Tip Toland is an artist known for creating hyperrealistic, larger-than-life sculptures that confront the viewer with issues pertaining to identity and the body. We featured her in 2012, focusing on the aspects of her work that explored age, vulnerability, and death—material (and often stigmatized) states that have profound effects on personal psychologies. Characterizing her sculptures are combinations of clay, pastel, paint, and synthetic hair that create beautifully and uncomfortably real simulations of human anatomy.
In the years since then, Toland has continued to push the boundaries and create sculptures driven by important social messages. Featured here are various works: “Echo” (2014-15), “Africa,” and the “Africa Child” series (2014). “Echo” recalls many of Toland’s previous works: a nude, elderly woman appears to breathe deeply while her clouded eyes gaze skyward. What is most moving about this sculpture is the peace that emanates from her expression and figure; death and age are not feared, but rather accepted as states of near-transcendence.
“Africa” and “Africa Child” delve into more political territory, provoking questions pertaining to race, prejudice, and systems of objectification and “otherness.” “Africa” depicts a black woman awakening to an unseen problem, concern visible in her eyes. The “Africa Child” series involves five portraits of children with albinism, portraying—with astounding intricacy and realism—their expressions of fear and sadness. Explaining her motivations for “Africa Child,” Toland describes the extreme prejudice and violence enacted against those with this genetic condition in Tanzania:
“In Tanzania, horrific acts of mutilation have been taking place due to prejudice, ignorance, and superstition. According to lore, people with albinism are viewed as ghosts or bad omens. Despite this delusion, indigenous shamans have conjured up magical potions from body parts to bring wealth and good luck. Potions have been used in a variety of contexts: gold miners have poured them on the ground and fishermen have poured them on their nets or in their canoes. Living people are attacked and mutilated for their arms, legs, hair, genitalia, and blood. Ultimately the bottom line from these superstitions and prejudices is economic—in a country in which the average annual income is less than $450, a limb from a person with albinism can bring anywhere from $500 to $2,000.” (Source)
Certainly, Toland’s work challenges its audience, asking that the viewers acknowledge and examine systems of oppression and the violence occurring in Africa. But, as Kaiya Gordon astutely asks for the Pioneer Log, “What authority does Toland have to ‘inform’ viewers about a practice happening in Tanzania?” (Source) And how can we ensure that the viewer’s engagement is not one based in misinformation and unintentional, internalized systems of objectification? The pamphlet accompanying Toland’s 2014 exhibition at the Portland Art Museum states a progressive objective, deeming the works “portraits of horror that serve to inform Toland’s audience and, potentially, motivate them to take action” (Source). Trust, then, is left in the viewer to recognize—through the process of their own seeing—practices of “othering” and, by deconstructing these practices, foster a form of empathy and action that is not rooted in cultural assumptions.
Click here to view more of Toland’s work.