Erica Deeman’s photography exhibition of African diaspora women Silhouettes runs at BAMPFA through June 11. Photo: Anastasiia Sapon

Elegant and homey, dignified and self-possessed, mysterious and soulful, the 30 black women captured in photographer Erica Deeman’s new Silhouettes series at BAMPFA make for excellent company.

Filling a spacious but intimate downstairs gallery, the striking portraits, all shot in profile against a stark white background, are the work of an artist whose precipitous rise seems perfectly in tune with our cultural moment. The first comprehensive presentation of the collection of photographs, and Deeman’s first solo museum exhibition, Silhouettes opened Wednesday March 8 and runs through June 11.

“I’ve always had so many questions around the face, about how we look to read and understand the face, and maybe assign assumptions,” says Deeman, 40. “Throughout art history we’ve seen all these faces through painting, sculpture, photography and even literature. With the Silhouettes project the basic premise was how we still in modern day assign certain attributes to the face.”

The English-born Deeman started working on the series while she was studying at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and in many ways it flowed out of her own experience. Raised in the Midlands city of Nottingham, she grew up in a mixed-racial family with her white British father and Black Jamaican mother. Moving to San Francisco in 2011 to study, she became very aware of how people’s response to her changed before and after she spoke, as her British accent revealed her origins.

“I feel that in some way I’m seen in a different way than in the UK, and it drives me to ask these different questions,” she says. “It’s a fascinating journey through life getting comfortable with how you are perceived. Then you come to a different country and that narrative is not granted to everybody that looks like you.”

“Untitled 02” 2014. By Erica Deeman
“Untitled 02” 2014. By Erica Deeman

Deeman started gathering subjects by setting up her camera outside of school and approaching passersby on the street. She hit up friends and posted an ad on Craigslist looking for African diaspora women interested in being photographed. What started as a school project took on more weight when Pier 24 photography director Christopher McCall happened to see one of her images.

She’d been volunteering regularly at the Embarcadero institution, which houses the Pilara Foundation’s extensive permanent collection, and McCall encouraged her to refine and expand the series. Several images from Silhouettes made a powerful impression in last year’s Pier 24 Photography group exhibition Collected.

That’s how BAMPFA director and chief curator Lawrence Rinder first heard about Deeman’s work. The museum’s programming is usually booked out for two years, but an unexpected open slot allowed him to showcase an obviously gifted artist just as her career takes off.

“Her work is really timely, and I didn’t want to wait,” Rinder says. “We had a chance to do something that hadn’t been done. All 30 Silhouettes had never been shown together, and the gallery is magically exactly the right size. I find the images very moving. They’re obviously beautiful, but there’s also a duality of strength and tenderness.”

“Untitled 07” 2014. By Erica Deeman
“Untitled 07” 2014. By Erica Deeman

There are so many ways to take in the images. At first glance the photos appear to be black and white. But hints of blues and reds reveals that they’re actually shot in color. One can enjoy it as a study in the intricacies of black women’s hair, with braids, dreads, carefully coifed Afros, naturals, straightened looks. “There’s so much of the individual in each image, but there’s this collective as well,” Deeman says. “You can take time to engage with the images and see the differences, and maybe look at how you assign expectations in your mind.”

Part of what makes the exhibition so effective is the unified aesthetic. Roughly half the women are posed looking right and half looking left. They are all framed from the shoulders up. Some are more in profile than others, and each is lovingly lit so that her eye and décolletage reflect the light (no clothing is visible in any photo).

It’s not surprising to find out that Deeman spent years working in advertising before reinventing herself as a photographer. Rather than creating a campaign to promo a product or brand, she’s interrogating the history of documenting black women, bringing dignity and affection to a troubled practice that intersects with physiognomy and pseudoscience.

“I recognize certain elements of my experience, a seamless and recognizable visual consistency that you can align to creative campaigns,” she says. “In advertising you have X amount of seconds to sell something or make them feel something. With art there’s the ability to layer the work and create five different entry points.  Advertising is a relatively closed agenda. I want something more open.”

The BAMPFA exhibition would be a major coup for any relatively unknown artist. But Deeman’s work will soon be on view on both sides of the Bay. Her series looking at men of the African diaspora, Brown, opens at Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco on March 24 and runs through April 28. Needless to say, she is thrilled by her work’s reception.

“Sometimes I do have to pinch myself,” she says. “It is a very quick rise. I feel very lucky to have such a great network of people who believe in my work. I have worked very hard, volunteering at arts organizations, creating a network that surpassed anything I could have expected.”

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....