Stefanie Jackson, Bluest Eye

Stefanie Jackson, Bluest Eye, 1999, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches (Georgia Museum of Art), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Shawnya Harris, Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diaspora Art, and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Georgia Museum of Art, looking at a painting called the “Bluest Eye” by Stefanie Jackson, faculty member at the University of Georgia here in Athens.

Dr. Shawnya Harris: [0:14] Professor Jackson’s work has always been fascinating to me because there’s always this surrealist tinge, with all these cultural references to novels, to history. This is an example of one of those types of paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] This does reference Toni Morrison’s debut novel from 1970, “The Bluest Eye”. This was a novel that was set in Morrison’s own hometown in Ohio. The two figures that we see are presumably the two main figures in the novel.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] The figure to the left has one blue eye and one brown eye. Her face looks like a mask. You can see where the mask would attach to the top of the head. You can see the little holes, so her skin, in a ghoulish way, is attached to her face.

Dr. Zucker: [0:58] But the ghoulishness of these figures has been imposed on them, the result of violence, of bigotry, of hatred. And so this painting, and I think the novel, is concerned with this collision between innocence and adult violence.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] The other figure looks almost like a Shirley Temple type with blonde, curly hair. She holds a doll. Then you see these hands that are disconnected from a body with these long fingers that look rather garish. It’s kind of scary.

Dr. Zucker: [1:28] The way in which they’re cropped by the edge of the canvas seems to echo the way in which the young girl on the left’s right hand has been severed.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] When you look at the way that the hand is severed, it’s still holding a piece of hair. But you can see that the artist has a streak that comes down that does connote the whole idea of blood and disembodiment.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] She wears a light dress that exposes her right breast in a way that suggests perhaps an adult’s view of her body.

Dr. Harris: [1:59] It’s almost like a blooming sexuality. If you look at the sunflowers around her, this whole idea of fecundity or fertility that’s emerging in contrast to, if you look at her arms and her wrist, they almost have a little heaviness or muscularity of an older individual, much like the hands that you see to the right.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] The novel, and this painting also, contrasts ideas of beauty and ugliness. We see this young girl. There’s beauty in those eyes, but that mask-like face is cracked. It’s been so disfigured. Yet we’re surrounded by those beautiful, luminous sunflowers.

Dr. Harris: [2:36] The sunflowers surround her head in a decorative manner in much the same way that the ribbons on the tips of her braids frame her face. It’s also interesting that the petals of the flowers mimic the curvature of her hair. There’s this whole idea of natural beauty that’s somehow distorted.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] Look how the petals of the rightmost sunflower dissolve against her hair, so that they become translucent, so that we can see through to her hair. That’s something that the artist does in a number of places in this painting. If you look at the corner of the table, it becomes oddly translucent, so that we can see the tiles of the floor through it.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] There is this surrealistic quality, because you realize that the figure is both inside and outside. There’s this part of her that’s in nature, that’s outside of the house, but then there’s the other part that’s inside of a kitchen. There’s even a visual connection to popular culture.

[3:33] If you look at the cup and saucer, you can see this mirrored image of what looks like an outline of a brown face with a red hat with a tassel on it. That immediately brings to mind the Banania brand of a popular chocolate drink that showed, in a caricatured way, an African grinning man.

[3:53] And even if you look above at the four figures in the background, they also resemble another racist trope, the Mammy figure, a corpulent Black woman who was a slave and who was proud to serve.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] What we’re seeing, I think, is the physical but also the psychic violence that that does to especially children who grow up in that kind of environment. It’s so interesting that what we’re seeing here is a focus on young Black girls. In the long history of art, how often has that been a subject?

Dr. Harris: [4:28] It’s interesting that the artist, and the novelist Toni Morrison, are African American women who are trying to change that narrative and repossess the representation of Black women — or Black girls in this sense, who would become women — in a painting like this, and the references that are being suggested.

[4:49] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Shawnya L. Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Stefanie Jackson, Bluest Eye," in Smarthistory, August 19, 2021, accessed June 11, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/stefanie-jackson-bluest-eye/.