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BETTY BROWN


"BLACK MALE:" AN IMAGINARY DIALOGUE
ON THE CONSEQUENCES OF IMAGES


[1] [2]

[3] [4]

(1) Artis Lane, "Emerging Now, Man Fragment 1", ceramic shell resin, wire (steel base).
(2) Donald Bernard, "Justice In The Media", mixed media
(3) Roland Charles, "Still Strong After All These Years", photograph
(4) Calvin Hicks, "Lovers #2", photograph


All works from the exhibition series,"African-American Representation of Masculinity"
Since it opened at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum last month, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art has been widely discussed and reacted to. Indeed, since first going on view at the Whitney Museum, the originating institution, last year it may have been one of the most anticipated shows of the season. Among a number of spin-off exhibitions developed in response, Cecil Fergerson led a significant local effort to refocus the image of African American men as seen through their own eyes in three shows presented by the Museum of African American Art, the William Grant Still Arts Center, and the Watts Towers Art Center, African American Representation of Masculinity. Dr. Brown has long been a feminist activist in addition to her professional activities as an art historian, writer and curator. Here she contributes some perspectives on the broader social issues raised by these shows as an imaginary conversation with some powerful African American commentators. --Ed.

"Our images seem to be so one-sided of black people, of black family, especially of black men. I think it's evident if you think about the woman who drowned her children and blamed it on a black man. The man who killed his wife and blamed it on a black man. Everybody believed it. It was no big deal. . .I think it will only change when we have more images."
Pat Ward Williams to Lynell George Los Angeles Times

How do we move beyond stereotypes? How do we expand the perimeters of our images of others beyond categorical cliché? How do we disengage all-too-fixed notions of race, gender and class? Can we--indeed, should we?

To deal with the last question first, I think that it is important that we develop stategies for moving past the limitations of traditional stereotype-rendered horizons. The consequence of not doing so is that we will find ourselves trapped in an ever-narrowing, ever more threatenting terrain of we/they, self/other separatness.

The way we think is embodied by and reflected in the images we produce. If we conceive and depict in stereotypes, the range of solutions we bring to any life challenge is diminished. Multiple and diverse portrayals of ourselves--all of our selves--and our lives, inspired by new thoughts, in turn inspires new thought.

"To establish a new framework, we need to begin with a frank acknowledgement of the basic humannes and Americanness of each of us. And we must acknowledge that as a people--E Pluribus Unum--we are on a slippery slope toward economic strife, social turmoil, and cultural chaos. If we go down, we go down together. The Los Angeles upheaval forced us to see not only that we are not connected in ways that we would like to be but also, in a more profound sense, that this failure to connect binds us even more tightly together."
Cornel West, Race Matters

I am preparing this column in advance of the Black Male, Representation of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art exhibition curated by Thelma Golden. I decided to approach it as a dialogue with African American commentators because a primary intention of the organizers was precisely to stimulate dialogue. Some of you may regard it as "politically incorrect" that a Euro-American such as myself to "speak for" any people of color. But it is enlightened dialogue that is important, and I employ this format in an effort to structurally disrupt any authoritarian stance of the "objective" mode of discourse.

Speaking of dialogues, among several locally-generated exhibitions that add to the bulk of the Whitney/Hammer exhibition, the three organized by artist and curator Cecil Fergerson are of particular note. He determined the need for this when he concluded that the Whitney show was, once again, a case of black men's images being controlled by others: the curator is female, and many of the artists are not black.

In order to develop an authentic sense of self, any disenfranchised group must wrest from the dominant culture some control of how it is portrayed in text and image. We who have been active in the Women's Movement, like those in the Civil Rights Movement, continue to fight for the power to determine what we call ourselves, what we are called, how we present ourselves, how we are represented. Cornel West's written ideas strike parallels between issues of black and feminist representation.

"White supremacist ideology is based first and foremost on the degradation of black bodies in order to control them. One of the best ways to instill fear in people is to terrorize them. Yet this fear is best sustained by convincing them that their bodies are ugly, their intellect is unherently underdeveloped, their culture is less civilized, and their future warrants less concern than that of other peoples."
Cornel West, Race Matters

As a female, I read this and think of cultural messages that tell women the same thing. Many feminist theorists have looked to the mass media to deconstruct such negative messages:

". . .and that's Hollywood, the place where white suprematist captialist patriarchy can keep reinventing itself, no matter how many times the West is decentered. Hollywood is the new plantation, getting more chic with the times."
bell hooks, Artforum, March 1995

Because the mass media in general and film in particular--since film is our major myth-making medium--are paramount in developing the sterotypes that represent African Americans, it is appropriate that Black Male includes a selection of over 100 films, including major feature films, documentaries, television commercials, and artist videos. As I scan the titles, I recall West's discussion of the ambivalence inherent in the dominant images of black men:

"One irony of our present moment is that just as young black men are murdered, maimed, and imprisoned in record numbers, their styles have become disproportionately influential in shaping popular culture. For most young black men, power is acquired by stylizing their bodies over space and time in such a way that their bodies reflect their uniqueness and provoke fear in others. To be 'bad' is good not simply because it subverts the language of the dominant white culture, but also becuase it imposes a unique kind of order for young black men on their own distinctive chaos and solicits an attention that makes others pull back with some trepidation. This young black male style is a form of self-identification and resistance in a hostile culture; it also is an instance of machismo identity ready for violent encounters."
Cornel West, Race Matters

Much of the art in Black Male deals with the often unjust response of the police to that "badness" and violence. David Hammons' Injustice Case (1970) presents the profile view of a man who strains to resist the mummy-like encasements of suffocating gag and multiple straps binding him to a chair. The large monoprint, which reads like a full-body police fingerprint, is ironically framed by an American flag. Mel Chin's Night Rap is a take-off on a police billy club, it's handle sculpted into an erect penis. As bell hooks reminds us, "Domination is always and only patriarchal--a dick thing." In the show's catalogue Night Rap is placed opposite a still from George Holliday's videotape of the Rodney King beating. Nearby is Carl Pope's From the Trophy Collection of the Indianapolis Police Department (1992), a trophy etched with the text: "FIRST PLACE To OFFICER JOHN W. ISOM For The POLICE ACTION KILLING Of PEDRO SANCHEZ, 1986."

Renee Cox' It Shall Be Named (1994) is a compelling collage of eleven photographs of a naked man within a cruciform frame. In referencing the execution of a perceived enemy of the Roman Empire, this piece explores the oppositional stance many attribute to African American men, evoking a syumpathetic emotional response. By not including any genital image in this collage, the artist effectively castrates the crucified form. Which brings us to the issue of sex. It plays a primary role in both the exhibition and, I would argue, in the dominant cultural stereotypes of black males. If you doubt this, take a look at Robert Mapplethorpe's Untitled (1981), one of his series of black male nudes that focused heavily on the penis. I recall at the 1993 Whitney Biennial seeing Glenn Ligon's Notes on the Margin of the 'Black Book' installation, which paired works from the Mapplethorpe series with commentary by diverse male and female artists, theorists and artists' models (Ligon is also featured in the present show). I concluded that Mapplethorpe's images reinforce the dominant stereotype--that black men are always sexual, always sexualized, and (dare I write it?) always well-hung.

"Americans are obsessed with sex and fearful of black sexuality. The obsession has to do with a search for stimulation and meaning in a fast-paced, market driven culture; the fear is rooted in visceral feelings about black bodies and fueled by sexual myths of black women and men. . .The myths offer distorted, dehumanized creatures whose bodies--color of skin, shaped of nose and lips, type of hair, size of hips--are already distinguished from the white norm of beauty and whose fearful sexual activities are deemed disgusting, dirty, or funky and considered less acceptable. . .Black sexuality is a taboo subject in America principally because it is a form of black power over which whites have little control--yet its visible manifestations evoke the most visceral of white responses, be it one of seductive obsession or downright disgust. . .Black sexuality puts black agency center stage with no white presence at all."
Cornel West, Race Matters

Given my agreement with West, I want to single out Lyle Ashton Harris' work in the show precisely because it dismantles the sexual and sexualized components of the dominant stereotype. It expands the limits of our previously held (and limited) imagery.

"Oppositional representation of the black male body that does not perpetuate white suprematist captialist patriarchy will not be highly visible unless we change the way we see and what we look for. More important than the race, gender, class or sexual practice of the image maker is the perspective, the location from which we look and the plitical choices that inform what we hope these images will be and do. Lyle Ashton Harris has set an aesthetic agenda: 'I see myself involved in a project of resuscitation--giving life back to the black male body.' As that life is made more visible in images, as the diversity of perspective emerges, the vision of radical black male subjects claiming their bodies will stand forever in resistance, calling us to contestation and interrogation, calling us all to release the black male body and let it live again."
bell hooks, in the Black Male catalogue