Jackie Nickerson began photographing Zimbabwean farm workers in 1996 as a way to change the perception that those who work in African agriculture are impoverished, unmodern people. The resulting series, Farm, focused on the unique and beautiful clothing the workers made for themselves, and by doing s,o highlighted the worker’s identity, individuality, and ultimately their modernism. Now, with her third solo show, Terrain, at Jack Shainman Gallery, Nickerson turns her attention to the roles in which workers play in the production and commodification of agricultural goods.
The gallery is lined with large scale full body portraits, with each person regally standing in front of the viewer. Nickerson manages to capture her subjects so that they are transformed by that which they are holding. Items which can be found in production sites, such as a plastic tarp, a multitude of crates, a bushel of flowers, seem melded into the person holding them, producing the effect that these are other worldly beings. However the surreal qualities are not overpowering, the effect produced does not seem done so by force through staging – such as is seen within many contemporary works. Rather the beings seem grounded, with the surreal qualities so minute that they could have happened by chance.
With Terrain, Nickerson moves away from highlighting the individual and instead focuses on their integral role to the process of production. Yet, unlike documentary photography which pinpoints the work being done often marginalizing those doing the work, Nickerson shows her subjects in a way which makes them dignified. This can be attributed to the central framing, and the large sizes of the prints, but also to the fact that these are beautifully composed with an attention not only to what is being held, but also to how it is being held and who it is being held by. While there is a distinction made between environment and subject, the backgrounds are defined places, further subduing the abstraction of the subject.
Nickerson spent time talking and understanding her subjects. With Terrain, she creates the sense that these are people who should be appreciated for the jobs they work, in a country where the state support for agriculture is becoming progressively withdrawn. She furthers this by often naming her photographs after the people who are depicted within them. But Terrain doesn’t have the tone of a public service announcement; it rises above that to bring light to a situation by showing the potential majesty of those within it.
Terrain is on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011
January 16th – February 15th, 2014
Robert Hickerson is a Brooklyn based artist, who works with video, photography and performance. He is also a frequent contributor to Lintroller.