Portraits of Community: Johanna Tordjman’s “Americana” text by Tristan Hickey

In 2022, French artist Johanna Tordjman traveled to the United States, where a road trip from Los Angeles to New York City gave shape to “Americana.” Exhibited in Paris’s Gallery Au Roi, this series of sixteen portraits, supported by a documentary film and photography, offered viewers an intimate look on those often overlooked in the United States: Black Americans and Native Americans. Her encounters notably with the Compton Cowboys and the Navajo tribe helped Tordjman to develop in her works a vision of americana as defined by communities disregarded and marginalised throughout the history of the US.

Unlike classic European portraiture, a practice which began as a means to spotlight individuals and therewith to memorialise their wealth, Tordjman’s portraits eschew such monumentalising. Her portraits offer a very close up, and frequently an exaggeratedly zoomed-in, perspective, which discourages an understanding of these subjects in their individuality: we are often left without any impression of who these subjects are as subjects because our view is so concentrated. One portrait (“Tomo 2”) displays only half of a face; another (“Yankee”) is just of a woman’s lower profile and décolleté.

When she does allow a more complete view of the subject, her composition nevertheless both crops positive space (the subject) and limits negative space (the background). Indeed, each of these “full” portraits omits part of the subject’s body, be it an arm that extends beyond the limits of the frame (“Raul,” “Randy,” “Tomo,” “Aspen,” “Ty”), or the upper half of the subject’s hat (“Tre’lan,” “Plus”). What remains as a background, moreover, is composed for the most part without much tonal contrast to the subject (this is especially true of “Raul,” “Kenneth,” “Randy,” and arguably also with “Plus,” in which the subject’s light-blue t-shirt colour almost blends with the turquoise background). When an explicit background does exist, then, it seemingly synthesises with the subject, subverting the subject’s explicit boundaries as an individual, similarly to the “zoomed in” portraits.

The result of these components of Tordjman’s work is a series of portraits all of which to a degree resist definitive portrayals of their subject (matter), and by extension the portrait as a genre. Each individual portrait leaves much to be desired in terms of fulfilling its role as a portrait, as a work which portrays a subject, since the formal elements bar its subject of complete subjectivity. One begins to search for the subject matter of “Americana,” moving from one portrait to the next, left wanting, only to realise that the particular individual of each portrait emerges only when one steps back to view the series as a whole: the fragmented subject is made whole in the community which each individual represents and helps to create. Each portrait is one piece of the puzzle, and each piece fits together to form a portrait of a community as a whole.

Indeed, it is through the formal elements of “Americana” that Tordjman intensifies the community-oriented values of the Compton Cowboys and the Navajo, which she noticed during her travels and passionately wished to display in this series. Her choice of composition, perspective, and colour encourages viewers to appreciate her individual portraits as merely parts of the whole series, as a only one piece of the larger portrait of a community. In view of Tordjman’s explicit theme of community, this formal fragmentation of the subject ultimately supports a metaphoric interpretation: the individual is whole only within the community. Significantly, then, the paintings in which Tordjman offers more comprehensive portrayals of individuality are the ones in which multiple people are shown together (“Compton,” “Nola,” “Kids of Immigrants”). Notwithstanding, the style of these paintings remains the same and similar formal elements are readily apparent, but viewers are still offered a more holistic rendering of subjects as individuals in action, even if one could argue that the motif of fragmentation lingers.

If her portraits were “successful” as portraits in the classic sense, then this theme of community might remain merely latent in this series as then it could be appreciated piecemeal. If each portrait explicitly depicted an individual in a more traditional manner, one would inevitably focus on each work separately. However, these portraits prevent viewers from such an appreciation. I came to understand the significance of one portrait only in terms of the other. It was not until I had viewed every work that I noticed not a series of individual portraits, but a series which portraits community. To consider the series as a whole, to consider the collection of partial perspectives offered by each individual portrait, is to understand that “Americana” is ultimately a portrait of community and more importantly the necessity of community for the individual.


Tristan Hickey

Before arriving in Paris, where he is now based, the German-American New York City native studied Literature and Philosophy in Montréal, after which he moved to Berlin to begin working in the arts as a curator, producer, and writer.