Ming Smith: We Are the Work

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Womb, Cairo, Egypt, c.a. 1990s. 35 mm black-and-white photography, archival pigment print. ©  Ming Smith. Courtesy of the artist.

Womb, Masque, and Weeping Time embody an assertion of love and a sense of belonging—we are the work, even as the world tries to negate our sense of self.



The Women’s Work Issue coincides with the Women’s Work: Art & Activism in the 21st Century exhibition at Pen and Brush in New York City. On view April 10 – August 2, 2019.

To the average person, photography is about looking. Capturing and preserving what exists in the world to one day, perhaps, reflect back on it.

But how does this process change, if your heart’s desire is to create what you feel instead? One could argue that looking and seeing are two different things, just as feeling and sensing are not equal. Think about what matters most to you. What do you love? Is it something you can see and touch, or do you simply sense it in the depth of your bones with every certainty of what there is in the world?

While traditional documentary images evoke a very specific time and place, Ming Smith’s images reveal themselves more as a sensory experience. It’s as if she’s netted ideas out of the air as they float past like fireflies, with their singular brightness and innate deliberateness.

Smith has been called a pioneer and a visionary, striving for a communal wholeness alongside her peers as they steadfastly documented the resilience of their communities, counteracting stereotypes polluting the mainstream consciousness.

Smith, however, shows the love, strength, and dignity in her own way, holding space for others while flipping the narrative on how things are expected to be shown. With moxie, she makes her own rules. This is work from the corazón, just as her name is Ming Corazón Smith.

Masque, Cairo, Egypt, c.a. 1990s. 35 mm black-and-white photography, archival pigment print. ©  Ming Smith. Courtesy of the artist.

In Womb (1992), Smith’s two sons stand in strong martial art stances as she uses her camera to preserve a family trip to Cairo. However, the universe had other plans, inserting its own glitch into the recipe by presenting a superimposed image of herself. Smith becomes an energy carried horizontally across the entire frame—past the pyramid, the sphinx, and over to her sons where she sits, evoking queens and deities presiding over their fortress and fortune. Her wrapped face becomes the window, in which the past and present merge.

In Masque (1992), she sits on that same wall embracing her younger son Mingus. We see this unintended quality again, what she can only explain as a gift. At first glance, one might dismiss the images as captured through glass. But step back and look. Can you see yourself?

Move in and be immersed. See how she is present but hidden by the flower, the lace. She is there, yet obscured by the ghostly images of others. We sense Smith, as she sees Egypt and is transformed by it, while subverting gendered colonial expectations of where and how a woman ought to be in the world.

Weeping Time (1988) involves a purposeful reflection, as Smith’s silhouette is clearly depicted while an elder walks by. In this moment, she is reminded of her grandmother, and the years of experience, love, and pain that come from the wisdom of knowing and seeing too much. Smith envisioned Weeping Time as a reference to and a reminder of the largest sale of enslaved people in U.S. history, where over 400 men, women, and children were auctioned off in Georgia in 1857 as the sky mimicked their tears.

Taken while Smith was in Atlanta, within the image we see a photograph of Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in what is possibly the signing of the 1983 bill that made MLK’s birthday a national holiday. Once again, Smith makes past and present merge and emerge.

Weeping Time, Atlanta, GA, 1988. 35 mm black-and-white photography with oil paint, archival pigment print. ©  Ming Smith. Courtesy of the artist.

Collectively, Womb, Masque, and Weeping Time embody an assertion of love and a sense of belonging—we are the work, even as the world tries to negate our sense of self. This erasure denies our multi-faceted selves and robs the rest of the world from powerful and beautiful possibilities.

History, and art history, repeatedly show us how women have been disregarded and continue to be omitted. Through her work, Smith reminds us that our lives are layered and complex, and it’s okay if unexpected contradictions live alongside each other.

And here, Smith is creator, mother, and photographer. An artist asserting herself—quite literally inserting herself—in ways that confront the invisibility the world has imposed.

In these images, the artist is saying: I am here. You can try to not see me, but I belong.

Miriam Romais is an arts professional, curator, and award-winning photographer whose work addresses topics of home, community, feminism, labor, and food politics. She has exhibited at galleries and museums throughout the U.S. and abroad, including El Museo del Barrio, Museum of the City of New York, and the Smithsonian Institution. For 23 years, Romais was the director of En Foco—a nonprofit that supports U.S.-based photographers of Latinx, African, Asian, and Native American heritage—and editor of its photographic journal, Nueva Luz. She’s currently the Marketing & Strategic Development Advisor for the Center for Photography at Woodstock, and Partnerships Manager for The News Literacy Project.


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