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Resisting the controlling image: collage as a subversive tool

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Eidetic photomontage is a tool to render the invisible visible, subverting the erasure of Black women in image-making

Countless controlling images of Black women persist that either render them invisible in the spatial environment, or render them as specific characters without their consent, determination or awareness. As defined by African American academic Patricia Hill Collins, controlling images are produced by media and institutions, and ‘are designed to make racism, sexism, poverty and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable forms of everyday life’. Controlling images do not simply perpetuate ideas of prejudice, but perpetuate ideas of prejudice constructed by members of dominant groups and institutions in society, whose manipulation of the identities of marginalised groups works to the benefit of the governing system. Collins summarises this origin by writing that ‘the dominant ideologue of the slave era fostered the creation of several interrelated, socially constructed controlling images of Black womanhood, each reflecting the dominant group’s interest in maintaining Black women’s subordination’. 

In architecture, we seldom see images of Black women in accessible historical accounts. Contemporary renders and architectural media have maintained this tendency to omit, while Black female artists and spatial practitioners increasingly resist this absence by occupying and imagining futures where they are explicitly considered. This imaginary can be realised through eidetic photomontage, where photographic images are characterised by compositional cues that create links – even if subtle – to realities, stories and histories. These types of collages can be created physically or digitally, and tend to rely on resituating photographic images into new settings with intentions to provoke critical discourse, rather than simply display the idea or environment. Eidetic photomontage employs fiction through collage-making, as a means of revealing that which goes unseen, tends to be overlooked or might emerge. 

An image of a choir with a subtitle reading 'Indeed we are black people' is set at an angle, apparently placed within a computer-generated rendering of outer space with nebulous shades of purple and blue – over the image, concentric circles of light in pink and white form a plane overhead

Tabita Rezaire’s Premium Connect montages digital images and footage, reclaiming Eurocentric ideas of the internet and cybernetics, and connecting them instead with African spiritual systems and ecologies

Credit:Tabita Rezaire

The origin of photomontage can be traced back to the Dada art movement; fast forward to the 1960s and we see the emergence of offices such as Superstudio and Archigram proposing new urban ideas, advancing photomontage as a medium of speculation and critique. Introduced by Blake Belanger and Ellen Urton in their 2014 essay ‘Situating Eidetic Photomontage in Contemporary Landscape Architecture’, eidetic photomontage builds on these collage predecessors but differs in its explicit conceptual nature ‘to catalyse generative ideation, open dialogue, and as the Dadaists aspired towards, harness the potential for connecting art and life’.

Eidetic photomontage is a medium to resist, subvert and dissolve controlling images of Black women in spatial environments: an opportunity to not only increase representation but also to communicate diverse modes of cognisance, meaning and being that can inform how we approach our complex spatial environments. ‘The promise of photomontage rests not only with a finished product’, Belanger and Urton argue, ‘but with its power to catalyse ideas.’ 

Eidetic photomontage can be seen as both conduit and vessel; used by those concerned with the context, subject or idea, it can generate both a conduit for sharing lived experiences and a vessel for archiving histories and spatial conditions. The collective reading and production of eidetic photomontages by Black women distils the fluidity of everyday experiences into vignettes that highlight issues and ideas, while representing snapshots of history in a growing archive. The contextual challenge of bringing visibility to that which remains invisible in architectural historiography is a matter of how our conceptualisations are currently archived. This remains only partially in our control as spatial practitioners, acknowledging the speed and magnitude of how digital media and the internet of things disseminate, monetise and organise our visual manifestations. 

Layers of black and white paper photographs are positioned in a collage that appears largely abstract, but the image of a man sitting and drinking from a glass can be made out

Thato Toeba’s Thinking about ‘Formal’ Power and its Contact with Different Pockets of Intimate Power, 2021, subverts the absence of Black women in image-making, centring a cut-out figure of 19th-century South African Sarah Baartman

Credit:Thato Toeba (flattendacurve)

This concern becomes particularly obvious and difficult when sourcing images for collage artists, as online search engines tend to generate image results of Black women blatantly revealing the archetypes of current controlling images. Reflecting on the process of creating public aGender, a digital platform of visual collages that I developed to glean and share spatial experiences and ideas of safety by gender-based violence survivors in Cape Town, this proved to be a consuming challenge. There was no option but to sift through triggering pages of Black women, either as impoverished African women, promiscuous curvy sexualised Black women, domestic workers, middle-class bouncy-haired light-skinned Black women and, certainly not least, black silhouettes of white women. To resist these images, artists and practitioners resort to alternative sourcing methods. The processes of uncovering history by individually sourcing and capturing materials identifies collage as a culmination of archival research and ethnographic approaches. 

Legacy Russell writes in Glitch Feminism that even though our digital traces might be manipulated, capitalised upon and deployed, the increased presence of intersectional bodies that transcend the bureaucratic violence of a single tickbox remains a key component of why the internet still matters. The work of artist Tabita Rezaire constantly reminds us that the internet is a space of corruption and power, organising and giving preference to controlling images. Through digital performative video and image collage, her work attempts to disrupt this algorithm, reclaiming personal worth, Blackness and spirit in what she refers to as ‘digital healing’. When those subjugated to controlling images use the internet to reclaim space, the eidetic photomontage becomes a vignette that reflects this process, and even an active conduit revealing a political moment. This is apparent in Rezaire’s Premium Connect video collage installation that ‘explores African divination systems and quantum physics to (re)think our information conduits’. 

A colourful and dense photomontage includes stones, the repeated head of a golden cow sculpture, a person looking in a hand-mirror in formal or ceremonial attire, the figures of children running over the palm of a hand, and more

The work of artist blk banaana (Duduetsang Lamola) challenges a hegemonic and violent Western perception of reality through collage and digital image-making; A Sigil for 20/20 Vision, 2020

Credit:blk banaana (Duduetsang Lamola)

The internet has played a significant role in the production of moving collage images and the dissemination of ideas and conversation through social media platforms such as Instagram. The bureaucratic violence of the single tickbox that Russell speaks of resonates with the spatial images created of Black women and those dominant images that omit Black women and their voices in the process of production and dissemination. Premium Connect shares a conversation between Rezaire and Nigerian philosopher Sophie Oluwole, in which they discuss how scientific intelligence objectified by the West needs to retrieve the multiplicity of its character, recovering connectivity with what has been omitted – in this case African divinations such as the Nigerian Ifá system, one of the earliest computing sciences. 

The process of collaging distils moments of consolidated archival material, sparking thoughts and reflections of alternative storylines from the sourced material. We see this in Thato Toeba’s 2021 collage Thinking about ‘Formal’ Power and its Contact with Different Pockets of Intimate Power; the recognisable silhouette of South African Khoikhoi Sarah Baartman (who was exhibited naked in 19th-century European freak shows, grossly reduced to a sexualised, uncivilised and othered body) is framed by layers of silhouetted negatives. This suggests a space that confirms the absence of Black women, and further subverts this absence through a focus on the Black woman as central yet persistently erased. The eidetic photomontage provokes an introspection and inquiry into the details of histories and forces us to critically reflect on our connection to these histories. 

An image made from colour blocks of silk sewn together shows a person in a wooden chair set outside, reading a magazine. in the background there is a car and city blocks visible behind trees

Exquisite Fantasy, 2014 is one of Billie Zangewa’s hand-sewn silk collages that make the everyday lives of Black women visible, empowering bodies systemically erased and controlled through mass image-making

Credit:Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin

Photomontage presents an opportunity to display the realities and overlooked aspects of everyday life and their implications for informing design. Eidetic photomontages that resist prevalent controlling images are then not literal representations of reality, but devices for communicating modes of cognisance outside canonical thought, or, in this case, those common among Black women, giving value to those spatial practices in everyday life that play a role in the built environment. An example can be seen in the silk tapestry collages of artist Billie Zangewa, portraying the everyday experiences of women’s lives in South Africa and, in creating these visuals, enacting what she calls ‘daily feminism’. The delicacy of the fabric colours stitched together to manifest scenes and characters creates an in-between medium: painting, collage, photograph and tapestry. By centring Black women, her work brings a joyful visibility to the mass of images that either invisibilise, patronise or scandalise Black women in domestic settings – what she refers to as ‘embodying the most disempowered human form’. 

Contemporary spatial practice calls for further leaps in advancing approaches to collage that tell a story of the now. The current moment is one characterised by multiplicity, which asks how we might convey many voices through our visual practice. As a collective activity, eidetic photomontage suggests processes of learning and unlearning through questioning, challenging and formulating the visual. This process is underpinned by values of intersectionality, which could add more methods to social cartography, responding to British journalist and academic Gary Younge’s provocation in his book Who Are We?: ‘The question is not whether we all have identities, but whether we are all prepared to recognise them’. The process of recognising, or of unfolding, is as valuable as the finished image. The product itself, or the collage, represents an artefact for reflecting on the process. 

For Black women, this can often be a therapeutic process, unpacking trauma where words cannot hold and where images speak louder. In participative development processes, where vulnerable groups are invited to tell their stories, this method becomes especially meaningful as both conduit and vessel, in that representation of Black women, for example, cannot be represented as a single collage but can give a nuanced description of context when read in conversation with a collection of collages from these multiple voices. This collective fabric begins to tell a story of shared environments without homogenising or reverting to quantitative trend deductions. Ultimately, collective production of eidetic photomontages, serviced by the visual production skills of a spatial practitioner, can become a mode of advancing socio-spatial mapping while ethically resisting dominant images. The public aGender project formulated its process on these principles of ethics, conduit and vessel, visualising eight different stories for each participating survivor of gender-based violence in Cape Town; all were women of colour and experience life in varying ways made evident when read in a collection. 

A grid of collages show people in various scenes in both urban and natural environments. their eyes are covered by blue strips of colour

Khensani de Klerk’s public aGender project includes spatial collages that communicate ideas of safety experienced by gender-based violence survivors in Cape Town

Credit:Khensani de Klerk

We can only speak from where we come from: that is, the people and places that form us through our encounters so far. Embedded in our subconscious is an inherent intersectionality of experiences. Eidetic photomontage presents an opportunity to communicate those intersections, foregrounding instinct through the process of making, trusting that this instinct derives from a set of spatial experiences. Given that architects have the technical skills to manifest these narratives visually, it becomes crucial to formulate them in conversation with others as a collective. After all, as Belanger and Urton put it, ‘the technical capability to create photomontage should not supplant thoughtfulness or a quest for deeper meaning’. Resisting controlling images is a collective task, whether through production or reading. 

It comes as no surprise that as Black women, we centre Black joy in these eidetic photomontage scenes, taking control ourselves of the controlling image and resisting it by representing ourselves as who we are and, further, who we aspire to become. Black eidetic photomontage is a design task driven by a creative desire only possible through the coming together of unexpected images, staging often absurd but plausible events, daring to imagine alternative futures through the voice of Black people. This process negates the idea of any single interpretation, inviting the audience of the collage to engage critically and participate intellectually in exploring the ideas embedded in the visual material.

This medium not only resists controlling images, but also focuses on what Belanger and Urton refer to as ‘ephemeral phenomena’, bringing us closer to understanding the effects of otherwise invisible social, political and economic forces while simultaneously rendering ourselves visible in the process. Resonating with Collins, ‘by persisting in the journey towards self-definition, as individuals, we are changed. When linked to group action, our individual struggles gain new meaning’. We exist amid our individual and group experiences, overlaying and intersecting through collage, reflecting and looking to the future eidetically, learning about one another and ourselves, rendering it all visible. 

Lead image: Nature/Culture, 2016. Credit: blk banaana (Duduetsang Lamola)

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