Lorna Simpson is a photographer and multi-media artist who has not met Brittney Griner of the WNBA. However, she cannot help but imagine Griner experiencing the same vulnerability that Griner has experienced since February when Griner was detained in Russia.
“In February, as Russia’s threats of invasion in Ukraine escalated, watching the airport surveillance video of Brittney Griner passing through security made my heart sink,” Simpson—whose art re-contextualizes narratives around race, gender, and identity through collages of found photos—told TIME. “One of my greatest fears as a teenager growing up in Queens, N.Y., was always imprisonment.”
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold athlete, eight-time WNBA all-star and player for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg during the off-season, was arrested on drug charges on Feb. 17—just one week before Russia invaded Ukraine—after customs officials at the airport found vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her suitcase. Griner has been a highly-regarded American athlete as well as an openly transgender Black woman. In prison in the middle of war in a country with anti-gay legislation, there have been concerns over Griner.
For the cover of this issue of the magazine, to accompany Sean Gregory’s profile of Griner and the effort to bring her home, Simpson created an image that reimagined a standard media-day portrait, by photographer Stephen Gosling, of Griner in her WNBA uniform. The collage centers Griner’s steadfast gaze, but with her uniform superseded by a celestial overlay of meteor showers—taken from a 19th century print—that extends into the background.
See the full story here: Brittney Griner’s Fight for Freedom
The cosmos have long been a focus in Simpson’s art, a visual tool to explore the vastness of identity. “If the stars fill that space, then what body is actually there that isn’t filled with that kind of expansiveness?” she explained in a 2021 interview with Harper’s Bazaar. She transforms old photos of Black women using starscapes, astronomical maps and other techniques. JetAnd Ebonyin heavenly bodies which question identity preconceptions. Griner was her cover artwork, which she also used the same method.
“For me, the strong impression of this image of Griner is not only what could be interpreted as the solemnity of her expression but also the symmetry of the star tattoos on her shoulders,” Simpson told TIME. The inversion of the illustration is a way of “bringing into focus how much of her life has been upended, the urgency of her release and safe return to the U.S., and the preciousness of time that is passing.”
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