by Jade Flint, Artist-in-Residence Curator
One of New Orleans’ culturally relevant native sons, photographer Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell, has helped Black New Orleanians get their shine on (à la New Orleans rapper B.G.) for well over thirty years. Anywhere people congregated to “do it for the culture” New Orleans — think clubs like Whispers and Detour, second lines, block parties and Cash Money rap concerts— Terrell, also known as “the Picture Man,” was there to document the city’s flyest and sell instant representations of themselves back to them, all while wearing his signature Ralph Lauren Polo outfits. Terrell partnered with his cousin, Otis Spears, to create colorful fabric backdrops with popular rap phrases such as “ball til we fall,” or logos from designer clothing brands that add to the panache for which parts of Black New Orleans are known. In a late 2000s interview with journalist Alison Fensterstock for the “Where They At?” Collection housed at the Amistad Research Center, Terrell describes his creative direction for the backdrops in both practical and aesthetic terms:
“Like when a hot song come out, ‘Where They At?’ or ‘Get the Gat’ or ‘Get Yo Shine On’ was out, and I know everybody, that’s what everybody was saying or humming, I try to get a backdrop coordinated with that. I get my color scheme and all that for my backdrop and my artwork, I’d theme them with the newest tennis shoes everybody wearing. If a new pair of Air Jordans come out, I did that. Mostly everybody try to buy whatever. Whatever new shoes or whatever new shirts that’s hot or designer. I try to get my color scheme on my backdrop to coincide with that ’cause it gon’ match what the people got on. It make it easier to take a picture.”
As Black diasporic art historian Krista Thompson outlines in her 2015 book, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in the African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, Black people create certain pictorial and performative practices, like Terrell’s, that negotiate how Black people represent themselves post-enslavement. In some diasporic subcommunities in areas of the United States, Jamaica and the Bahamas, Black people landed on an opulent form of self-fabrication signified through boisterous attitudes, expensive clothes and innovative hairstyles. However, the act of elaborately dressing and grooming oneself was not enough to effectively communicate a growing self-worth. The creation of additional pathways to show and perform for others as well as produce physical records as a permanent testimony to their experiences was needed—which created opportunities for culture bearers like Polo Silk.
Black people historically have a complex relationship with the camera. Some of its original uses to prove racist eugenics theory about the inferiority of Black people continue to sting; also complicating matters is the continued hyper-surveillance and inspection of Black bodies, from the early history of photography to the present day. Thompson, in the introduction to Shine, theorizes that through our fascination with the flash of a camera’s light, people of African descent are creating a hypervisibility to combat the invisibility they encounter in mass media, while consciously and unconsciously contributing to their own fetishization.
South African photographer Santu Mofokeng provocatively asked: “Are these images evidence of mental colonization or did they serve to challenge prevailing images of ‘The African’ in the western world?” The question, quoted by Black feminist theorist Tina Campt in her 2017 book, Listening to Images, seems to imply a strict binary sense that restricts Polo Silk’s posers to materialistic slaves or self-fashioning liberatory heroes, without considering the possibility of multiple truths. The people in Terrell’s work may not always subscribe to the respectable suit and tie uniform of their civil rights era predecessors to signify their racial pride. They may also avoid the more radical “Black is Beautiful” dashikis and afros of the late 1960s and ’70s. However, when you closely analyze the meticulously styled hair and perfectly coordinated outfits, and feel the sheer joy or unmistakable bravado emanating from the people in Polo Silk’s work, it is hard to dismiss their political and cultural power.
Perhaps Campt’s phrase, “reassemblage in dispossession,” provides a framework to understand Terrell’s photographs. Campt defines the term in Listening to Images as “everyday micro-shifts in the social order of racialization that temporarily reconfigure the status of the dispossessed.” Thus Terrell’s method of emphasizing certain iconic tennis shoes and producing backdrops that directly speak to cultural moments of empowerment becomes an act of defying the mainstream.
As well-documented in Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell’s Polaroids, and the oral history interviews in the “Where They At?” and “NOLA Hip Hop Project Archive” collections, Black New Orleans has always sought new methods of expression through creative experimentation with a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit. If you are interested in learning more about the formation of New Orleans rap and hip hop as we know it, follow this link to access additional interviews and photographs. Also, Picture Man: Portraits by Polo Silk recently opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art and will be on view until January 8, 2023.
Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2017.
Murs. “From Jay Z to the Migos, What Does ‘for the Culture’ Really Mean? | the BreakdownM.” YouTube. HipHopDX, May 26, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzTNn9VXWIw.
Thompson, Krista A. Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
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