For the institution that first acquired Ming Smith’s work 40 years ago, and for the artist herself, Projects: Ming Smith marks a full-circle moment. Smith was the first Black woman to have work in MoMA’s collection, and at long last, the museum is recognizing the breadth of her artistic contributions with a solo presentation.
The exhibition signals the continuation of a partnership between the Studio Museum in Harlem and MoMA/PS 1. Organized by Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, and Oluremi C. Onabanjo, associate curator of photography at MoMA, the exhibition foregrounds Smith’s critical place in the canon of art history and the medium of photography. It brings together works, many never before exhibited, from nearly 30 years of her career, at a time when institutions are acknowledging nonwhite artists in record numbers and highlighting artists who’ve been working for decades.
Born in Detroit and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Smith attended Howard University, majoring in biology. She took a photography course that changed her life, though, and after graduating in 1971, she moved to New York, where she worked as a model to support herself while taking pictures in her spare time. The Black Arts Movement was flourishing in New York City in the 1970s, drawing together authors, playwrights, musicians, and visual artists. Black artists were creating initiatives and forming groups to support each other, and a short year after moving to New York, Smith joined the Black photography collective, the Kamoinge Workshop, as its first and – at the time – only female member. The photographers in Kamoinge, founded by Roy DeCarava in 1963, were determined to use art as a vehicle for social change, and through her distinct style and approach to light and shadow, Smith has solidified her place in history as a progressive photographer with exceptional improvisational and technical skills.
Among the 52 black-and-white images in the exhibition, some bear witness to the groundbreaking work of Alvin Ailey, who founded the first Black-owned American dance company; others document Smith’s journeys with her family to Egypt; depict dancers captivated by music, as seen in the blurred figures in African Burial Ground, Sacred Space (1991); or capture images of everyday life, from children walking down busy New York City streets to a man cueing his pool stick to take a shot. “My work is spiritual,” says Smith, who at 73, has the energy and tenacious spirit of someone decades younger. She later adds, “Images are political. There’s power in having autonomy over our own image.”
That observation pulled me back in time, summoning memories my mother shared with me about her experiences being a young Black woman growing up in America during the Civil Rights Movement. I recalled the years I’d spent visiting my grandmother, who lived in Florida when I was a child, where segregation persisted decades after Jim Crow laws were deemed unconstitutional. The surrealism of America’s hypocrisy lingers: How can one be asked to pull oneself up by the bootstraps without a boot or a strap? Dehumanizing stereotypes of Black people in visual culture strike me as abhorrently inaccurate in the face of Smith’s lush and exuberant images of jazz musicians; ballet dancers; Harlem streets; a mother and child traveling by bus. It caught me by surprise that her images could elicit so many feelings about what it means to be Black in America and the importance of agency and autonomy over oneself.
“A photograph is the beginning of so many things. It’s a portal into so many worlds,” remarked Onabanjo. “I hope people can take away that [her] pictures can make you feel things through movement, through light, through texture.”
This is where Smith’s strength lies: she conjures the essence of places and people through her use of movement and spontaneity, blurs and shadows, images that are at times out of focus, scenes captured at unusual angles. Postproduction techniques and double exposures create a depth of textures resulting in an ethereal quality that cuts through to the heart of her photographic inquiries, imploring audiences to tap into the universal quality of the human condition. In Black Dance and Ailey – Praise (both 1981), we see two images of Ailey’s seminal masterpiece, Revelations, which tells a story of grief and joy through gospel songs, blues records, and song-sermons. Smith’s poetic use of light – which glints off of a puddle at night in one image or shimmers off of Sun Ra’s cape in another – to illustrate life at its most banal as well as its most vivacious. Womb (1992), a masterful photograph taken of her sons in Egypt, features the Great Sphinx and the Pyramid of Giza in the background. Upon a closer look, Smith herself appears through the haze of the pyramids and stone bricks. Invisible Man, Somewhere, Everywhere (1998), of a lone man on a cold city street who nearly disappears into the shadows, feels as potent in its confrontation with racial tension as the year it was taken.
Folasade Ologundudu is a writer, podcast host/creator, and multidisciplinary artist whose work explores issues of identity, race, and culture as it pertains to art, fashion, and design. She is the founder of Light Work, a creative platform rooted at the intersection of art, education, and culture.