Endia Beal, Performance Review

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Minor Matters Books (here). Hardcover (9.5×12 inches), 128 pages, with 60 color reproductions/video stills. Includes a foreword by Whitney Richardson and additional texts by Priscilla Frank, David I. Walker, and Becky Harlan. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: On the heels of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests this past summer, corporate America has slowly started to acknowledge the fact that it isn’t as diverse and welcoming a place as it needs to be. Many institutions have responded by hiring Black board members and executive-level diversity officers, and have begun efforts to fight systemic racism and bias in everything from hiring practices to salaries, promotions, and career tracks. Efforts like these are a start, but there is still much hard work to do to rethink how our largest companies can function more equitably.

For corporate leaders trying to understand some of the problems and issues Black people actually face in the predominantly white workplace, Endia Beal’s recent photobook Performance Review is a great place to start. It surveys a handful of her projects, in both photography and video, made in the past decade, each an incisive and nuanced look at the realities faced by Black women working in the corporate world.

The largest and most prominent body of work in Beal’s photobook is “Am I What You’re Looking For?”. In it, she takes a large scale image of a long hallway in a corporate office (complete with filing cabinets, office doors, and fluorescent lighting) and sets it up like a portrait studio backdrop in the homes of various 20-something Black women. She asks each woman to dress how she would for a corporate job interview, and then has her pose in front of the backdrop, creating the appearance of being inside the office. Each image combines this portrait illusion (along with a few of the surrounding details of the woman’s home along the edges) with snippets of her thoughts on corporate America.

What might seem like a mundane setup turns out to be freighted with all kinds of complexity. From their personal comments, it is clear that Beal has selected a group of well-educated, talented, and ambitious young women, all of whom understand that that they are entering territory that will often be unfamiliar to them and may in some cases be hostile, but they are ready for the challenge and are universally out to change the world for the better. But given these uncertainties, how to present themselves professionally becomes an inherently conflicted position – everyday choices of Black style (hair, nails, shoes, fashions, and even behaviors) and the stereotypes (largely as seen by white people) that go along with them may prevent people in the workplace from seeing their talents accurately. In its most backward looking manifestations, corporate America too often reflects white male culture not diverse American culture, and so just getting dressed for work for a young Black woman becomes a minefield.

Beal’s portraits smartly capture this dissonance. Almost every image is filled with subtle tension, where individuality is being overtly controlled and suppressed (on purpose), but flashes of confidence still break through. Modest blouses and dresses, dark blazers and pantsuits, hair tied up tightly or straightened, and simple jewelry feel like uncomfortable concessions, but they are quietly balanced by long nails, stiletto heels, blown out afros, extended braids, and even a pair of Chuck Taylors. Beal’s portraits also take in the edges of her sitters’ rooms at home, extending the visual fight between corporate conformity and personal culture, the pictures of family members, trophies, rugs, sofas, and other furnishings providing context for who these women are and where they come from. Seen together, these photographs powerfully mix a strong dose of optimism, drive, and commitment with a consistent undercurrent of discomfort and uncertainty. It’s a sharply conceived body of work that will provoke plenty of questions for those that look closely.

Beal goes further with the subject of women’s hair in her photographic series “Can I Touch It?”. Again, the conceptual setup is straightforward – she has given various white women hairstyles typically seen on Black women and then photographed them in corporate-style portraits in dark blazers and white blouses. The effect is unexpected and often incongruous, but again points to more nuanced issues of having to perform a certain role at work, including changing your hair to fit the constraints of the environment. The inversion of seeing white corporate women with cornrows and twisted braids incisively highlights how differences of personal style can influence institutional judgments of appropriateness or even competence.

Beal has also worked extensively in video, and Performance Review tries to capture the essence of those various projects in book form. While it is difficult to get a feel for the power or subtlety of a video from just a handful of stills, “Mock Interview” certainly has a structure that could create resonant friction. In it, Beal has gathered together a group of young white men in interview suits and asked them the kinds of discriminatory questions asked of Black women, filming their responses. The questions are provocatively insulting and inappropriate, including why they have such difficult names and whether they would change them, whether they are lying about having children, what they think of workplace drama, and whether they would be willing to change their hairstyle for the job, finishing up with condescending comments about how well they spoke in the interview and how they seem so competent. Their reactions to being questioned in this way are full of recognition of just how awful and confusingly improper and unprofessional this kind of treatment is.

Other video projects probe equally disconcerting territory. In “Office Scene”, Beal lets white male colleagues touch her hair, forcing them to dig their hands in and then talk with her afterward, their awkwardness and illicit embarrassment accenting the dehumanizing effect of such curiosity. And in “9 to 5”, Beal interviews various Black women about their experiences in the workplace, the shared stories revealing everything from microaggressions and outright racism to more subtle underestimation and suppression.

Performance Review is an inspired example of how art can surgically probe seemingly abstract topics like the rhythms (and biases) of the American corporate workplace. Beal’s projects are tightly conceived and executed but easily approachable, resulting in photographs and videos that are layered, complex, and surprisingly rich and thought provoking. Her no-nonsense photobook is an admirable early-career summary statement from a young photographer clearly willing to grapple with uncomfortable realities.

Collector’s POV: Endia Beal does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artists directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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