My Conversation with Tiffany Smith About Her Work, the Commodification of Culture, Immigrant Identity and The Subjectivity of Being a Woman
I visited Tiffany Smith's studio in the summer of 2018 while she was subletting from a friend. When I come to visit her, I get out of a cab on a lush, tree-lined, wide block in the heart of Bedstuy and immediately pivot on my heels in two directions looking for what might resemble a studio building. There are waves of people crowing out of the nearby subway, and I'm a little perplexed since I don't see anything like that. Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder and spin around to see Tiffany's wide welcoming grin. She is sort of giggling at me for looking so confused. We laugh and hug, and she quickly leads me up the stoop of a beautiful old brownstone, unlocking the heavy wooden front door and ducking through a second smaller door just inside that one. We descend down a steep staircase, into the basement.
Tiffany's space is a simple, concrete room illuminated by clamp lights and overhead florescent lights. The room is filled with all the tricks of her trade. She is a multimedia artist with a photography background and a penchant for the theatrical. Her work consists largely of staged photography sessions and elaborate installations featuring elements like colorful lighting, playful patterned, geometric wallpapers, real plants, plastic plants, and various props. It's interesting to see her studio, because one can find most of the props she uses both for the photos and the installations. The real and the artificial co-mingle in an interesting way.
On the Subjectivity of Being a Woman in the World
When I sit down to talk with Tiffany about her work, one of the first notions that comes to mind is the prevalence of a female empowerment motif. Her series, "A Woman, Phenomenally," in fact features various portraits of immigrant women in almost warrior-like poses, seated in front of staged backgrounds, staring at the camera challengingly and frequently wielding some kind of prop related to their heritage. In another series she photographs people in "throne chairs," wicker chairs with a tall arching back that feel throne-like. Although this series is not specific to women it still feels like it's about empowerment, perhaps more of the idea of empowering people of color or marginalized communities, since these are primarily the subjects she focuses on. But regardless, the female empowerment motif comes through in all that she does.
I mention to Tiffany that I sense this vibe. We both laugh, and she questions sarcastically,
Do you want to tell us about that?
Sure, yeah, because I am a woman of course, and I have this certain subjectivity about being a woman in the world.
She elaborates explaining what all women know– that there are certain things about life and specific "bullshit" as she calls it, that only women have to deal with. She explains that it naturally follows that she would make work from that perspective, and this covers everything from power dynamics, to procreation and menstruation. As an example, she reminds me that she had to cancel a meeting we had earlier in the week, specifically because she had intense cramps. She muses that this is not something men have to deal with.
Is a man's productivity ever directly impacted by something like this? She asks rhetorically. Of course not.
This launches us into a discussion about procreation. I observe:
It's still some sort of bizarre expectation of women. It's scary that that expectation is put on those of us who aren't doing it.
Yeah, I'm thinking about that a lot nowadays and how we are still such a patriarchal society that that is the way we are judged. People still ask Oprah, "why don't you have kids?" You can be Oprah, you can be a self-made billionaire... [and still have that expectation] Are you asking Stedman the same question? Not to downplay the importance of having children or producing life, but is that the pinnacle of what we have to offer?"
The Personal Verses the Cultural & Culture as Commodity
Tiffany was born in Miami and grew up between Miami and Nassau, Bahamas. Her Mom is from Trinidad/Guyana, and her Dad is from Jamaica. She talks about how her upbringing and multi- cultural background have influenced her work.
Looking at it retroactively and thinking about my interest in community... I think it also has to do with finding a place. Thinking about displacement, shifting through different homes and finding a place to be rooted. At the end of it, the center is in you, so it's a journey to find that place. I think this is what my work is circling around.
Self-portraits helped me figure out how to bring out of my subjects what I wanted out of them.
Building an aesthetic and a visual language, and thinking about posing and lighting and staging, and bringing all those references together... it was a challenge to learn how to pull all those things together effectively.
For Tropical Girls
Tiffany had a solo exhibition called "For Tropical Girls" at The Wassaic Project Maxon Mills Gallery in 2017. I had the good fortune to see it in person. The exhibit featured photography, installation, and video. The center of the room was inhabited by one large installation of a kids' blow up swimming pool, oddly lit with an artificial feeling pale purple hue and surrounded by blow up palm trees, real and fake ivy, ferns and aloe plants. The plants were elevated on little iron shelves and trivet like objects that felt like something that would be in your Grandma's backyard. The blow-up swimming pool contained another smaller blow-up pool nested inside and creating a sort of a pancake stack of pools.
The entire scene, with its' purple lighting and plastic plants, feels playful yet artificial, fun yet nostalgic. But there is also something unsettling about it. It is so odd, kitchy, plastic. There is something saccharin sweet about it, like too much Sweet and Low in your iced tea. Or that moment when you realized your grandmother isn't just collecting stuff— she's a hoarder.
Surrounding the central installation are various fabric hangings, photographs and other works, surrounded by bits of plastic ivy tendrils, draped between them. In one photograph Smith is pictured wearing a Walt Disney sweatshirt, loudly patterned cheap looking pants, and a fake flower in her hair. She stands perfectly still with her hand on a rolling suitcase. A printed backdrop of a bridge that is badly painted hangs behind her. It looks like the type of photo that you take outside of a cruise liner after you've stepped off the boat. (Smith later tells me that this image was sourced from a vintage postcard about 7 Mile Bridge, which connects the Florida Keys to the rest of Florida.) Nods to tourist culture and also Caribbean culture run throughout the work.
I ask Tiffany about these themes.
You're pulling all this iconography from your Caribbean heritage?
For one of her installations entitled "5 Kings" Smith photographed her nephews in a series of "throne" style chairs. She describes them as gilded, gold chairs. This was before she attended graduate school around 2011-12.
My sister has 6 children and two step children. I call them the Rasta Brady Bunch [laughing]. From my niece down, all of their hair is locked. They had these really nice chairs. I sat each of [my nephews] in the chairs. They are used to it and are hams for the camera now. I took individual portraits and one of all five of them on the throne/couch together. I used those as my first experiment in my first semester of grad school. This was the first photo-based installation. I started making wallpaper and floor coverings using decorative concrete block patterns, and terrazzo tile patterns.
My ambition was to meet the viewer at their point of understanding. There are a lot of stereotypes about the island of Jamaica in general, and around Rastafarianism. People's associations go straight to Bob Marley or weed. So, I bought all of this stuff on Amazon and on at the dollar store I found a whole gang of weed leaf party beads [..] I made a beaded curtain out of the weed leaf party beads.
You had to go through this beaded curtain and into the space, which is appointed with elements featured in a typical Caribbean home. There are shoes strewn around on the ground, all in Rasta of Jamaican colors. On the wall the photos of my nephews in the throne chairs were mounted in a cross formation.
It feels reliquary-esque.
Yeah, It's like a shrine. But I don't want it to allude to the idea that the life is gone. I want to celebrate their life and existence. The way I placed them in there - the shoes are scattered around as if they just came home and threw their shoes off like kids do.
Info Pollution: Hashtag Thoughts and Prayers
This brings me to wanting to discuss another installation of Smith's that I also fortunately got to see. It's called "Panic Room," and as most of her installations are, it is site-responsive. It can be moved from venue to venue without losing its' basic meaning and structure, because it's sort of malleable or scalable for the environment. I saw "Panic Room" installed in a gallery in Harlem called Long Gallery in the fall of 2016.
I created a hovel, a temporary structure, using industrial blue tarp, cut up and strung up in triangular flag shaped forms... and layered them, mounted them to a movable wall to create a nook space. The idea is to create a protective shell space that can be put up very quickly and taken down very quickly. The idea in creating it was responding to the space in Re:Art Show in the old Phizer building [originally].
This was the first show. They invited artists to come and respond to the space, but it had to be able to put up and taken down quickly, so I played more into the temporality of it. What I was responding to in that piece was the media attention surrounding police sanctioned violence on black bodies. It was an alter to actual lives that were lost and the surviving women. It was about creating a space that was meditative. It's like an altar to actual lives that were lost and their loved ones that remain traumatized.
After sifting through a site that lists every death at the hands of police, I settled on choosing four prevalent cases, largely because the emotional weight of scrolling through thousands of names was immense to bear. For me the turning point was the Philando Castille shooting because of the way it involved the media and the camera. The cases that I referenced all involved the victim dying on camera - Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott ... Philando Castille... it happened on Facebook live. You can literally die live on camera, and people still don't value [believe]. I wonder what happened to that 4-year-old girl. That officer saw that child in the back of the car and still pulled the trigger – forever traumatizing that child. The way we interact with images is something I think about a lot. Because of how disposable images are nowadays. Distributing those images helps to raise awareness but also re-traumatizes.
That leads us down the proverbial rabbit hole in discussing the prevalence and ubiquity of media and particularly violence in the media and sensationalism in the media in contemporary society.
How does the prevalence of media contribute to a post-truth society? How do our reactions change from over-exposure?
You don't even think about what it means. How do people die on camera in front of you and people still dispute whether or not there is an epidemic of violence?
People say we are in a post truth culture. And you would think the prevalence of image would make more truth. But it's flipped on itself. And the images are so pervasive and common.
We privilege things that are mundane. Celebrities and people making bags of money in this capitalist society. People who are assholes in front of the camera.
Right. Everything is the same tone and intensity. It can be some bullshit celebrity story which is on par with kids in Thailand stuck in a cave and also Donald Trump doing terrible things.
Now you can make a post about it and bring some attention to yourself. It functions back into this self-serving wave. Why are you really motivated to share this information? Even if it is to say, I'm the one who shared it. I'm just doing my part... is that completely selfless? You can't help everyone. There is no way for everyone in the world to be helped.
There will always be tragedies and things that deserve our hashtag thoughts and prayers [..] because half the time people don't want to actually DO anything.
Commodification and the Way We Construct Identity:
We segue into a discussion about immigrant identity and how it is constructed and affected by being in the United States. Tiffany's work addresses this in various ways, but primarily as an entry point for the viewer i.e. many of the spaces she creates in some way reference a home whether it be a traditional home or whether it be the hovel-like structure of "Panic Room."
I can look at the iconography of one of your background sets [for your installations], and I can look at the patterning of this piece of cloth, and I think of the plants and it reminds me of the Caribbean, and I can look at the astroturf, and that makes me think of America. But I can also look at the fact that you have this juxtaposition of real verses fake. And I find it really interesting, because this is telling me more about one of your cultures, which is American culture which is all about plastic, reproducible bullshit.
It's a couple of things. It's definitely about commodification. About how culture is commodified. How I can go on Amazon and search "Rasta" shoes or.. It's also about the way we construct identity. It's even more prevalent now that we craft this version of ourselves with social media.
And the experience of coming here as an immigrant is all about that. It's about crafting a version of yourself. It's a choice between choosing to assimilate. There was a time when that was more socially acceptable. That's what you would do. You would come here and try to assimilate into this cultural context.
That enters the conversation about interior spaces and protecting that sacred space of the home, because in immigrant families and communities that's usually the place where it can be appointed in a way that reflects yourself and your heritage and where you come from and it's also your place where you are most free to be yourself. In public you have to code switch and put on another face or another mask to keep your job - hide your dreadlocks, for example. But when you come home you can appoint the space how you choose. You need that psychologically, you need that sanctity, that safe space.
I see your work as this sort of externalization or merging of your heritages. But then you show me an older piece that is definitely about the home, and I think it's really interesting to think about culture as currency in that context.
That makes me think about when I was developing this work. There's this book I read heavily while I was developing this work. It's called "Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home" (and there's a documentary and an exhibit as well). It's set in the Caribbean diaspora in England and [is about] the process of setting up this elaborate front room and the different aesthetics that were present there. That's where the patterned wallpaper comes from. There are decanters, a wooden plaque of Jamaica, artificial flowers, images of family...
It's like a showpiece. You don't use the front room. It's an area for presentation. It's about being able to show off your wealth and your accomplishments. It functions with an added level of importance when you are moving to a new place and make a better life.
The way that America functions as a super power, particularly in the islands. People look to America for input. The way you look out at America from there– there's more opportunity. There are more consumer goods. There's a toxic relationship that goes on there.
While your work brings up these topics, it's also joyful and exciting and beautiful and interesting and strange and also feels personal enough to your experience. Obviously, there are certain installations such as "Panic Room" that feel like you are more directly addressing these things, but a lot of your work indirectly references these things. Sometimes work that feels too "hit you over the head political" can be less effective.
Yes, the questions and the problems I'm trying to bring up in my work is not just me saying, I'm oppressed. Rather than repeat the problem, I'm trying to contribute to the solution.
Your work also comes across as like a joyful celebration...
Part of that is definitely intentional. It's like setting it up like a tourist trap to lead you into this thing, and then there it gets a little darker and a little heavier...
It is simultaneously a funeral and a tourist trap.
Our conversation drifts toward what Tiffany is currently working on. She gestures toward the current set-up in the studio. There are fake plants, astroturf, a concrete block and a little tube of fake Halloween blood.
This one's getting pretty dark. I'm going to place myself in the center of it. I'm going to put fake blood. I will be free bleeding, menstruating. [laughing sort of manically]
Shout out to my horror movie fanatic roots and my John Waters fan-ship. I love a little gore and a little twist. I'm thinking a lot about those issues about what we go though as women.
I knew I loved you.
We both devolve into a chorus of giggles and continue talking about her new work. I'm excited to see how it manifests. Tiffany tells me more about her projects that are in progress, and somehow, we bookend our discussion by bringing the topic back to the expectations of women and procreation. I think as women of the same age group who are kind of at that age where this becomes more of a pressure, we naturally slide into this kind of discussion.
Do you think of your work as your baby?
It's the only thing I have– myself and my voice.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.