These Six Photographers Honor the Legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe Today

July 6, 2019

The 1980s New York scene was a hub for all sorts of artistic individuals, and an epicenter of a new generation of youngsters who proudly expressed and explored their gender and sexual identity regardless of all the obstacles (especially the horrific AIDS crisis). During that decade photography blossomed, since it was an accessible and affordable medium to use, and one of the most successful figures of the thriving scene was no other than Robert Mapplethorpe, a symbol of the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Robert Mapplethorpe - Grace Jones
Robert Mapplethrope - Grace Jones, 1984. Gelatin silver print, 48.9 x 38.7 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, 1998 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

The Implicit Tensions

Currently on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is an astounding retrospective of the controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe titled Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now and organized by a team consisting of Susan Thompson, Associate Curator, Lauren Hinkson, Associate Curator, and Levi Prombaum, Curatorial Assistant. Aiming to reveal all the layers of a bold, uncompromising and often censored practice of this prolific photographer, it is consisting of the museum’s Mapplethorpe holdings, as the first chapter of a yearlong project commemorating thirty years of the artist’s death in 1989.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode - Every Moment Counts
Rotimi Fani-Kayode - Every Moment Counts II (from Ecstatic Antibodies), ca. 1989. Chromogenic print, 62.7 x 60.6 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Council, 2017.31 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Courtesy Autograph ABP

The Second Part

Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now will be on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 24 July 2019 until 5 January 2020.

The second part of Implicit Tensions will feature the artist’s early Polaroids; iconic nudes; flowers; self-portraits; and images of the S&M underground scene in New York, along with a selection of works mostly made by Mapplethorpe's contemporaries or artists who were inspired by him. See them below.

Featured image: Robert Mapplethorpe - Self Portrait, 1980. Gelatin silver print, 35.2 x 35.6 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, 1993 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode

The first artist on our list whose work was inspired by Mapplethorpe is Rotimi Fani-Kayode. During the 1980s, he made a compelling body of deeply personal photography aimed to tackle his own feeling of a transnational identity as a gay African in the diaspora.

His self-portraits involve the iconography from his Yoruba heritage and can be perceived as an ode to spiritual transcendence which in reality has a significant political purpose.

Featured image: Rotimi Fani-Kayode - Adebiyi, ca. 1989 Chromogenic print, 61.4 x 60.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Council, 2017.34 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Courtesy Autograph ABP.

Lyle Ashton Harris

The multimedia artistic practice of Lyle Ashton Harris is rotted in the critique of the dominant representational canons of race, gender, sexuality, belonging, and various cultural narratives. In a particular manner of performative self-presentation, the artist deconstructs social stereotypes and presents different and subversive kind of (queer) sensibility.

His triptych Americas made in 1987- 88 exemplifies the best his intention to explore the matters of ethnicity, gender, and sexual desire, while the 2018 work titled Untitled (DAD) takes into account articulation of the death of the artist’s father and the potentials of the ritual expressions of grief and mourning.

Featured image: Lyle Ashton Harris - Americas, 1987-88 (printed 2007). Gelatin silver prints, 76 x 50.5 cm each. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee @ Lyle Ashton Harris.

Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon is an established American conceptual artist focused in general on the issues regarding race, sexuality, and identity. By employing intertextuality and an array of references from the visual arts, literature, and history, Ligon creates critically charged works saturated with skepticism and humor.

In 1991-93, the artist made the installation piece called Notes on the Margin of the Black Book consisting of framed pages from a copy of Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book (a chiseling publication consisting of homoerotic images of black men which was debated for objectifying its subjects), and quotations from philosophers, activists, curators, religious evangelists, visitors to Mapplethorpe exhibitions, and various other individuals who reacted to the book.

Featured image: Glenn Ligon - Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, 1991-93. 91 offset prints and 78 text panels, prints, framed 29.2 x 29.2 cm each; text pages, framed: 13.3 x 18.4 cm each. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, The Bohen Foundation. @ Glenn Ligon, couretsy Glenn Ligon Studio, and all Mapplethorpe images @ Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used with permission. Installation View: Moving Pictuers: June 28, 2002 - January 12, 2003. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald @ Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi is an internationally recognized South African photographer who describes herself as a visual activist. Her entire practice is focused on the lives and experiences of the oppressed LGBTQ+ communities in her native country. By capturing both tragic and joyful events and situations, Muholi narrates about the hardships of everyday stigmatization, violence, and loss.

The series Somnayama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness, 2014– ) features surreal and even ghoulish portraits or rather an archetypical queer alter egos (which are the product of animist tradition and contemporary culture) aimed to tackle the possible freedom such a liberated and wild entities may provide, and their revolutionary potential in political sense.

Featured image: Zanele Muholi - Siphe, Johannesburg (from Somnyama Ngonyama), 2018. Gelatin silver print, 50 x 40 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Wendy Fisher, 2019 © Zanele Muholi, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Catherine Opie

The photographic practice of Catherine Opie represents takes a significant part in narrating the queer histories; for several decades she explores notions of community, communal, sexuality and cultural identity. As a matter of fact, by carefully capturing gestures, styles, fetishes, and festivities of a lesbian subculture, she examines the development of other and often subversive codes which suggest strategies of liberation and self-appreciation.

The artist’s early portraits of queer subcultures will be followed with three of her outstanding self-portraits and works from her O portfolio (1999), which is a sort of an homage to Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio (1978).

Featured image: Catherine Opie - Dyke, 1993. Chromogenic print, 101.6 x 75.9 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee, 2003.69 © 2019 Catherine Opie.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya

The last but not the least artist on our list is photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya, whose entire practice is based on the reinterpretation of the notion of studio portraiture from a specific queer perspective.

By selecting the sitters among his friends, lovers or acquaintance, and enabling them to become active collaborators, Sepuya breaks the traditional relation between the subject and the author and underlines both the individual and collective, personal and political. Therefore, his photographs can be perceived as notes on interactions, understanding, support, and well-being of the queer community.

Featured image: Paul Mpagi Sepuya - Darkroom Mirror (0X5A1531) (from Darkroom Mirror), 2017. Inkjet print, 129.5 x 86.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Council, 2018.47 © Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

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