Photographs by Endia Beal
As a graduate student at Yale, Endia Beal studied photography. But her time working in the school’s IT department provided another kind of inspiration for her career. In that office, the desire a co-worker expressed to touch her hair, a common and discomfiting experience for Black women, became fuel for artistic interrogation. In the eight years since, confronting the meaning of that query and others like it—“peeling back the layers of the onion,” as Beal describes it—has yielded an array of visually compelling and intellectually provocative work. In one short film, Beal asks white men the questions Black women are often asked in interview settings: “How many children do you have?” “Do you always wear your hair like that?” “Would you be willing to change your name?” Beal’s new book, Performance Review (published this month by Minor Matters Books), continues this exploration of how race, gender, and work intersect, with a particular focus on the lives of Black women.
The images shown here, all featured in Performance Review, are from the series “Am I What You’re Looking For?” Attired for job interviews and photographed in front of a white-collar-office backdrop placed in their homes, the young women are elegant and yet, according to the professional culture of this society, out of place by virtue of their Black womanhood. “When you are not deemed professional,” Beal told me, “your personal space becomes invaded” by touch, gaze, and entitlement. I told her that looking at the images, I felt a tension between the sartorial culture of Black American women—in which elegant grooming is a source of delight and pride—and the frequent messages that we are inherently unprofessional. Her work, Beal said, “is about having to conform to a space that wasn’t made for people of color. Where we were never imagined at the table to begin with.”
The book makes one of Beal’s observations abundantly clear: “The history of Black women in photography is still being written.” As one of the foremost contemporary authors of that history, Beal makes art that illuminates truths of human interaction.
This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “Am I What You're Looking For?”