Sanitation workers assembled in front of Clayborn Temple, Memphis, March 28, 1968
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe, nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. —Ralph Ellison’
My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented. —Hortense J. Spillers2
1. Ralph Ellison, Invisible
Man (1947) (New York:
Vintage Books. 1972). p. 3.
2. Hortense J. Spillers.
“Mama’s Baby. Papas Maybe:
An American Grammar
Book.” Diacritics, 17 (Summer 1987), p. 65.
3. Kobena Mercer,
Danny Tisdale and Keich
Piper.” Artforum, 30
(Summer 1992), p. 75.
One of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century is the African-American male—“invented” because black mas culinity represents an amalgam of fears and projections in the American psyche which rarely conveys or contains the trope of truth about the black male’s existence. Ralph Ellison deemed the African-American male invisible. In fact, the African-American male is a number of things, invisible and overinterpreted among them. Kobena Mercer states:
While the private lives of black men in the public eye… have been exposed to glaring media visibility, it is the “invisible men ” of the late-capitalist underclass who have become the bearers—the signi- fiers—of the hopelessness and despair of our so-called post-Modern condition. Overrepresented in statistics on homicide and suicide, mis represented in the media as the personification of drugs, disease and crime, such invisible men, like their all-too-visible counterparts, sug gest that black masculinity is not merely a social identity in crisis. It is also a key site of ideological representation, a site upon which the nation’s crisis comes to be dramatized, demonized, and dealt with….3
This statement puts us at the heart of “Black Male’s” terrain. The challenge of representing and questioning the image
of the black male is great. Black masculinity suffers not just from overrepresentation, but oversimplification, demonization and (at times) utter incomprehension. In developing this project, I found myself faced with this thought: Since masculinity in general is about privilege as the internal force, is black masculinity a contradiction in terms? I wanted to
produce a project that would examine the black male as body and political icon. Such a project would not only have to include artists directly or indirectly involved in these issues; it would also have to include the ways and means the black male has been seen by Hollywood, the independent cinema, video, and television.
It seemed clear that such an exhibition would also have to begin in 1968, a tumultuous year in America’s second revo lution. For it was during this time that the transition from the civil rights movement to the fury of Black Power took place. Using 1968 as a starting date also made sense since the image of the African-American in American art through about the middle part of this century had been so ably investigated by the late art historian Guy C. McElroy, in his 1990 exhibition “Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710- 1940,” which originated at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1990. McElroy provided a welcome and ground-breaking antidote to the overtly Eurocentric Menil Foundation project (a multivolume publication entitled The linage of the Black in Western Art, which meticulously yet selectively catalogues images of blacks) and the covertly non-inclusive surveys by many historians of American art, creating an art historical matrix which considered blackness in aesthetic and political terms.
My conception for the exhibition began with a group of ideas built around five historic signposts, the first being the transition from the civil rights movement to the Black Power era, which signified a change in the American consciousness, both black and white. Black Power brought with it codifiable images of black masculinity. The black leather jackets, dark sunglasses, big afros, and bigger guns made visual the myths of uncontrollable aggression and ram pant sexuality. Consequently, the collision of race with gender is one of the theoretical underpinnings of this project.
Members of the Black Panther Party, 1968
Melvin Van Peebles
The second signpost is the rise of the blaxploitation film, beginning with Melvin Van Peebles seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1972). This film and others, once derided for their ultra-violent, ultra-romanticization of the worst aspects of ghetto culture, were popular with black audiences for what was seen (through the violence and misogyny) as a pro-black stance. Films such as Sweetback opened up
the debate about negative and positive, good and bad filmic images. They also signaled the desire of black artists and pro ducers to employ the “good” as well as the “bad.” Greg Tate called this “cultural confidence”:
4. Greg Tate, “Cult-Nats
Meet Freaky-Deke,” in
Flyboy in the Buttermilk:
Essays on Contemporary
America (New York: Simon
& Schuster, 1992), p. 200.
5. Benjamin H.D. Bucbloh.
“Theories of Art after
Minimalism and Pop.” in
Hal Foster, cd., Discussions in
Contemporary Culture (Seattle:
Bay Press. 1987), p. 66.
6. Abigail Solomon-Godeau.
“Mistaken Identity’,” in
and Constance Lewallen,
Mistaken Identities, exh. cat.
(Santa Barbara: University
Art Museum. University of
California, Santa Barbara.
1992). pp. 19-23.
This cultural confidence has freed up more black artists to do work as wonderfully absurdist as black life itself. The impulse toward enmeshing self-criticism and celebration present in the most provoca tive avant-garde black art of the ’70s and the ’80s…owes a debt to the cult-nats for making so much noise about the mythic beauties of blackness that these artists could traffic in the ugly and mundane sides with just as much ardor. ‘
The release of Sweetback was almost simultaneous with a critical shift in the art world to a conceptually based art practice in the early 1970s, in which artists “abandoned the traditional categories, materials and procedures of artistic production.”5 This was followed by the rise of postmodern theory and multicultural discourse, which brought issues of race, gender, and sexuality into the dialogue of contemporary art. To summarize Abigail Solomon-Godeau s thesis, post modernism acknowledged the presence of otherness, multi culturalism gave it voice.6
The third signpost is the ongoing debate about the endan gered black male. The currently held and oft-repeated claims that the life expectancy of a black man is less than that of a man in Bangladesh highlights the absurdity and horror of black male existence in America. While the spotlight shines on the few and the proud, many barely make it to manhood. This
7. Nelson George, The Death
of Rhythm and Blues (New
York: Pantheon Books,
1988). In this book, George
delineates what he calls post
soul black culture, which
describes this political and
cultural moment in detail.
O.J. Simpson. July 6, 1994, during the fourth day of his preliminary hearing
Snoop Doggy Dogg
condition is the prism through which black masculinity is refracted. Drugs, disease, unemployment, crime, despair are all aspects (causes?) of this “endangered” status. At the most despairing level, “extinction” is discussed. Some statistics claim that one quarter of all black men in their twenties are in jail. Black men consistently lead the unemployment and high school dropout statistics. The homicide rate for black men is seven times higher than that for white men. Many black boys don’t make it to adulthood and most who die do so at the hands of other black men. These figures and the perceptions they cause have a direct relationship to the images created and circulated of black masculinity. With the help of print and television media, black men have become symbolic icons for this nations ills. They personify rampant criminality (Willie Horton), perverse promiscuity (Wilt Chamberlain), sexual harassment (Clarence Thomas), date rape (Mike Tyson), and spousal abuse (O.J. Simpson).
The fourth signpost is what critic Nelson George defined as the death of rhythm and blues and what I would mark as the subsequent rise of hip-hop in its absence.7 Rap music and hip-hop have become the contemporary signifiers of black male urban culture. At its best, rap manipulates the rich and fertile terrain of blackness, providing and inventing image and text. At its worst it provides a nineties corollary to seventies- era blaxploitation that reinforces the constant parade of one dimensional stereotypes.
Magic Johnson, during a November 7, 1991, press conference, announcing his retirement from professional basketball after testing positive for the HIV virus.
Recent history has created a fifth signpost. The Rodney King incident represents a real-life drama which quickly provided a new reading of America’s relationship to race and gender. In addition, it underscored the power of images and their ability in contemporary culture to become historic icons. Gina Dent writes;
8. Gina Dent. “Black Pleasure,
Black Joy: An Introduction,”
in Gina Dent, cd., Black
Popular Culture: A Project by
Michele Wallace (Seattle: Bay
Press. 1992), p. 6.
it has become increasingly clear that black criticism mill have to begin to make more use of the sophisticated cultural analyses that depend on understanding the complexities of video imaging, the dynamics of representation, and reception theories.8
Rodney King is perhaps the apex in a series of current dramas about black men. Willie Horton, the Clarence Thomas/ Anita Hill affair, Magic Johnson’s AIDs confession, the O.J. Simpson debacle—all gave real-life corollaries to the myths.
For some, there are only two extremes, good and bad, and this exhibition could simply be a project to define and delimit negative and positive images. In certain ways the media rein forces this polarity. There is Colin Powell and Colin Ferguson, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, David Dinkins and Marion Barry, and no analysis of their complex differences or the undeniable similarities these men represent. This simplistic binary is often the way in which images are discussed. There is no question that representation is central to power. The real struggle is over the power to control images. Much of the debate around negative imagery is rooted in a dialogue about who holds the power to create and disseminate images. The disputes around gangsta rap have as much to do with the growing discontent within the black community over the content of the images and lyrics as with the implicit under standing that images and lyrics have an effect which has led to violence. As bell hooks has noted;
Bill Cosby os Cliff Huxtable in The
Richard Pryor David Dinkins during his tenure as Manhattan Borough President
For some time now the critical challenge for black folks has been to expand the discussion of race and repre sentation beyond debates about good and bad imagery. Often what is thought to be good is merely a reaction against representations created by white people that were blatantly stereotypical.9
Marion Barry (far right)
9. bell hooks, Black Looks:
Race and Representation
(Boston: South End
Press, 1992). p. 4.
This exhibition situates itself within that debate and raises a challenge to it, as well as to the com monly held assumptions about who makes what kind of images and to what purpose. The artists selected offer an antidote to the binary and
assumed notions about good and bad. In this sense, they implicitly take up bell hooks’ provocative summons:
For those of us who dare to desire differently, who seek to look away from the conventional ways of seeing blackness and ourselves, the issue of race and representation is not just a question of critiquing the status quo. It is also about transforming the image, creating alterna tives, asking ourselves questions about what types of images subvert, pose critical alternatives, and transform our worldviews and move us away from dualistic thinking about good and bad.
Black Male visually breaks down somewhat uneasily into three categories, categories garnered, in part, from the meaning implicit in the colors of the black nationalist flag. In the semi otics of afro-kitsch, many meanings have been attached to the red, the black, and the green. Opinions differ, but it is generally held that in the creation of this flag, the red was meant to sym
bolize the blood of the people and the violence surrounding the struggles for liberation. The black symbolized the people, or the body of blackness. The green was symbolic of the terri tory, ancestry, and other metaphoric possibilities associated with growth. In this exhibition, the red encompasses the images which challenge and transform the “negative” stereotypes, real and imagined. Black includes the images of and about the black male body and offers symbolic depictions of the black male psyche. The green presents work which shows the expansive possibilities for depicting multiple representations of masculinity. Of course, much of this work crosses categories and can be read in relation to all three. There is no one black masculinity, no essential “subject.” There is no single way to represent the black male as a definitive character in American art.
Adrian Piper, Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems, 1980
The exhibition begins with Adrian Piper’s work, which not only spans the chronological and ideological range of this exhibition, but more specifically reflects the concepts associated with red. Pipers investigations into race and representation have always employed black masculinity as sign and cipher. In her early per formance work. Mythic Being, created in the early 1970s, Piper cross-dressed as a black man, outfitted in a huge afro wig, bell bottoms, and dark sunglasses. She describes her actions as she walks around Manhattan:
11. Adrian Piper,”Notes
on Mythic Being, I, March 1974,” in Alan
Sondheim, cd., Individuals:
Post-Movement Art in America
(New York: E.P. Dutton.
1977), p. 268.
My behavior changes. I swagger, stride, lope, lower my eyebrows, raise my shoulders, sit with my legs wide apart on the subway, so as to accommodate my protruding genitalia.”
In this guise, she documented responses to her appearance, what she deemed confrontations with “extreme otherness.” The photographic documents from these performances as well as Pipers subsequent work employ the animosity, fear, and indifference she experienced as a racialized male subject. Fear, specifically white fear of blackness, is what Piper con fronts in her art. The installation Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems (1980) consists of a structure enclosing a slide pro jection of four images of black men, or “intruders.” The soundtrack, heard through headphones, contains narratives written by Piper of viewers reacting and responding to the black men, who are pictured in an overtly racist manner. In this piece. Piper enters the projections of white fear onto the black male body—demanding from the viewer physical as well as mental engagement.
Adrian Piper. I Embody. 1975
In I Embody (1975), Piper draws a portrait of herself in Mythic Being guise (afro, sun glasses) with the text “I embody everything you most hate and fear.”The “I” is another binary —general and specific. Piper’s raffish, forbidding militant look serves to specify both the speaker and the intended audi ence. Her declarative “I” is the embodiment of black rage, seeking to individualize and assert its voice.
David Hammons’ body prints of the early 1970s convey some of the political tenor of the time. Hammons made Injustice Case (1973) and Pray for America (1974) by literally impressing his body on the printing plate. As Kellie Jones described the process, these were not traditional prints. After
12. Kellie Jones. “The
Structure of Myth and
the Potency of Magic,” in
David Hammons: Rousing the
Rubble, exh. cat. (New York:
PS.1 Museum. The Institute
for Contemporary Art.
1991), pp. 16-17.
13. Ihid., p. 17.
smearing himself with grease, Hammons would lie on a board (which he used as a printing plate) to create his impression. He would then use pigment to set the image and sometimes augment it with silkscreen elements, such as details of the American flag. 12 Hammons’ work relies on the power of its performative elements and the significance of the black body as object and subject. Quoting Mary Schmidt Campbell, Jones wrote of Hammons becoming “both the creator of the object and the object of meaning.”13
Media fascination around black masculinity is almost always concentrated in three areas: sex, crime, and sports. Mel Chin creates artifacts straight out of contemporary black male popular culture. Using a strategy of modification, he reforms the purpose and use of common, albeit charged, objects. Current films like the Hughes brothers’ ghetto nightmare. Menace II Society, and HBO’s cautionary tale. Strapped, have created a contemporary genre of films about young black men and guns. Chin’s HOMEySEW “9” (1994) takes the guns and ghetto to a techno-future conclusion—Menace II Society meets Blade Runner. The sculpture is a modified Glock 9mm hand gun, a street weapon of choice in the inner city. Chin has added to its interior a surgical suture kit, making an object that can either heal or destroy—or both.
In Impotent Victory (1994), Chin refashions a sneaker to resemble testicles, a visual analogy that conjoins prowess in sports and potency. The sexual and the social collide in Chin’s critique of power projected onto sports and sports figures. Impotent Victory directly relates to David Hammons’ public sculpture Higher Goals (1986), impossi bly high basketball hoops installed at Various sites,
Hammons here comments
David Hammons, Higher Goals (detail), 1986. Mixed media, five units (20 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet, and 35 feet high), Cadman Plata, Brooklyn
Carl Pope, From the Trophy Collection of the Indianapolis Police Department end The Office of the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, 1992 (detail). Installation of trophies and plaques, animal heads, velvet, display case, and carpet, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist
Glenn Ligon. Profiles Series: Little Brother with a Big Brother. 1990-91
on the false hope that professional sports still hold for most inner-city black youth. Just as Hammons’ hoops are unreachable. Chin’s testicular sneakers are laced,
bound, unable to perform. In Chin’s sculpture Night Rap (1994), a police
billyclub, modified with a wireless transmitting micro phone, is an artifact connoting the all-points-bulletin attitude toward its general suspect—the black male. Chin has replaced the shaft’s handle with an erect black penis. Sounds in the gallery space are picked up by the microphone and played back, thereby amplifying our distorted relationship to this object and our ability to imagine the real-life results of its intended use.
Police brutality is also the subject of Carl Pope’s installation Some of the Greatest Hits of the New York City Police Department: A Celebration of Meritorious Achievement in Community Service (1994). Using real police records, Pope’s trophy commemorates the actual—though sometimes recorded as alleged—killing of African-American men in police encounters and police custody. While some of the names are known and remembered (Michael Stewart, Ernest Sayon, etc.), others remained relatively anonymous, until Pope’s memorialization. Appropriating the ubiquitous sports trophies that mark the victories in inter precinct sports leagues, Pope refashions them with engraved plaques that include the name of the officer and his victim.
Glenn Ligon’s Profiles Scries is composed of “pro files of the eight defendants in the Central Park rape trial, made at the time of the trial. Ligon interrogates the way in which the news media, specifically The New York rimes, profiled” these young men. Playing with the language of visual and textual description, Ligon, through his selective appropriation, heightens the contradictions inherent in the descriptions of the stereotyped black male. Branded as felons, creators of a
new term in the vocabulary of deviance (“wilding”), the men represent, for the image-consuming public, the horrific nature of their alleged crime. Read without fixating on the actual purpose of the descriptions, it is clear from Ligon’s insightful appropriation that the reading of these young men is decep tively complicated—they are neither inherently evil nor, in the Times’ simplistic sense, good boys gone astray.
Gary Simmons’ Lineup (1993) positions eight pairs of gold-plated sneakers in a police lineup. Using sneakers both as a critique of our commodified culture and as an embodiment of urban masculinity, the work conveys a highly theatrical treatment of the inner-city equivalent of the casting call. Similarly, Robert Arneson uses Willie Horton as the subject of his 1989 painting Special Assistant to the President. From a group of portraits of black men, this painting stands as particu larly significant because of Willie Horton’s pivotal role in the presidential race. The Horton story is well known; it was employed to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Republican strategists cited escaped, violent convict Horton as an example of Dukakis’ alleged leniency toward crime. There is no doubt that Horton was a violent criminal; he connoted, again for the general public, the image of the “crazy nigger.” “Willie Horton” became a term indica-
Gary Simmons, Lineup, 1993
XPRZ. NT YT Free Styles (detail). 1994
tive of the historic impulse to demonize black men. Arneson’s painting is a tightly wound psychological portrait whose visual devices underscore the historical reading.
Some works use images with historical resonance. Pat Ward Williams’ 52 Hours in a Box…And Still Counting (1987) provides a visual analogue to the real-life story of Henry
Box Brown, a slave who enclosed himself in a box and had himself mailed to Baltimore to escape slavery. While Brown was one of many slaves who went to great lengths to free themselves, his story was widely repeated because he suc ceeded against nearly impossible odds, becoming a “free” man who lived to recount his experience. Williams’ title refers not just to the length of Brown’s journey; it also questions whether or not the journey from mental and physical bondage is in fact over for the black man.
14. Stuart Hall. “What Is
This ‘Black’in Black Popular
Culture.” in Dent. ed.. Black
Popular Culture, pp. 21 -33.
The precise passage quoted
here is taken from the text
of the lecture from which
this essay derives, delivered
at the DIA “Discussions in
conference in September
1991. Stuart Hall’s ideas
inform much of the work
that comprises the aesthetic
and ideological underpin
nings of this project. It is
impossible to imagine any
dialogue about race, repre
sentation, and popular culture
without his contribution.
The black male body, fetishized and overdetermined, is the site on which popular culture sometimes expresses itself. It is on this body, Stuart Hall observed, that “postmodernism’s deep and ambivalent fascination with blackness” is realized. ” The middle of the exhibition, the black expanse between the red and the green, is the place where multidimensionality is acted out. It is where the black body is considered as object and subject.
X-PRZ is a multiracial media collective that harnesses its collective skills into media projects, with each member’s con tribution blending seamlessly with the others. Created specifi cally for this exhibition, NT YT Free Styles (1994) integrates moving and still images, text and sound.The project is as involved with neo-Conceptual art practice as it is with sam pling the creative, appropriative medium of hip-hop. Like its rapper peers, X-PKZ has mined the media, contemporary art, literature, theoretical texts, and, of course, hip-hop to examine and juxtapose the words and images of contemporary black masculinity. This new work revels in the uses of black mas
culinity in a multimedia environment which incorporates video, still photo graphy, lightboxes, and sound. Walking through the space, the viewer is con fronted with images as diverse as Marky Mark, Colin Ferguson, and Richard Pryor in unexpected juxtapositions.
Dawn Ader DoDeaux, Five Gold Teeth with 16 Diamonds (top) and Solid Gold Gun with 96 Diamonds, from the Civilization series, 1990
Hip-hop culture has become the signifier of black male heterosexuality just as Hollywood adventure flicks repre sent an idealized notion of white mas culinity in contemporary American cul ture. Dawn Ader DeDeaux looks at the conjunction of influence and meaning in these two sites. The ultra-macho postur ing, socially untenable behavior, and consumptive rage that is b-boy style is at once reviled, appropriated, and institu tionalized. It is most often looked at as
self-invented, without corollary or reference. In Warrior Myth Icons (1993), DeDeaux shows b-boy style and violence as a recapitulation of masculine American icons. Dressing her young, black male model as Rambo, John Wayne, and finally Christ, DeDeaux expresses the roots of aggression, machismo, and martyrdom so often solely associated with black youth. Her message is that violence does not belong only to black men, and she calls her subjects “warriors,” consciously tapping into the masculinist Black Power rhetoric as well as its military counterpart. In her works from the Icons series, DeDeaux photographs, close up, a mouth full of gold-capped diamond teeth and a diamond-studded pendant in the shape of a gun. These objects, richly framed in gold, comprise hardcore b-boy “gear,” the prized possessions of a commodity-driven and defined youth culture. DeDeaux documents this complex faction of urban black masculinity like an anthropologist focusing on minute and ever changing nuances to bring individuality to her subjects.
Robert Mapplethorpe. Donald Conn. 1982
Renee Cox’s II Shall Be Named (1994) is a black crucifix intricately constructed from a multitude of manipulated photo graphic negatives. The effect is of a collage of an attenuated black male body in the shape of a crucifix. Hung from the ceiling, it echoes common ecclesiastical artifacts. The work also acknowledges the Afro centric movement’s revisionist project, which seeks (with cause and without) to correct the Eurocentric bent of world history. Her Christ, in pose, posture, and without penis, provides a chilling allusion to the figure of a lynched man (after lynching, the mob would often cut off the victim’s penis), making the crucial link between the persecution and crucifixion of Christ and the lynching (literal and figura tive) of African-Americans (mostly men).
Lyle Ashton Harris, Constructs #11. 1989
No place, to quote Hall again, is “postmodernism’s deep and ambivalent fascination” with the bodies of black men greater than in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. It is impossible to imagine a discussion of black men without considering Mapplethorpe’s deep engagement in the subject. Exhibited here is a selection of pho tographs originally presented in the infamous Black Book (1986) and an earlier Mapplethorpe book, Black Males (1980). Undoubtedly, Black Book
contains some of the most beautiful images of black men ever taken. Ntozake Shange’s revelatory introductory text takes the form of a poem that offers a corollary to Mapplethorpe’s visual world of splendor and sexual enthrallment. In this complicated allegiance between a black woman and a white gay man, a com mon ground is found. But when the critical discussion about this book moves from bodies to black male bodies, the weight of history shifts. The reception of the photographs, the contro versy they provoked, speaks volumes about the fear of black masculinity and more specifically of the lust and loathing of the big, black dick.
In the wake of Mapplethorpe’s work, there was an entire project in visual art, film, and literature to detach compulsive heterosexuality from black masculinity. This of course is a battle against both rampant homophobia and (hetero) sexual stereo types. A generation of artists after Mapplethorpe, among them Lyle Ashton Harris, has sought to reclaim black homoeroticism and self-representation. Harris’ Constructs (1989), a work of inspired self-portraiture, positions the artist in four different modes. A righteous riff on Mapplethorpe, the photographs are far from Mapplethorpe’s idealized stance. With a figure bald and nude, a wig askew, or a penis peeking through tulle, these images are about prosaic reality which, as the photos attest, is far from ideal. Harris gives himself the subjecthood that Mapplethorpe often denied his subjects.
Christian Walkers photo graphs also function as a meditation on Mapplethorpe. Walker examines the charged terrain of interracial, queer desire, taking Mapplethorpes implicit themes further. He
gives us luscious, sepia-toned photographs of the intertwined bodies of a black man and a white man. Seen in extreme close up, these bodies become abstracted, so that desire is presented without the raucous intonations of sexual stereotype. Here subjecthood is granted with equality, allowing desire to be understood as mutual.
Christian Walker. Miscegenation Series (detail). 1985-88
Glenn Ligons paintings Mudbone (Liar) and Cocaine (Pimps), both of 1993, incorporate classic Richard Pryor jokes from his gritty, comic standup routines. Much of Ligon’s earlier work used the scions of African-American literature—Baldwin, Hurston, etc.—but here he claims Pryor’s text, for the oddly insightful cultural criticism it is. Ligon acknowledges that Pryor is, in his words, a “guilty pleasure” among African-
Americans because he perpetuates stereotypes as he debunks and critiques them. In a strategy similar to that of the Conceptual artist Richard Prince, Ligon recounts jokes from Pryor’s vast arsenal of politicized black (in both senses) humor. Often this humor, as in the case of the two jokes appropriated for the paintings, concerns itself with the myths of black culture (in this case, black male endowment) perpetuated by whites, in the form of in jokes” circulated among the black community. Ligon’s choice of these two texts exemplifies two of Pryor’s strategies: humor as self- affirmation and as brutal truth.
Glenn Ligon. Cocaine (Pimps), 1993
15. Greg Tate, conversation
with the author. July 1994.
16. This is the oft-quoted
coda of Ossie Davis’ eulogy
of Malcolm X.
In recent years, there has been a spate of autobiographies and biographies of contemporary African-American men. Rejecting the silence of earlier generations, these volumes col lectively give voice to the heterogeneity of the community. Notable among them are Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s affectionate, insightful memoir about his childhood in the Jim Crow South, Colored People, Nathan McCall’s Native Son-inspired Makes Me Wanna Holler, and Brent Staples’ Parallel Time, about growing up in and between black and white America. These works coexist with the many recent volumes that detail the
pathology inherent in some black male experi ences, which Greg Tate refers to as the “new” slave narratives—about how people got out, up, and sometimes over.15 What all these texts share is an imperative to tell a story often not heard, to recount the experience of black men, whether known or anonymous. The strategy is similar to much of the work in this exhibition. These texts also provide the vital narratives which amplify the representation of black men in film. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is exemplary within this tradition. Malcolm has come to be seen by some as a black everyman. As eulogized by Ossie Davis, “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black man hood.”16 Everyone has claimed Malcolm, their Malcolm. Malcolm the hustler, Malcolm the revo lutionary, Malcolm the spiritual leader, Malcolm the father, Malcolm the black man.
And it is his significance which Tim Rollins + K.O.S. create a portrait of in their By Any Means Necessary— Nightmare (1986). As young people born after Malcolm’s death, they know him through the critical texts that convey his life. Using their characteristic method of painting on the pages of a book that the group has read and discussed, this work takes its title from one of the pivotal chapters in Malcolm’s autobiography. K.O.S. intervenes over the prophetic and spiri tually engaged text with a freeform X, the iconic signifier of the man, one side of which becomes part of the letter M.
Andres Serrano, Nomads (Rene). 1990
Andres Serrano’s Nomads (1990) are portraits of homeless men from the streets of New York City. Photographed against a stark, anonymous backdrop, they recall the conventions of studio photography; they also owe a debt to Edward Weston and early American ethnographic photography. In these photographs, Serrano allows his subjects
to control their presentation by asking permission to photo graph them and allowing them to determine their pose. Their poses attest to the tragedy of their experience. From the half dark anonymity of Curtis to the assured and ragged Rene, these men seem to welcome the blank space of the studio’s bare backdrops to define their manhood.
Lorna Simpson, Gestures/Reenactments (detail). 1985
Moses, a 1985 Jeff Koons work, comments on American consumerism. An actual 6 x 4-foot poster advertising Nike athletic equipment, the work pictures the pro basketball player Moses Malone. Koons makes the crucial association between class, desire, and consumer objects. He makes clear, by height
ening the irony of what is being sold by whom, that the marketing of this equipment and the sport is dependent on societal notions of the role of black men and on the increasingly racialized nature of professional basketball.
Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems both provide visions of black masculinity from a black female perspective. This is a highly complicated position given the events of recent history. Michele Wallace’s 1979 landmark book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf were both received with great criticism by black men for what was seen as their pro woman, feminist (read anti-male) sentiments. This battle has been waged in public and even deemed to be evidence of collusion between
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitlod (Kitchen Table Series), 1990
Danny Tisdale, Buster Douglas, from Twentieth Century Black Men. 1991-
black women and white men to further deni grate black men. Simpson and Weems step out side this fray by offering works which provide a narrative not often seen in contemporary popu lar culture, a narrative which evidences a rela tionship between the genders, informed by race but not purely antagonistic. Weems’ Kitchen Table Series (1990) examines an intimate, domestic relationship between a man and a woman. Weems allows the viewer to enter into this nar rative with limited details. Following the pro gression of the photographs and text fragments, each life becomes clearer with the give and take between voices, which slowly reveals a struggle
of passion and power within this tiny, unmediated sphere. Lorna Simpson’s Gestures/Reenactments (1985) demands that the viewer find meaning between the image and text. Simpson’s photos are sparse. They exhibit the body of a black man, with out a context; simply gestures. The gestures give the black man a graceful and commanding body language, while the texts below the photos allude to the subject as son, lover, friend, etc.
They are presented in a variety of voices that are unclassifiable as male or female. These fragments, like the text and images in the Weems’ work, connect this man to a community by identifying those around him, belying the image of the socially deviant image of black men often circulated.
Danny Tisdale’s ongoing series Twentieth Century Black Men uses images of black masculinity culled from many popular sources—newspapers, books, television, and film. In a contact-sheet format that alludes to Warhol, Tisdale copies the images and shows them in grids. He rereads these images through the alternative lens of a black- centered take on popular culture, from images as indelible as the video still of the King beating to anonymous mug shot photographs; all contribute to the understanding of contemporary black
Adrian Piper, Vanilla Nightmares 918. 1987
17. Judith Wilson,
“In Memory of the
News and of Our Selves:
The Art of Adrian Piper,”
(Fall-Winter 1991). p. 47.
America. In this exhibition, the works insinuate themselves into the fabric of the show as visual cues, as mediators between life and art.
For her Vanilla Nightmares drawings, an ongoing project, Adrian Piper also worked with newspapers, specifically The New York Times. These surreal collage drawings represent intrusive interventions, a critique of absence, or in some cases problematic presence. Using charcoal, Piper draws directly on the news print, with the original text and photos becoming part of her work. The subtle quality of the medium makes the drawings appear to come directly out of
the page, like ghosts. In Vanilla Nightmares #18 (1987), she uses a page with an American Express advertisement with its ubiquitous tag line, “membership has its privileges.” Piper sur rounds the text with a sea of black faces that insinuates an alternate reading of the ad copy. Here again she works with white fears and projections of blackness, sexuality, and male- ness, what Judith Wilson has called the “phenomenology of racial identity and the pathology of racism.”17
Leon Golub, Three Seated Black Men, 1986
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Aaron), 1981
18. Baldwin said this
repeatedly in lectures attend
ed by the author at Amherst
College in the winter of
1984. It was also quoted by
Maya Angelou in her eulogy
Leon Golubs work presents a challenge to presumptions about race, particularly the politics of image-making about race. As a painter who has continually transformed the figurative tra dition, Golub always centers on the political. Four Black Men (1985) and Three Seated Black Mett (1986) eloquently portray a vision of black masculinity not often seen. While taken from specific images in newspapers and magazines, the paintings read outside this context, outside any historical moment, and res onate, through the strength of the images and drama of the scale, dignity and an expansive notion of black masculinity.
It is this more wide-ranging perception of black masculinity that is presented in the final section of the exhibition, coded as green. Terra Firuia (1991), a life-sized figurative sculpture by Alison Saar, derives its meaning from the metaphoric quality
of the materials. The hard, dark, impenetrable quality of the wood exists in contrast to the light ness of the rusting ceiling tin which is shaped into trousers. When viewed in the light of classical odalisques, the figure seems languid and serene. When approached with the references of contem porary culture, he seems desperate, despairing, and perhaps even dead.
Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and breathed black masculinity. He exemplifies all the contradictions, from extreme fame and genius to insoluble pathology. It remains debatable what exactly Basquiat, as artist, knew and what he seemed to understand intuitively. His trademark crown, which appears and reappears through much of his work, relates to James Baldwin’s metaphor: “African-Americans need to reclaim their (lost) crowns and wear them.”18
To Baldwin, this crowning was necessary, vital in the face of the constant denigration of blackness. Basquiat’s crowns, like Baldwins literary constructs, confer regal status on the black man. When coupled with his title references to famous African- American men, his work becomes a cumulative homage. In the set of drawings presented in this exhibition, “famous negro
19. Miles Davis, with
Quincy Troupe, Miles:
(New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1989), p. 315.
athletes” are the subject. The text of these drawings is like a concrete poem with elliptical visual references. Basquiat iden tified with these athletes, their prowess, and their stardom,
which seems so analogous to his own. In the same commemorative spirit, Carrie Mae Weems
uses the format of decorative souvenir plates. Those presented here in Commemorating (1991) specifically memorialize African-American men. Simply stated and beautifully executed in creamy bone china, these plates employ the strategies of eighties commodity appropriation to further investigate the texture of African-American culture. Weems uses her training and experience as a folklorist to select a range of subjects and events to commemorate, from the famous to the anonymous and arcane. In this affirmative gesture, Weems makes a self definitive statement about the contributions of African- American men in American history.
Sports is also the subject of Gary Simmons’ sculpture Step In The Arena (The Essentialist Trap) (1994). This work, a full-scale boxing ring, conflates boxing with tap dancing. Miles Davis made the same connection between the sport and dance. Commenting on a soundtrack he recorded for the film about the African-American boxer Jack Johnson, he said, “I had that boxer’s movement in mind, that shuffling movement boxers use. They’re almost like dance steps, or like the sound of a train. “This shuffling is literally transposed by Simmons in the dance step patterns on the floor of the ring, and further echoed in the shoes hanging over the ropes of the ring. Simmons is also aware of the performative element inherent in boxing and dance. Both exist within the contradictory, racially based assumptions about natural skill and genetic talent versus intelligence. Black men have innovated and excelled in both arenas, mainly for the consumption of non-black audiences. Boxing is often seen and spoken of as a contest of the races. The great success of the Rocky films was due, in part, to the defeat of the black boxer by the white one. Simmons works in this richly symbolic, sociohistorical terrain, using a severe formal language influenced by Minimalism.
Kevin Everson, Mansfield, Ohio, End Table, 1994
Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon’s collaborative work Rumble, Young Man, Rumble (1993) incorporates an excerpt of text from the film The Greatest about Muhammad Ali, a personal hero for both artists because of his outspokenness. Portions of Ali’s dialogue from the film are imprinted on a punching bag. The words chosen refer to the “battle” for equality, which makes the bag particularly appropriate, not only because Ali was a boxer, but also because it represents his continual state of contest as a black man in and out of the ring.
The oft-repeated statistic that one in four young black men is involved in the criminal justice system means that in some places, prisons become a part of everyday life. Such a place is Mansfield, Ohio, the subject (both named and unnamed) in much of Kevin Everson’s work. Everson uses autobiography as the source of his Mansfield, Ohio sculptures. The title refers to the artist’s hometown, and the subject of the works is the jail housed there and its central role in the
Barkley L. Hendricks, George Jules Taylor, 1972
identity of the city and its mostly black residents. Appropriating the institutional language and symbols of the prison as his aes thetic vocabulary, Everson investigates identity and destiny. He uses found photographs and prison layouts to examine the complicated, but now natural relationship between the black men incarcerated and those charged with maintaining, at the lowest level, this incarceration. And the Minimalist-inspired sculptural forms that suggest nondescript household furniture insinuate the somewhat inevitable relationship between the prison and the domestic sphere in Everson s world.
“Realness,” or the desire to convey authenticity, is rampant in black popu lar culture. There is a never-ending reevaluation of what constitutes the real in black life. It is within this dia logue that Barkley L. Hendricks’ paint ings can be evaluated. Coming out of a desire for authentic depictions, Hendricks’ works are period pieces that represent a hybrid of black cultural consciousness and contemporary art practice. With almost Photo-Realist precision, Hendricks’ populates his paintings with real subjects drawn from the community. His ambitious body of work provides an astounding arsenal of every vision of black masculinity possi ble. Tuff Tony (1978) exerts a youthful aggression as he pushes out of the frame. North Philly Niggah (1975) pictures a player, dressed straight out
of the Eleganza catalogue, a style which looks almost current due to its recent, notable revival by the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg in his It’s a Doggy Dogg World video.
Much like the comic Richard Pryor, Robert Colescott has always employed biting irony and humor in his painting. Also like Pryor, Colescott has continually been censored for what
deem highly questionable images. In George Washington
Robert Colescott, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1983
Career Crossing the Delaware: Page from American History (1975), Colescott recasts the famous American painting of the other George crossing the Delaware, inserting George Washington Carver, the African-American inventor, for George Washington. In addition, he replaces Washingtons stern,serious co-horts with a motley crew barely contained by the boat. This painting comes out of a series in which Colescott exchanges white faces for black ones, creating a racially charged, ironic reading of famil iar work. Colescott plays not only on white perceived stereotypes, but also on the fear many blacks have about the circulation of these stereotypes. He paints the lips of his figures big and
the eyes white, coming quite close to stereotypical representa tions created by whites. Temptation of St. Anthony (1983) is a raunchy exegesis on the black male/white female myth, where the black saint is “tempted” by a bevy of white women. Again Colescott enters directly into the highly intricate terrain of racial and sexual myths and critiques with humor.
Ralph Ellisons concept of invisibility is resonant once again in the work of Fred Wilson. His sculpture Guarded View (1991), four headless black mannequins in museum guard uniforms, brings many of the issues explored in this exhibition directly into the museum space. Invisibility here takes the form of black male guards who guard the presence of “art,” while rarely being seen as individualized presences. Like the exhibition itself, Wilson offers these invisible men as either objects of a self-determined vision or invisibility. Are they both? Neither? This is the challenge that must be confronted in order to understand the highly charged, often conflicted presence of African-American men in American culture.
- Structure Bookmarks
- My Brothe