Even now, years later, artist Sheila Pree Bright’s memory is seared with the early critiques of her 2006 “Suburbia” photography series, currently on view at Barrington Hall in Roswell.
The color photographs are of African-American, middle-class, suburban Atlanta homes. But a good bit of the feedback Pree Bright got back then was the equivalent of an African-American actor being told by a white director that she is not acting black enough.
As Pree Bright tells it, the criticisms — leveled during the Sante Fe Prize Photography Awards— were by respected curators, consultants and photo editors. Here’s what they reacted to: a minimalist, white, great room with chairs by Parisian designer Philippe Starck in the background and a child’s toys strewn at the foot of sleek stairs in the foreground; hot pink heels and a matching handbag at the foot of an entryway bannister; a formal dining room with a gleaming Georgian sideboard and Chippendale-style chairs.
So what was the issue?
“They loved the pictures, but they said they didn’t have enough signifiers in them to show that they were black homes,” said Pree Bright. “And I said, ‘Like, what are you looking for, collard greens and fried chicken?’”
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The signifiers were there, but subtle, like shadows: Among the toys at the foot of the stairs is a black doll’s head with hair that a child has begun to braid. In the living room beyond the entryway is a large, full-length rendering of a young black woman; a blurred reflection of the black lady of the house is visible in the mirror beyond the sideboard.
“What those comments showed me is how seriously a stereotype is ingrained in a person’s mind,” Pree Bright said. “They expected certain things to be there and they weren’t.”
Some might say the 40-something photographer was being too sensitive or even misreading the critiques. After all, “Suburbia” did win the Sante Fe Prize that year. But challenging preconceived notions has been grist during Pree Bright’s 11 years as a fine artist. Though she’s well known in local art circles and had a solo show at the High Museum in 2008, her career has picked up steam in recent months and has gotten the sort of national attention that feels like a career breakthrough.
In the past six months her work has twice been the subject of glowing articles in the Huffington Post, including one on her public art series “1960 Who?” It features unsung veterans of the Civil Rights movement rendered in larger-than-life portraits on buildings from the Old Fourth Ward to the south side of downtown. Her depictions of black life earned her a featured spot in “Through a Lens Darkly,” a documentary about African-American photographers that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month. And her “Plastic Bodies” series, an arresting meditation on body image that combines bodies of real women and Barbie dolls, was one of the most talked-about offerings in the “Posing Beauty” exhibition at the Spelman Fine Art Museum last fall.
The “Suburbia” series will be on view at Barrington Hall through Feb. 28 as a part of Roswell’s Black History Month celebration, “Roswell Roots.” This is not the first time the works have been shown in metro Atlanta, one of the last times being 2008 at the Fay Gold Gallery. And yet, how Pree Bright came to have her work on the black middle class exhibited in a suburban plantation home thought to have been built by slaves is its own story of turning stereotypes on their heads.
Pree Bright was born in Waycross, but her early childhood was spent in Germany as an Army brat, then hopscotching across the U.S. with her parents and three siblings. Even then the seeds were being sown for a career that explores what it means to be considered the “other.”
The family usually did not live in cities with large black populations. And while Pree Bright knew what it meant to be black within a family, the cues given to her by people in Kansas, Colorado and Germany suggested that being black was not associated with being good. More than a few times she heard the n-word used to describe her.
She didn’t pick up photography until her last year at the University of Missouri where she was majoring in textile design. The camera provided a new path.
“I found I could speak through the camera and people would listen,” she said.
Eventually she moved to Houston, where her work photographing rappers in the city’s burgeoning gangsta rap scene taught her about the artifice and reality of the music. These were mostly young, black men who’d grown up poor and become part of a violent gun culture, but who had found a way to channel some of that energy into disturbingly dynamic, and some say destructive, music. She spent time with them in some of the city’s roughest areas and over time they came to respect her enough to allow her to photograph them, some carrying their guns. Even now, she says she was too naïve to be afraid, too curious about the lives they led that wasn’t documented in their lyrics.
“I asked if their guns were real and they’d just laugh at me and say, ‘Sheila, you’re like a white girl in a black body.’ ”
She has shown the series only once in a group show. She’s unsure whether she’ll exhibit it again (though she has included some of the images in lectures) because of stereotypes: young, black men with guns. But their stories are more nuanced than what she was able to capture back then on film. Even now she’s worried about perceptions.
“Sheila approaches her work, particularly with African-American culture, with a major different angle than some other photographers because her formative years were spent in Germany,” said Tina Dunkley, director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, which has Pree Bright’s work in its permanent collection. “It has a level of subtlety that speaks to the undercurrents that drive people. So, I find her work refreshing.”
Pree Bright moved to Atlanta about 1997 with her husband, musician Jeryl Bright, formerly of the group Cameo. She continued looking at folkways from the birth of the gold teeth/grillz phase in “Gold Rush” to everyday moments like hanging laundry on a line to dry in “Urban Soul.” But it was her senior MFA thesis at Georgia State University in 2003, “Plastic Bodies,” that caught the notice of the local and national art community. Eleven years later it is still her most recognized work. At the time, she was looking at the growing craze for hair-extensions, colored contact lenses, implants and other image-altering procedures.
“I was thinking about how black women feel about their bodies and how our bodies don’t fit that ‘ideal’ standard of beauty,” Pree Bright said. “But now you see white women who want to twerk, and plump up their lips and butts. We’ve all become all about the illusion.”
Part of the series is on view at Clark Atlanta Galleries, and it was also included in last year’s Spelman show, “Posing Beauty.”
“It perplexed people because they couldn’t figure out which body was plastic and which was a human body,” said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman museum. “And by presenting Barbies and women in a fragmented way, she’s making a larger comment on how figures and individuals are reduced. I see a direct correlation between that series and “Suburbia” because she’s successfully posing challenges to ideas about expectations.”
Sally Hansell is the curator for the show at Barrington Hall. She thought the series would be especially provocative: the juxtaposition of work by an African-American woman and a home that once was part of one the largest slave holding plantations in this area. “Untitled 13,” the composition of hot pink heels and bag, hangs above a mantel in a front parlor of Victorian settees and lace curtains. On a table is a tea service that looks as though it has just been placed there by household staff.
“The presence of these photos in the house underscore the history of slavery,” said Hansell. “The irony of them being in Barrington Hall is, it’s a history that’s not always talked about in antebellum homes. It may bring a new conversation.”
Pree Bright said she is eager for the work to have its own silent conversation with the house.
Back when “Suburbia” was shown in Santa Fe, one consultant had another take on the work. He was white and told the artist that he didn’t understand its point. The homes pictured didn’t look any different from his home, he told her.
“I said, ‘That’s the point! To show our commonality,’ “ Pree Bright said, as though the exchange happened yesterday. “If we could get past the stereotypes, we could see that.”