In New York, the Whitney Biennial foregrounds work focused on identity amid the emergence of a new form of politicized art by African-American artists.

art since 1900 modernism

antimodernism postmodernism

volume 2 1945 to the present

with 364 illustrations,

236 in color

hal foster rosalind krauss yve-alain bois benjamin h.d. buchloh

Thames & Hudson

 

 

1993: In New York, the Whitney Biennial foregrounds work focused on identity amid the

emergence of a new form of politicized art by African-American artists.

In recent decades the different politics of identity—racial, multi­ cultural, feminist, and queer—have sometimes followed similar trajectories, at least as they are taken up in art. In a first phase,

an essential nature—of blackness, ethnicity, femininity, or homo sexuality—is often claimed in the face of negative stereotypes, and positive images of this nature are put forward (that is, once minority artists have won access to art institutions at all). Then, in a second phase, this critique of stereotypes is pushed to the point where such identity is seen as a social construction more than an essential nature, and the assumption of simple categories is complicated by the fact of multiple differences (e.g., that one might be black, female, and/or gay at the same time). The undoing of stereotypes is an espe- cially urgent task for artists concerned with the imaging of race, and they have developed a number of strategies to this end, including critiques of documentary forms of representation, testimonials of personal experience, and turns to alternative traditions of art.

Turning the tables

One of the most prominent artists involved in this project is Adrian Piper (born 1948). Already active in avant-garde circles in the late sixties and the early seventies, Piper adapted several devices of Per- formance and Conceptual art in her own investigation of the “visual pathology” of racism. In her “Mythic Being” series (1973-5), for example, she staged performances in public spaces that under­ scored the ideological construction or “mythic being” of the macho image of the African-American male, whom she impersonated. Later, in My Calling (Card) #1 (1986), she used the Conceptualist technique of the written declaration, here in the guise of a business card that informed the recipient of the card, after he or she had made a racist remark, that its bearer (Piper) was black. Piper also turned techniques of Installation and video art to her own critical purposes. Tor instance, Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems (1980) confronts its audience with four large photographs of “angry young black men”; as viewers process their own reactions to these images, they also hear a taped recitation of hypothetical reactions from (other) white viewers. Cornered [1] confronts its audience as well, here with an overturned table set in a corner that in turn “corners” viewers with a videotape in which Piper considers the likelihood

1 • Adrian Piper, Cornered, 1988 Video installation consisting of videotape, monitor. table chairs, birth certificate, dimensions variable, 7 minutes

that the white people among them also have black ancestors: once again the myth of a simple or pure identity is challenged.

In the seventies Piper trained in Kantian philosophy, which she teaches to this day. Her dissertation adviser at Harvard was John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice (1971) is a landmark in the field of political philosophy, and in her art Piper has consistently posed her specific arguments regarding racial inequity within the general framework of human rights issues. Other artists involved in the questioning of racial representations have tended in the opposite direction, toward a postmodernist suspicion about universal claims. Yet Piper is skeptical of any position that forgoes “the potent tools of rationality and objectivity,” which she regards as necessary to the critique of the “pseudorationality” of racism, “the defenses we use to rationalize away the uniqueness of ‘the other’.” “All you have to do,” Piper argues, “is to echo or depict those defensive categorizations as they are, without too much aesthetic or literary embellishment, in order to generate a certain degree of self-awareness of how inadequate and simplistic they are.” Piper sometimes renders this “echoing” concrete through photographic and documentary testimony of her own experience and history.

Carrie Mae Weems (horn 1953) often employs personal images and stories as well. However, trained at the California Institute of the Arts and the University of California at San Diego—two

 

 

hotbeds of postmodernist art and theory—Weems is more inclined than Piper to question objective claims of truth-value. On the other hand, she draws less on avant-garde models of the sixties and seventies than on African-American precedents of the Harlem Renaissance in the forties, especially the writer Zora Neale Hurston and the photographer Roy DeCarava (his 1955 portrait of his Harlem neighborhood, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, is a particular touchstone for her). In her phototext work, Weems is content neither with strictly positive representations of African-American identity nor with merely negative demystifications.

Weems developed her signature combination of intimate pho­ tographs and narratives in Family Pictures and Stories (1978-84). Here, accompanied by texts and tapes, 35-millimeter snapshots tell the tale of four generations of her extended family in their various migrations from Mississippi. Even as the work reports on harsh conditions of racism, poverty, and violence, it also resists automatic assumptions about black victimization. As the critic Andrea Kirsh has argued, “Family Pictures takes two practices as points to resist: first, the imaging of black people as ‘other’ in the photo documen- tary tradition (a tradition that is almost the exclusive property of white photographers); second, the official sociological studies com­ missioned by the US government in the 1960s” (such as the famous Moynihan Report on “the black family”). Weems questions the objectifying often produced in the sociological tradition, with a nuanced account of black families drawn from her own stock of memories and experiences; and she questions the othering often pro­ duced in the documentary tradition through an alternative vision of black communities as developed in the work of DeCarava and others. (Informed in folklore—Weems also did graduate work in anthro­ pology at UC Berkeley—she has since extended her gaze to black societies in the Sea Islands, Cuba, and elsewhere.)

In the “Kitchen Table” series [2], Weems refined her complex approach. This work consists of views of one or two black subjects (a man and a woman, two female friends, and soon) seated at a kitchen table under a stark light; beneath the images run narrative texts in a third-person voice (usually that of a woman, sometimes of a man) that mulls over the different demands of personal longings, roman­ tic relationships, domestic arrangements, and workaday obligations. It is rare in American art, not to mention American culture at large, that such subjectivities are given such evocative expression.

Like Piper and Weems, Lorna Simpson (born 1960) also frames racial images for our critical reflection, yet her phototext works are neither as confrontational as those of Piper nor as intimate as those of Weems (her classmate at UCSD). Although also concerned with the alienation produced by stereotypes, Simpson concentrates on the use of photography as evidence, especially in the construction of pseudo objective typologies of black identities. The manipulation of photos and texts for purposes of identification and surveillance was developed in the nineteenth century by the Prench criminolo-

2 • Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Men Reading Newspaper), from the Kitchen Table series, 1990 Three silver gelatin prints, each 71.8 x 71.8 (28 1/4 x 28 1/4)

 

 

gisl Alphonse Bertillon and the English statistician Francis Gallon, but clearly the deployment of “the body as archive” for reasons of discipline and punishment continues in the present, for instance in the “profiling” used (programmatically or not) by police, employ­ ers, and everyday people on the street. In her early work, Simpson was concerned to mirror this typological gaze—to catch it in the act, as it were—and to trouble its prejudicial classifications.

This work features simple photographs of black figures, most of them female, often with hairstyles and clothes that suggest a partic­ ular group or class identity (chignons or Afros, a white cotton servant shift or a black business suit). Rarely does Simpson show entire faces, and often her models are turned away from us: such partial or obscure views solicit our curiosity, but they also frustrate any desire to master the figures through either fetishistic details or holistic images. The short texts that accompany the photographs, often single words or simple phrases, further challenge any habit of reading that is either voyeuristic or sociological or both: although often elliptical, the texts can be cautionary, even accusatory. For example, Guarded Conditions (1989) consists of eighteen Polaroid prints of a black woman of unknown age in servant clothes, seen from behind with her arms crossed behind her back. Below the photos run two texts in block letters that alternate throughout the sequence: “SKIN ATTACKS … SEX ATTACKS … Here, with great economy and force, Simpson conveys the condi­ tion of many black women as double targets of racism and sexism. At the same time, like Weems, she does not indulge in victimology: the poses can be read as defensive or defiant or both, and the markings of “skin” and “sex” are underscored in a way that seems to strengthen rather than to debilitate the woman pictured.

Again like Weems, Simpson combines critique and beauty in her work, as if to refute advocates of either principle who deem the com­ bination somehow impossible. For example, her exquisite early work The Walcrbearer |3] presents a black girl, once again in a white cotton shift and with her back turned to us. In her right hand, the girl

holds a plastic bottle by its neck and in her left a silver pitcher, and almost nonchalantly she lets water pour out of both. Underneath the image is this text in simple capitals: “She saw him disappear by the river. / They asked her to tell what happened. / Only to discount her memory.” The Waterbearer “declares the existence of subjugated knowledge,” as the critic bell hooks has argued, but it is a knowledge that appears resistant even when it is ignored, for the action of the girl indicates a small refusal, a slight subversion: spilling the water, releasing her burden, forgoing her task, she nonchalantly spites her implied deniers (she seems oblivious to her observers as well). Her pose is also subtly transformative: her unbalanced arms suggest a tilted scale of justice, and her contrapposto stance recalls any number of canonical figures in Western art—from ancient muses, through the maids of Vermeer, to paintings by Ingres, Seurat, and a host of others—only to redirect them toward a subject matter rarely repre­ sented in Western art at all. The Waterbearer thus recalls a classical tradition of beauty and grace in order to refashion it almost insou- ciantly. In her recent films and videos, Simpson has developed this aesthetic of subversive beauty further still.

The stereotypical grotesque

If Piper, Weems, and Simpson resist and redraw racial stereotypes, other artists exaggerate them to the point of critical explosion—a complementary strategy that the critic Kobena Mercer has termed “the stereotypical grotesque.” Pioneered in the early seventies by artists in the States such as Betye Saar (born 1929), Faith Ringgold and David Hammons, this kind of parody was developed in the eighties and nineties by artists in Britain such as Rotimi Fani- Kayode (1955-89), Yinka Shonibare, and Chris Ofili, among others, in photography, painting, and other media. Influenced by the homoerotic portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, the Nigerian- born Fani-Kayode (who delighted in his own outsider status as a gay African man in London) exaggerates the primitivist cliches of

3 Loma Simpson, The Waterbearer, 1936 Silver-gelatin print with vinyl lettering. 114 x 194 x 4 (45 x 77 x 1 3/4)

SHE SAW HIM DISAPPEAR BY THE RIVER, THEY ASKED HER TO TELL WHAT HAPPENED,ONLY TO

DISCOUNT HER MEMORY,

 

 

African sexuality in his portraits of near-naked black men, who are shown painted, feathered, or otherwise costumed in exotic “tribal” garb 141. Meanwhile, his compatriot Shonibare caricatures the other side of the primilivist fantasy: for example, in the three photos of his “Effnick” series (S| he assumes the sumptuous costume and haughty pose of a bewigged English gentleman of the late eighteenth century, a leisured man of letters (or perhaps a Victorian dandy who adopts this artificial style anachronistically). This fictional aristocrat, whose holdings might include colonial plantations worked by slaves, could well be the subject of a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds—except for the fact that he is black. The imposture thus becomes a kind of travesty that renders the cultiva­ tion of the aristocrat more than suspect.

In Britain, of course, racist ideology is keyed to a complex history of colonialism more than to a traumatic legacy of slavery. One result is that “black” is a broader category in the Britain than in the United States, and its investigation involves many different sub­ jects, cultures, and traditions. Indeed, British black art and film has explored a wide range of issues of the African diaspora and “the Black Atlantic.” And in the eighties and nineties this great multi­ culturalism of multiple differences and hybrid states provoked an extraordinary efflorescence of painting, photography, and film- making by such different artists as Isaac Julien, Sonia Boyce, Steve McQueen, Keith Piper, and Ingrid Pollard, to name only several.

Of special relevance here is the work of Julien, which has spanned feature films, television documentaries, and film installa­ tions. From Who Killed Colin Roach?, a 1983 documentary about the suspicious death of a young black man while in police custody, through Looking for Langston, a luscious short film of 1988 evoking the gay life and aesthetics of the great poet Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, to his film installations with double and triple projections of the 1990s, such as The Attendant and The Long Road to Mazat/dn, Julien has explored different representations of race, class, art, and homosexuality in British and American culture at large. Again and again lie has used the force of desire to disrupt any rigidity in the definition of these categories, and he has doubled his thematic blurring of the edges between genders and sexualities with a formal blurring of the lines that divide genres and disciplines: fiction and nonfiction; imagistic and narrative; art and documentary; film and video. A cofounder of Sankofa Film and Video, a collective of young black British film­ makers, in the early 1980s, Julien has long collaborated on projects in which politics and aesthetics are never pitted against each other; at the same time he has developed a cinematic style, rooted in gay black sensibility but not confined to any restrictive identity, that is distinctly his own.

Legibilities of race

The strategy of “the stereotypical grotesque” is also developed by young American artists such as Kara Walker (born 1969), whose tableaux and installations consist of postings and projections, on the

4 – Rotimi Fanl-Kayode, Nothing to Lose IV (Bodies of Experience), 1909

white walls of galleries and museums, of black-paper cutouts |6]. Walker cites the genres of the cameo and the silhouette, but where one might expect the safe profiles of loved ones that are typical of these discreet forms, Walker restages ante-Bellum caricatures of Deep South slaves and slave-owners involved in wild scenes of sex and violence. In effect, she restages the myths of racist lore, but in a ribald fashion that undermines them at the same time. These fantasies persist outrageously in the American unconscious, Walker suggests; at the same time she subjects them to subversively exces­ sive reimaginings.

The Walker silhouettes are both very visible and quite anony­ mous in a way that points to the ambiguous legibility of race in social relations today. This ambiguity is treated by some artists in the medium of painting, often through analogies of canvas with skin and paint with skin color. Ellen Gallagher (born 1965) has devel­ oped a language of tiny pictographs set on large fields of paper and canvas [7]. Often built up in shallow relief, her symbols look from a distance to be abstract forms; their combination of repetition and variation is sometimes associated with the rigorously nonobjective paintings of Agnes Martin. Only on closer examination are these forms revealed to be eyes, mouths, faces, hair styles, and the like— that is, physical attributes that arc singled out for special significance in racist physiognomies. Even as Gallagher mimes this typological process, however, she breaks down its constituent parts, its loaded details, nearly to the point of their utter deconstruction.

 

 

5 Yinka Shonlbare, Untitled, from the “Effnick” series, 1997 C-print. reproduction on Baroque frame edition two of five. 122 x 91.5 (40×36)

6 • Kara Walker, Camptown Ladies, 1998 (detail) Cut paper and adhesive on wall dimensions variable

 

 

7 • Ellen Gallagher, Preservo (Yellow), 2001 Oil, pencil, and paper on magazine no page. 33.7 x 25.4 (13 3/4 x 10)

Glenn Ligon (born 1960) also plays with the legibility of race, here through the trope of paintings in black on white and white on black [8]. He has borrowed texts and images involving race, often drawn from writers like James Baldwin and critics like Frantz Fanon, setting them on canvas with various degrees of contrast between figure and ground, surface and depth. In effect, Ligon turns the formal issues of modernist painting into perceptual tests of racial readings, and vice versa. Here the structural questioning of abstraction and signification—from the early canvases of Jasper Johns through the continued investigations of Robert Ryman— takes on new social meaning and political valence.

FURTHER READING

Coco Fusco, Bodies That Were Not Ours (Now York Routledge, 2001) Thelma Golden, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art. New York. Whitney Museum of American Aart, 1994) Stuart Hall and Mark Soaly. Different; Contemporary Photography and Black identity (London. Photdon Press 2001)

Kellie Jones et al. Lorna Simpson (London Phardon Press 2002) Kobcna Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle. New Positions in Cultural Studies (Routledgo. 1994)

8 • Glenn Ligon, Untitled {I Feel Most Colored ..), 1990 Oil on wood 203.2 x 76.2 (80 x 30)

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