter Tye sports in 2013, but each wear oversize circular earrings that seem to echo down the years, forming a genealogical bond, but equally symbolising a kind of repetition. If styles reliably recur over time, we know too that for black America history keeps on repeating. Thus Tye now has her own Rodney King video, albeit Eric Garner was strangled to death—his killers spared the indignity of even an indictment for the commission of a capital crime.

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So what is it to be black if one’s “relationship to their racial group … is crucially forged by incidents of physical and psychic violence”? 1 What is it to be black in America, or what do these photographs suggest that it might be? Lixenberg’s earliest photographs from 1993 suggest that it is frequently—perhaps continually—to be wary of white attention, wary of exposure, circumspect about a reciprocal encounter between strangers, even within the precincts of one’s own home. These early pictures reveal a mettle in their subjects that seems tempered both by civility and prudence, but the photographs never shake a vestigial sense of the portrait’s genesis in confrontation. After all, what were these people to think of a pale-skinned, gregarious, brown-haired Dutch woman gamboling around their homes with a 4x5” camera in the wake of the Rodney King verdict?

In some instances, the gaze of a photographed individual beyond the edges of the frame seems to anticipate, or to suggest an imagining of their future absence. Thus portraits of B in 2008, or of Coco, Maureen, Dean, Fisher or Wayne in 1993 are both statuesque and memorial. Such pictures are compelling and complex in their tendency to collapse words such as ‘life’ and ‘expectancy’ into uneven simultaneity, leaving us with open-ended questions.

It is precisely in the seductions of these ambiguities that the virtues of so many of these pictures lie, since such ambiguity forces the aperture of our interest open wider, solicits greater attentiveness, alerts us ever so diminutively to life’s inherent mutability and contradiction. Such ambiguity is a virtue in these pictures because it is a response all too often excluded from the limited menu of encounters between black bodies and white power in America. Lixenberg’s photographs cannot relay to us the substance of the lives of those people that they depict. But they can register their beauty, their ambivalence, their grace or their stoicism as traits inherent to a group of people whose humanity has little purchase on the forces that police their lives.

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I write this essay eight days into the first term of President Donald J. Trump, in a period of tumult that is inseparable from the tenure of America’s first African-American President, Barack Hussein Obama. For those of us who presently find ourselves inside the borders of this vast, powerful country, and for countless millions beyond it, the sands are already shifting rapidly beneath our feet.

In these few days since the inauguration, the legitimacy of constitutional rights, the binding nature of federal law, the notional equality of religious belief, even the status of observable fact have all been called into question. They have been questioned not merely to buttress inflammatory rhetoric, nor solely in skirmishes over ‘optics,’ but at the level of policies that strike at the very foundation of people’s lives. We now live daily with the threat that we may awake tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, to discover that we are perched at the verge of a catastrophic precipice.

But this new dawn is not new for many people in the United States, least of all for the millions of African-Americans of whom some few hundred are depicted in this exemplary work. If we find ourselves shocked to discover that the goalposts have suddenly and inexplicably moved, we should recall the dubious status of facts in the Rodney King trial whose verdict served as a triggering point for this series. The fact of a video that depicted criminal abuse in harrowing detail did nothing to prevent the acquittal of those LAPD officers; to the contrary, it served as an evidentiary basis for their exoneration.

What those images, or the images of Eric Garner’s lynching, should teach us in the present moment is that it has been the tradition of this country to honour those facts which serve the orthodoxy of white power and of white privilege. Moreover, they should warn us that where that power and that privilege sees itself under attack, no custom, no precedent, no law, no institutional restraint can guarantee our protection against any effort on the part of power to cripple its actual or imagined enemies.

The residents of Imperial Courts likely know all too well that freedom is free to the extent that it does not trouble the status quo. They know this because their lives have too often been testament to the fact. They know this because black people have protested these injustices for decades—with and without the benefit of photographs, or of video—and learned that they are simply not in a position to speak truth to power in pursuit of justice and equality. As Judith Butler wrote of the Rodney King video, “what the trial and its horrific conclusions teach us is that there is no simple recourse to the visible, to visual evidence, that it still and always calls to be read, that it is already a reading…” 2 Thus if we are concerned with justice, we might begin with an effort to create the conditions in which we can hear subjugated people speak.

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Dana Lixenberg’s series—whether in an abridged exhibition format, or in the comprehensive structure of a book—affords us an opportunity to explore the continuity of a community whose faces bear the traces of time, and of familial inheritance. The time encapsulated within the images in the series already serves as a yardstick to measure our own shifting present, and the extent of each image’s identity with the future will reflect the depths of our capacity for social and political change.

In this light, it is especially noteworthy that Lixenberg produced a special edition of her book to be released exclusively within Imperial Courts after the work’s completion. These were distributed to the all the residents of the project, so that the pictures now live in the homes of those people that they depict. Thus Imperial Courts is a series whose significance in relation to history remains equally in the hands of those people that it represents. What we make of the work now as art seems of lesser significance than what they might make of it as history in years to come.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is a photographer and a writer who has contributed essays to publications by Vanessa Winship, George Georgiou, Marton Perlaki and Paul Graham, been an artist-in-residence at Light Work, guest edited the Aperture Photobook Review, and written for Aperture, FOAM magazine, the Barbican, The Photographer’s Gallery and Rutgers University Press. His debut monograph, One wall a web, is forthcoming in 2018 with ROMA Publications. He has lectured at Yale, Cornell and The New School, exhibited at Light Work, Vox Populi and Aperture, and is a faculty member in the photography department at Purchase College, SUNY. 

  • 1. Elizabeth Alexander "“Can you be BLACK and look at this?”: Reading the Rodney King Video(s)” in Thelma Golden Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994] p. 91
  • 2. Judith Butler “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” in Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, ed. Robert Gooding-Williams [London: Routledge, 1993] p. 17