BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE at the Black Portraitures II Conference in Florence was as great as we all expected. The featured members of  The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Faculty Seminar (@raceandvisual) did not disappoint! Kimberly Juanita Brown (Mt. Holyoke), Sandy Alexandre (MIT), Dell Hamilton (Harvard), and Christina Sharpe (Tufts) gave all of us so much to process. Once you begin a session with Dr. Alexandre playing Zebra Katz’s single “Ima Read” (2012), featuring Njena Reddd Foxxx, you know you’re in for a ride! I may be biased as a member of The Dark Room, but this was my favorite panel of the weekend (besides my own). This was one of many #blackgirlmagic moments throughout the weekend. (I’ll have more to say about how much black girls rock in my next post.)

BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE (adapted from the conference proceedings): This panel engaged blackness in the public sphere as a production of contingent negotiations: history, temporality, visuality, language, and corporeality. In this roundtable featuring members of the Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Studies Seminar, each speaker not only highlighted a particular aspect of the imagery of blackness as a function of the public sphere, but also considered both the aesthetic and sociopolitical implications of that public appearance. Taken together, the papers demonstrated their writers’ concerted commitment to examining one important question: What are the uses and misuses of blackness in the public sphere, and what work might analysis do in the service of stanching the tide of its appropriation and misappropriation?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sandy Alexandre: “Black and Read All Over: Hypervisibled People,” was at once a riff on and a modern-day attempt at expanding the important conversation about race and visuality in America that Ellison’s Invisible Man initiated a little over sixty years ago. Consequently, the theoretical exercise of my paper is prompted by two 21st-century moments: Zebra Katz’s single “Ima Read” (2012), featuring Njena Reddd Foxxx, and a line from Claudia Rankine’s most recent book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). ), which reads as follows: “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.” What work, if any, does the hurtful, yet often intentionally humorous language associated with “throwing shade”—of “reading and proofreading” fellow black people—do to relieve the daily stresses of being discernible and therefore susceptible to being labeled, described, and depicted? In other words does the wit and imaginativeness of such exploitive and hurtful language actually help deflect attention away from the person being subjected to a read? Conversely, when does the humbling or chastening intention of “a read” become a crippling? What, if anything, is the antidote to being returned to your body—returned to your physical presence—via disparaging language? Can anything, in the realm of language or beyond it, successfully fend off such a detailed description of your person?

Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Erykah Badu’s Ambulatory Acts”: In the 2010 music video for her song Window Seat, Erykah Badu uses the layers, the historical resonance, and the site-specific invocation of her native Dallas, Texas in order to locate her black female body against the public encroachments of race and gender. Endeavoring to possess the spectacle of her own flesh as a creative negotiation of meaning-making, Badu inhabits the path around Dealey Plaza, the location of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (grassy knoll and all) in order to reclaim her visibility and the import of her body’s utility in a fluid moving frame. Though it will eventually enter the public sphere as evidence of her transgression (the video is used by police in order to charge her later with disorderly conduct), the video as it stands is the performative engagement of a black artist entering the landscape in order to dismantle some of the power located there.

Dell Hamilton, “Trouble My Water: Public and Private Actions of Self-Performance”: This talk highlighted Hamilton’s art practice and how she regularly deploys her own body and personal memories to engage with the aftermath of trauma and its implications for understanding race, identity, gender, and citizenship. Also included in this discussion is a brief look at the work of several contemporary artists and scholars who critically influence the ongoing research and development of her work. Ultimately, she views her projects as vehicles of adaptation and re-invention that thoughtfully interrogate notions of the public and personal. As a result, these re-imagined spaces serve as fruitful sites for negotiating and examining the role of art and its socio-political relationship to power, belonging, and loss.

Christina Sharpe, “Black Lives: Annotated” Christina Sharpe relayed the demands of and on blackness’s circulations in public spheres. If portraiture is both the “art of creating portraits” and “graphic and detailed description,” how are desires to be seen and to participate in image making attempts to not accede to the deathly demands of the anti-black worlds in which we live and work and struggle to make visible all kinds of Black futures.

Black Portraitures II: Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To say that the Black Portraiture{s} II Conference that took place in Florence, Italy (May 28-31) was phenomenal does not quite capture the artistic and intellectual vibrancy–chemistry really–of the dynamic scholars and artists that gathered there. Such an honor to have known Dr. Deborah Willis, her artistic work and scholarship on photography for so many years. Dr. Willis is the University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She and her wonderful team of staff members from NYU, Harvard University, and other sites, executed a seamless conference experience from beginning to end.

Nikki A. Greene and Deborah Willis

Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art with Matthew D. Morrison, Kwami Coleman, and Imani Uzuri was one of my most fulfilling professional panels of my career. Moderated by jazz musician Hank Thomas, the description of our panel is as follows:

By listening to and engaging sonic histories and performances of blackness, this panel seeks to complement/complicate visual representations of blackness in Western art, as we consider how sound is articulated from, outside of, and onto (black) bodies through art, music, and performance. (Dis)Embodied acts of improvising and composing (of sound and identity), the “spirit” of sound, and the politics of (black) sound’s reception and circulation, will be themes that run throughout this panel.

Really, when you have a “spare hour,” hear us talk about our passion surrounding music. The whole panel was phenomenal (if I do say so myself). You won’t regret it. My paper “Facing the Music: Radcliffe Bailey, Sun Ra, and the African Diasporic Body” begins around minute 32. A heartfelt THANK YOU to Dr. Therí A. Pickens, who offered her take on our panel in her blog post, “Scholar Fierce: Doing Dilettante as a Scholar.” Dr. Pickens gracious remarks include:

During this panel, I felt like I learned some pretty basic stuff about jazz (how to listen), black figures in classical music, and how to read art (whether sung or materially crafted). In those moments, worlds opened up. I don’t want to overstate the case by saying that the earth moved. However, the tectonic plates of knowledge I have (which tend to move slowly) quaked and changed the terrain of my knowledge… just a bit. (Girl, thanks, for real!)

C’mon, now. THAT has to convince you to watch. For other recordings from the Black Portraiture{s} II conference, please visit the Black Portraitures website.

My next post will feature photos from BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE at Black Portraitures II.

Even if you don’t have a full hour (and twelve minutes), here is a two-minute video of Imani singing from my perspective on the stage. I had to follow Imani Uzuris singing performance, so it took me a moment to gather myself.  She’s amazing. Enjoy!

Black Portraitures II in Florence – May 28-May 31

Some will rush to the Venice Biennale, but Florence, this weekend, is where everyone should be! BLACK PORTRAITURES II! The gathering of hundreds will bring some of the most brilliant, avant-garde artists, writers, historians, performers, and scholars from around the world. As the organizers explain, “In this context, ‘Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging Histories,’ explores the impulses, ideas, and techniques undergirding the production of self-representation and desire, and the exchange of the gaze from the 19th century to the present day in fashion, film, art, and the archives.” @BlackPortraits2

Out of Body: Composing Blackness

I’m thrilled–and humbled–to participate on the panel on Saturday, May 30, “OUT OF BODY: COMPOSING BLACKNESS THROUGH SOUND, MUSIC, AND (PERFORMANCE) ART,” with Jeff Rabhan, Matthew D. Morrison, Kwame Coleman, Courtney Bryan, and Imani Uzuri. My paper “Facing the Music: Radcliffe Bailey, Sun Ra, and the African Diasporic Body” will be just one iteration of how so many folks wrestle with the musical possibilities of black identity.

The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Faculty Seminar (@raceandvisual) will also be on hand with a special panel: BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE

The Dark Room: Black Portraitures II

There are talented composers and performers on this panel.  I’ve been listening to Imani for the last couple of days to get my mind right. Hope it helps you get yours right, too. I can’t wait to meet Imani and so many others this weekend. Florence is calling…Venice will have to week…until next week.

“Esperanza Spalding, a portrait” by Bo Gehring is Black Gold

Esperanza Spalding is not the kind of celebrity that the public searches for scathing beach shots or rumors of affairs. She’s made her mark on the music industry being the kind of thoughtful, extremely talented singer, songwriter and musician with which we wish the pop charts could be filled. In Bo Gehring’s Esperanza Spalding, a portrait (2014), she’s adorned, but not flashy. There are no tell-tell signs of luxury from the world’s top designers–no Versace gown or Louboutin shoes. Spalding carefully chose her look with sustainable materials and craftsmanship in mind. As the National Portrait Gallery states in its press release of this commissioned video portrait:

For the sitting, Spalding wore jewelry from Red Earth Trading Co. Her skirt is by Tara St. James of Study, a New York-based ethical brand using sustainable materials, and the dress under the skirt is from Tamara Horton of Studio Samuel, a small company that goes to Ethiopia to teach women to sew. The shoes are from What’s More Alive Than You, an Italian company that makes high heels out of old tables.

The architectural foundation of the wooden shoes, the twinkling gold rings, and the metallic layering of those beautiful fabrics present Spalding with the refinement of a woman so self-possessed that she shines.

With this kind of careful intentionality in displaying not only herself but also the work of others (you can literally see the different kinds of stitching used by the seamstresses), how did Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott arrive at this closing sentence in “Esperanza Spalding: Up Close but Not Personal”?

“The camera can’t get any closer, and still it reveals nothing, leaving the viewer feeling a bit cheated, a bit aggressive, and a bit disgusted.”

Cheated? He has a problem with her “celebrity” and resultant ease before Gehring’s camera. Kennicott doesn’t acknowledge that though Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011, she still doesn’t have the kind of recognizability of Justin Beiber, who she beat out for the category that year. So, why would anyone see this portrait as impersonal? If the viewer, in fact, feels “a bit cheated,” that has nothing to do with Bo Gehring’s technique or portrayal of Spalding nor does it have to do with the musician directly. The viewer must check his or her own value placed on celebrity, on a specific kind of self-seeking, attention-grabbing, over-produced sort (i.e. Justin Beiber).

Bo Gehring won the 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery with his video portrait of a furniture worker, Jessica Wichmanwhich featured the sitter in modest clothes, including a slightly soiled jacket. The subject lays relatively stiff and uncomfortably during the scan, thereby offering a much more vulnerable portrayal. What Kennicott neglects to note in comparison to Bo Gehring’s winning portrait is that Spalding, too, is a worker. When you arrive at Spalding’s hands–the first sight of her body beyond her feet–you see short, unmanicured fingernails, the tools of a bassist. Yes, she smiles. She’s responding to the music. Yes, she’s styled. That’s part of her work, too.

Esperanza hands
Bo Gehring, “Esperanza Spalding, a portrait.” Video Still. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 2014.

Aggressive? The portrait of Spalding embodies the very lyrics that she gracefully performs on “Black Gold” that somewhat explains Kennicott’s false description of the artist:

Now maybe no one else has ever told you so
But you’re golden, baby
Black Gold with a diamond soul
Think of all the strength you have in you
From the blood you carry within you
Ancient men, powerful men
Builders of civilization
They’ll be folks hell-bent on putting you down
Don’t get burned
‘Cause not necessarily everyone will know your worth

Disgusted? Many visual artists have addressed directly the ways in which the portrayal of the black female body has been systematically degraded, especially within the art world. I’m thinking here of Faith Ringgolds series of paintings revising the very history of art by inserting herself, her family members, historical figures and other black bodies directly into versions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Most recently, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, engendered disgust for me in how others responded (see Azucar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”). As an art historian, I also think of philosopher and artist Dr. Adrian Piper‘s assertion that there is a “triple negation of the colored woman artist,” a dismissal of her worth just for being “colored,” a woman, and an artist (See Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetics, edited by Lowery Stokes Sims. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, 239–48). Dr. Deborah Willis‘ book and traveling exhibition Posing Beauty in African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2009) offers over 200 photographs of wonderfully diverse representations of the beauty of the black body from vintage ladies’ journal to newspapers. Posing Beauty is only one of many books on photography by Willis that documents and historicizes black folk looking good, “knowing their worth.” Philip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic, did not see his own shortcoming of ascribing to some vague guidelines on how black beauty should be portrayed and appreciated. What should she have looked like? I dare not ask.

When the camera pans on Spalding’s face, did you catch the slight flittering grin and knowing nod? She glows under Gehring’s lens, not just because she’s so used to being in front of the camera and in the public eye, as Kennicott suggests, but rather in concert with the music, she knows intimately the brilliance of the song she chose, Wayne Shorter’s “Tarde” (1974). Yes, Gehring’s camera reveals something, Mr. Kennicott: Spaulding is as radiant as Black Gold.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: