Photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s work is known for nuanced but complex studies of racial identity and her ability to shatter audiences’ assumptions. Bright’s current exhibition, Girls, Grillz, and Guns, currently on display at Sandler Hudson Gallery, ups the ante on Bright’s anthropological insights into facets of black urban culture.
Bright commences her exhibit with a forceful blow. In a saturated life-sized portrait titled L.V., two eyes stares out at us over a Louis Vuitton scarf covering the rest of the model’s face. L.V. boasts all of the stereotypical accoutrements that pop culture has pushed onto young black males: accessories covered in name-brand logos, plenty of bling cascading down the man’s chest, and a pose implying a gun-toting force to be wary of.
After a closer look, however, L.V. appears to be anything but confrontational. His expression is relaxed, and his gun-mimicking hand gestures appear to be playful, perhaps chiding the audience for our initial reaction. The anonymity created by the figure’s scarf allows Bright to create a personification or universal figure for hip-hop culture.
The photographs of legendary rapper Scarface, a member of Houston’s the Ghetto Boys, are slightly more jarring. The prints collectively titled Class C each present an African American male, blurred in the background, holding a gun captured in sharp clarity in the foreground of the image. The mouth of the gun demands the focus and implied submission of the viewer. Bright has assembled the photos in a tight line to present three almost identical images in a row forming a firing line of sorts. The result is honestly intimidating.
Unlike the portrait of L.V., we are not asked to focus on the actual figures, but rather the guns that they carry. This contrast provides an adept observation of the audience’s probable conception of urban black culture as one defined by violence. Despite being photographed in the ’90s, the image’s intensity still holds fast, as mainstream media continues to project the same archetype of black masculinity, and with that, authority.
In the Grillz series, Bright’s photographs are displayed in a grid and depict an intimate closeup of a man’s face. Each brags a mouthful of gold-encrusted teeth, also known as grillz.
While this series seems more connected to the specific identity of her figures, Bright continues her usual practice of maintaining the anonymity of her subjects by showing the eyes of each figure tightly closed. Bright explained that she realized this form of bodily decoration is in fact much like “they were subconsciously referencing their African heritage and expressing themselves outwardly, just like their ancestors did with the adornment of their dress, hair, colorful garments, scarification, and jewelry.”
Both the gun imagery and these grillz stem from the same series, In High Definition, and seem to offer a recording of the material elements of rap culture. These props, both the gold teeth and guns, emphasize the misplaced focus of popular perceptions.
The final element of Bright’s show is her Plastic Bodies series she began in 2003. For these photographs, Bright uses digital manipulation to create part-human, part-Barbie portraits that describe America’s obsession with obtaining the ideal body. While this does not directly relate to black urban culture in the way that grillz and guns may, the recontextualization of this series in a new exhibition provides additional depth to Plastic Bodies as an independent work.
Bright has said of the series that it “[shows] how the cultural icon of the Barbie has become human and we’ve become plastic.” When this concept is paired with the idea of the artifacts of black stereotypes, though, it further stresses the idea of the commercialized and commodified role of personal identity. The MTVs of the world have in many ways stripped the original potency of rap music and replaced it with hyperbolic stereotypes.
Bright’s work succeeds through the rhetorical depth she achieves in her clean and elegant compositions. The seeming simplicity of her work allows the audience to project their own values, backgrounds, and misconceptions onto the work. In many ways Girls, Grillz, and Guns provides a retrospective of Bright’s work and in doing so elevates the discussion to an entirely new level.