Martine Barrat: Independent 2022May 5th - May 8th, 2022
The ground has sound: Images of Martine Barrat
The images are living moods.
Flickers of a feeling find frame through the lens of Martine Barrat.
A flash of a smile. A pleated skirt pirouetting in the street… grandfather’s loving hand propped on a cane leans on the small of my back…a whispered secret in cupped hands…two tiny, precious hooded figures walk a wet asphalt urban landscape…
Barrat’s photographs demonstrate her uncanny ability to capture fleeting slices of vivid human experience. Her images in 1980s Harlem and the South Bronx remind me of intimate moments with my own family. I couldn’t trace it then, but in 2019, when I saw her portrait of fashion designer Willi Smith placed on the back cover of the book my studio designed for his 2020–2021 monographic show at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I saw a long-lost uncle; I saw a brother separated at birth; I saw myself. In a glance, time and space folded in on themselves, and Willi’s gaze met mine. Martine’s detailed view of poise and presence opened my heart chakra. I feel it pounding open again with each new image I encounter.
Performing for years as a dancer, it’s no wonder that Barrat’s pictures seem to float mid-stride, mid-leap. A Life in crescendo. Another life in dénouement. I’m front row to a b-girl’s ecstatic undulation. A meditation on joy. A lesson in shape and crop. I bear witness to Barrat’s photographic orations in black and white: “The ground has sound (Harlem).”
Dominos in hand, suddenly I’m Eric Williams. There—being held by my wrinkles and houndstooth. Only a sucker would try to play against me. Now you see my winning POV. The shadow of a table curve cantilevers an entire shot. How is it possible that Martine has something up the sleeve in plain sight? Every time. Every take!
Though the works in this show are seminal to her oeuvre in the 1980s, in her more recent sight, regular trips in the 21st century to Jacob Riis Park in Far Rockaway Beach become a cascading parade of sweat sand-clinging skin, salt air, sequins, and celebration. Every photo is a pageant where one can show my rump, strut my stuff, glitter my wings, and play with my dolls in the shallows of the surf. Bluetooth boombox speakers blare the ground has sound. And the tune is fabulosity.
Martin Barat is a liberatory image-maker. Migrating from Paris to Harlem in the revolutionary year of 1968, she has known, loved, and lived tenderly and fiercely with her subjects. Musicians, designers, lovers, celebrities, street crews, artists, children, and aging sirens are all worthy and in her sight. These are the glimpses of a nomad writ for the long haul—simultaneously imprinted in fixative and moving flux between worlds.
Silas Munro is a partner of Polymode, a studio that leads the edge of contemporary graphic design for clients in the cultural sphere. He is a Founding Faculty at the MFA in Graphic Design at VCFA and a contributor to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. Munro coauthored the first BIPOC-centered design history course, Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design 19–21st Century, releasing in book form in 2023.
Martine Barrat lives and works in New York, NY. Initially a dancer in Paris, she worked with Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. Her work took her to Edinburgh for the International Dance Festival, where she met La MaMa (Ellen Stewart), who went backstage to meet her. Martine was promised a ticket to New York City to dance in La MaMa’s theater. Two years later, right after the revolution in France, Martine received a ticket to New York City from La MaMa. She arrived in the city in June of 1968 and never left. Together with a group of jazz musicians, Martine was one of the people who collectively created the Human Arts Ensemble (a name given by Charles “Bobo” Shaw). La MaMa provided them a theater to work out of where they ran video and music workshops. They also staged various street performances. She then moved to the South Bronx and worked collaboratively on video projects with gangs for 6 years. In 1978, this work was shown at the Whitney Museum and was then taken to Italy by Bernardo Bertolucci, where it was shown many times on Italian prime time television. Following this project, Martine made ‘Woman is Sweeter’, a film about Yves Saint Laurent featuring the music of Galt MacDermot, the Grammy award-winning composer of the musical Hair. Martine published several monographs including Do Or Die (1993), a collection of photographs that capture boxers across Harlem, the South Bronx, and Brooklyn. She also photographed celebrities like James Baldwin, Bob Marley, Martin Scorsese, Ornette Coleman, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Gordon Parks, V.S. Naipaul, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yasushi Inoue and Paul Auster. Martine is currently working on films related to dance as a form of public art. In 2018, she shot a film about New York City’s subway dancers called Getting Lite which was projected at the Hip Hop Museum in Paris in 2019 and also shown at the Urban Films Festival. More recently, she made the film True Warriors about three street dancers in Paris with a unique approach to the art form. She has exhibited at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami, FL, as well as La Goutte d’Or Cultural Centre, Paris, France; Musée Kampa, Prague, Czech Republic; Museum of the City of New York, NY; among others. Her photographs and videos are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Museum of the City of New York, NY; the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NY; the Brooklyn Museum, NY; the Lincoln Center Library, NY; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, France; the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France; as well as many private collections.