Emma Hanson marks the sixteenth Postcard of the series with Tyler Mitchell’s Untitled – Two Girls Embrace, 2018, which she sees as a celebration of black womanhood, Black freedom and looks to the achievability of a Black utopia.
I recently came across a postcard I bought on my visit to Amsterdam’s Foam Gallery at the end of last year. On the front is the image Untitled – Two Girls Embrace captured by 23-year-old photographer, Tyler Mitchell (b.1995, US), who in 2018 became the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue front cover in the magazine’s 127 year publication history.
This particular work was originally published in Document Journal in 2018 and went on to grow in popularity, becoming the ident for Mitchell’s first solo exhibition, I Can Make You Feel Good, hosted in the Spring of 2019 at Foam Gallery. Also exhibited was a selection of images from Mitchell’s pre-existing work, as well as two audiovisual installations: Idyllic Space and Chasing Pink, Found Red which were premiered in the display. In these, the artist explores the concepts of play and freedom for black youths.
Given the spread of Mitchell’s work, it comes as no surprise that my first encounter with Untitled – Two Girls Embrace had preceded my visit to the gallery. I first laid eyes on it, set within a thin silver frame, astride a bookshelf display in my Landlust airbnb and again, later that day, on Instagram when I looked him up. In physical form, it commanded my intrigue in a way the other artworks and ornaments flanking its surrounds didn’t – couldn’t. My attention was stolen at first by the vibrancy true to the crushed velvet and tousled fur clothing, but it was the story to be told by the two subjects that truly captured and carried my intrigue.
With my visit timed in November, I missed out on the experience of viewing this image as part of the original exhibition, however I found it to be no coincidence that the extremely modern works curated at Foam had by and large been disruptive on many levels from the political to the humane, including Lorenzo Vitturi’s Dalston Anatomy.
Although freshly immersed in the modernity of my gallery experience, it was my previous acquaintance with the image, and the impossibility of surrounding issues to compete with it, that drew me to exit the gift shop with this postcard. As a black woman, its ability to command my attention time and time again had indeed made me feel good.
The image shows two young black women, either within or nearby to a neatly overgrown green space, situated between them and the body of water seen in the background. The women are clad in modern vibrant clothing, with individual colours (pink and green) and textures (crushed velvet and faux fur respectively) opposed in theory and form. The second detail we witness is their complementary half-braided, half-afro hairstyles. We see them engaged in a gentle, unidirectional embrace, each assuming a calmly commanding stance. However, what we do not see is the collective object of their individual gazes.
This unusual tale of Black Freedom – described by Mitchell as Black Utopia – provoked within me a visceral fascination of multi-organic depth, particularly as a black woman. A utopia is “an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens”. Mitchell’s ascription of the word utopia to this body of work is powerful in transforming a seemingly banal image into an accurate depiction of highly desirable, near perfect qualities.
The great outdoors is often used in art to symbolise freedom. Here, the use of an unaltered, natural background that is easily replicable serves to add impact to ubiquity, by grounding us, the viewer, in the shared reality of nature.
Despite the likely purposeful lack of complex composition, the image is striking. Is it because the unembellished existences of the black women happen to also be of great invisibility within society? As with other unwitnessed existences, any attempts made at their articulation can often be met with surprise, especially from those who are engaged in varying degrees of conscious oblivion to the ways in which these existences are obscured – myself included.
Until very recently, I had not been aware of just how unacquainted society was to the completeness of the individual existence of the black woman. Being one myself, I can only best describe it as an existence rooted beyond external depictions within a frame, which often simultaneously allude to and conceal the depths of her inner world – as Mitchell’s photography so cleverly does.
In this image he confronts us with the unshakeable existence of the two women – there is no denying they are almost all that is present in the frame and therefore the main focus. From this starting point, he masterfully directs an image steeped in effectively communicated assuredness.
The two women wear complimentary, yet individualised natural hairstyles which have been crafted by hair stylist Cyndia Harvey. In her work, Harvey speaks to a freedom that is so often stifled and dismissed by the non-black gaze. Aware in her work of the ways in which afro hair is policed, she describes herself as “really [wanting] to celebrate black women, their hair and all the beauty and diversity of it”, having previously explored the notions of natural black hair and freedom of expression in her personal project This Hair of Mine (i-D, 2016). I see the opposing directions of braiding on the two models as speaking to the individuality of each, framing the power their free afros hold in opposition to the opposition.
To me, fashion director Sarah Richardson’s use of bright clothing symbolises the message that skin colour is not a weapon, freedom is. Put simply, colour has been added to add colour. In a fashion world where the means of tokenism are conflated with an end to prejudice, Mitchell shows that the perfunctory has no place in his photography or anywhere else in the wider discipline. This challenges photographers who use black models as a feature of their work to see beyond blackness, while truly seeing it – particularly challenging the inherently contradictory defense used by many who claim they “don’t see colour”. Here, vibrant “candy colour palettes” (Foam, 2019) have been employed by Richardson as a tool to capture the attention of audiences and command it to the complexities surrounding their unfamiliarity with Black Freedom. With nothing else ‘given’ to us, this image confidently affronts widely accepted notions and visualisations of humanity, giving Black Freedom a voice in the conversation.
In using colour, Mitchell and Richardson give blackness visibility in a time that is arguably preoccupied by its erasure. In this image, the two women are allowed to stand out, to be admired in peaceful places such as art galleries or in the palm of your hand on a social media feed, undisturbed, and (hopefully) making you feel good.
In the context of the ongoing pandemic, this postcard strikes multiple chords in presenting to me the very things I appear to be at the precipice of. The setting and close proximity of the models to one another highlights the intimate freedoms that lay beyond social distancing, as we begin to shift out of a national lockdown. Present times have spotlighted the applicability of Mitchell’s work as a criticism of the anti-utopia that persists. As such, I choose to take this photo’s narrative as a prophetic emblem of personal and political freedom beyond the Black Lives Matter movement.
As with the very first time, this photo commands my attention toward a new narrative and gaze through which a Black Utopia may be birthed. Through his creation of this image and the wider I Can Make You Feel Good series, Mitchell employs bell hooks’ Oppositional Gaze. I Can Make You Feel Good can be taken as a message rung true by the rareness of visible black photographer/subject combinations on the main stages in the realms of art and fashion. By virtue of this, Mitchell’s work is a valuable aid to black people for self-identification and existential affirmation, with this image in particular serving to deepen black girls’ identity development.
I Can Make You Feel Good is also the name of the song by Shalamar (1982). In it, are the lyrics “love can be such a challenge, a game where there can be two winners.” It is unclear if Mitchell’s work bears any connection to the song, but with regards to Untitled, I see the winners as the subjects and all and any who interact with them; the photographer, the contributing artists, the spectator, society.
With this image, Mitchell delivers on his promise. The playfulness in styling by fashion director Sarah Richardson, paired with the regalia beautifully translated by hair stylist Cyndia Harvey provide the stark contrast between background and subject that arms the image with an overwhelming autonomy to complete Mitchell’s mission of displaying unapologetic Black Freedom. The image has been constructed in such a way that there is no choice but to look at the two women and concern yourself with what they look towards. It is rightly impossible to know what exactly this is, but this image serves as a starter to conversations around black humanity, visions of Black Freedom and the achievability of a Black Utopia.
- Isaac-Wilson, Stephen, hair stylist cyndia harvey explores the beauty of afro hair in a new short film (2016). Available at: hair stylist cyndia harvey explores the beauty of afro hair in a new short film
- Tyler Mitchell, Untitled (Two Girls Embrace) (2018). Available at: SOLD OUT / Tyler Mitchell – Untitled (Two Girls Embrace), 2018
- hooks, bell, Black looks: race and representation (New York, 1992).
About Emma Hanson
Emma is a South Londoner and amateur writer who first caught the long form writing bug while doing an intercalated degree in Philosophy during medical school. She maintained her interest in Arts and Humanities by undertaking electives in Art and Creativity within Medicine. During her medical career, she co-authored papers published in medical journals – the most recent one is on the topic of Medical Student Wellbeing. She put down the stethoscope and picked up the pen in 2017, going on to help write publicly available healthcare improvement reports as a strategy consultant. She has recently founded the Art and Culture platform, Gold Host, to amplify underrepresented voices within the arts, particularly across the UK and West Africa, and is currently authoring a personal politic which takes into account her cross-sectional interests and experiences. Follow Emma on Instagram @emmakhanson and on Twitter @emmxh
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.