Blackness

by Pedro Morais

Or to disappear in plain sight

Somewhere between the debate about the de-colonization of museums and the desire to get away from identitarian labels, a new generation of artists and researchers, venues and curators is assuming both the need to tackle structural racism and the creation of spaces of opaqueness, fugitiveness and future assertiveness.

In October 2018, when the philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva (known for her work on the notion of the “Racial Other” as a basis of the colonial geopolitics of universalism) met with the black queer studies theoretician Christina Sharpe (author of the famous In the Wake: On Blackness and Being1) and the political scientist Françoise Vergès (who, in Un féminisme décolonial2, deals with the issue of white civilizational feminism), at the invitation of Tina Campt (who, in Listening to Images3, tries to listen to the practices of muted refusal in ethnographical and legal photos), the sensation of an historic moment swept through the packed room. A de-centralized history, in the process of being written, was finally jostling the discussion of ideas in France. The meeting was held in the Paris annex of Columbia University, which had just opened an ambitious Institute for Ideas and Imagination, run by the historian Mark Mazower, and bringing together researchers, writers, and artists for a year’s residency (including the philosophers Elsa Dorlin and Achille Membe). One of the residents, Tina Campt, had managed to bring together some of the most brilliant present-day theoreticians around a discussion about black futurity.4 There has always been the issue of recognizing that the “black question” is a construct imposed by the history of slavery and colonization, but this discussion also focused on this openness: this “futurity”, the possibility of a future. “The past still lies ahead of us, it is our future”, explained Vergès. It was perhaps not haphazard that the discussion took place in the annex of an American university, something that would certainly fuel the arguments of a French press panicked by the alleged arrival of a Marshall plan encouraging an identitarian communitarianism aimed at destroying the fine project of French universalism.5 As the very opposite of what might be suggested by this war scenario suddenly discovered by a disconnected press, Columbia was keen to set up its Institute in Paris, interested as it was by a “unique cultural vitality” and a special area of research for post-colonial studies, according to its director Mark Mazower.

Josèfa Ntjam, Mont Cameroun, 2019. Photomontage.

Essentialization and condescendence

Such trans-Atlantic university exchanges have a lengthy tradition, for example the funding that the historian Fernand Braudel found for the creation of the Maison des sciences de l’Homme (1970), and then the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (1975). It was incidentally in the latter that, in 2017, the art historian Anne Lafont was appointed director of art historical and Creole studies. A major event: a black woman discreetly but surely opening up art history to the “enemy” discipline of visual cultures, as well as to gender and post-colonial studies. This year, Anne Lafont has acquired a decisive visibility, joining the scientific committee for the exhibition “Black Models, from Géricault to Matisse”, at the Musée d’Orsay, in tandem with the publication of her book L’art et la race – L’Africain (tout) contre l’œil des Lumières.6 She has played a key part in the recognition by the museum that it is not politically neutral in its use of language, detecting any imprint of a mental colonialism still inclined to promote the idea of “civilizing missions”, “primitivism” and forms of cultural hierarchy and essentialism. In the catalogue,7 while acknowledging the historic role of the exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” curated by Jean-Hubert Martin (1989), she, alongside David Bindman, breaks a certain consensus, regarding it to be “founded on the setting of another category that is problematic because it is insufficiently contextualized: the non-Occidental as the eternal Other”. To underwrite the supreme principle governing the autonomy of the work, based on the Greenberg formalist legacy (or in its revised and updated version in the magazine October), French institutions prefer to re-direct the debate about the “politics of identities” to sectorial institutions like the Quai Branly museum of indigenous arts. Anne Lafont incidentally sings the praises of the pioneering nature of the exhibitions curated by Daniel Soutif which have been held there (“The Jazz Century” in 2009, and “The Color Line” in 2016), “even if oddly programmed in the museum of Others”. The exhibition “Black Models” marked a milestone, and also gave rise to much discussion. The collective known as “Décoloniser les arts”, and in particular Françoise Vergès with her text “Corps noirs, vies muettes. Quand le modèle noir masque l’histoire de la fabrication du blanc”8, have harshly criticized the exhibition with regard to the need to “shift from the fact of having been represented to the fact of self-representation”. “By starting with slavery”, Vergès continues, “ the exhibition confines Blacks, of all genders, within a history set in place by Europeans, and in so doing reproduces their objectification”, though she does not go so far as to call into question the boundaries between arts and crafts, which would  have made it possible to include forms of self-representation.

Minia Biabiany, Toli Toli, 2018. Video installation, Xe Berlin Bienniale, We don’t need another hero, 2018. Produced thanks to the Horizn Biennial Award. Photo : Tim Ohler .

De-colonizing everything and nothing, gagging the conflict

So how is it possible to go on regarding this debate as an Anglo-Saxon anomaly, alien to the immaculate French universalist doctrine? Not a week goes by in Paris without us witnessing the publication of a book, or the holding of a conference or militant meeting seeking to broaden the argument. If this French institutional closedness is peddled by the media, insistently wielding the  “indigenist” threat (calling to mind the brutal rejection of any person, near or far, identified with the Republic’s Natives (Indigènes), whose manifesto was published shortly before the 2005 riots in the suburbs), many curators and institutions pivotal for contemporary art have created international exchange networks and developed thinking on the subject. From the ground-breaking work of Le Peuple Qui Manque, Clémentine Deliss, Marie Canet, Lotte Arndt and Virginie Bobin (with the magazine Qalqalah), to young curators such as Cédric Fauq, Eva Barois de Caevel and Mawrena Yehouessi, by way of the programmes of certain Paris venues—La Colonie, Bétonsalon, the Villa Vassilieff, the Kadist Foundation and the much-missed Khiasma—, new centres have sprung up involved in changing paradigms and language. To a point where the summons to “de-colonize”, which has become synonymous with a tool for undoing power-plays and the reproduction of inequality structures, might well have watered down its field of action (de-colonizing museums, but also imaginations, bodies, and work). This certainly attracts criticisms, for example from Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, who remind us that “decolonization is not a metaphor”, and Catherine E. Walsh, who bids us to beware of the levity of its adjectival and rhetorical use.9 For Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, director of SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin, de-colonization must remain faithful to Fanon’s “programme of absolute disorder”, and summon the sonic memory of bodies, in a state of sedimentation since “the Black Atlantic” (from the title of Paul Gilroy’s essay, conjuring up the Atlantic slave trade) which represents the hard drive of rebellious musical practices more effective in “hacking” the colonial system than visual culture.10 “We want to get away from privileges and invitations, we want to negotiate our way of being here, we want to flee”, writes Olivier Marboeuf, inspired by Fred Moten’s thinking about a fugitiveness (echoing that of slaves) that undoes the heroic imagination of struggles, and sometimes escapes from visibility, making it possible to “get one’s breath back, gather one’s strength, and make alliances with the quick and the dead”, in the face of the strategy of enhancement and sudden visibility adopted in the art arena.11

Minia Biabiany, Blue Spelling, a change of perspective is a change of temporality, 2017. HD video, color, 2’22.

Methods of refusal

The field of references is becoming wider, with a keen awareness of intersectionality, overlapping with feminism by way of queer literature (Audre Lorde, bell hooks), science-fiction (Octavia E. Butler), critical de-identification (José Esteban Muñoz) and cultural studies (Stuart Hall). The latest (2018) Berlin Biennial, set under the aegis of the writer Audre Lorde (who lived in the German capital between 1984 and 1992) by the South African curator Gabi Ngcobo, adopted the strategy of refusal, despite its press conference statement (“We are at war”). A refusal to answer questions about a possible post-colonial theme, or the choice of a majority of artists hailing from the African and Caribbean diaspora (with 72% women). If so many biennials have not hitherto bothered to declare that the overwhelming majority of invited artists were white men, why do so now? The Biennial would riposte with the title of one of its programmes “I’m Not Who You Think I’m Not”) and situate the battle actually within the language used to work with art. Similarly, the latest Rennes Biennale quoted major authors from the post-colonial spectrum (Fred Moten, Ghassam Hage, Tina Campt, Jack Halberstam), but refused to set the topic up as a theme. The same noises are coming from this year’s Whitney Biennial, organized by the curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, with a majority of African-American and women (or non-binary) artists: this head-count would also be avoided, although the identity issue in it is very present, through forms of spirituality (the ghostlike gospel of Steffani Jemison, the Santeria Afro-Cuban rites of Tiona Nekkia McClodden, the talismans of Daniel Lind-Ramos), the transition of genders (Elle Pérez), the transformation of native cultures (Laura Ortman), the dynamism of figurative sculpture (Wangechi Mutu, Simone Leigh) and the photographic representation of the black body (John Edmonds, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Todd Gray, and Troy Michie). In Venice, Ralph Rugoff celebrated two tutelary figures: the painter Henri Taylor (who associates a portrait of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), with an evocation of Glenn Ligon’s series “Remember the Revolution”) and the artist and film-maker Arthur Jafa, whose work for the past three decades has tirelessly proposed  an understanding of the world based on black culture, and defined whiteness as a power system. Nevertheless, in these last two biennials, among the new generations there was a perceptible thrust of assertiveness rather than just a denunciation of injustices. In Venice, the self-portraits of Zanele Muholi are exultant, pursuing her “visual activism” in favour of black lesbian visibility, while Anthea Hamilton’s black models carry the strict and ironical elegance of a Victorian tartan motif. This is a generation which shares an easy-going circulation within a digital culture whose potential is at once normative and emancipatory. The film-maker Kahlil Joseph (a member of the Underground Museum, a mythical Los Angeles venue) produces a portrait of Black American life using R&B music videos, YouTube excerpts, memes, and filmed lectures given by the philosopher Fred Moten. At the Whitney, Martine Syms makes no separation between the self-representation and the oppressive power of stereotypes: it is not just images which obtain power through repetition and circulation, it is the production of identities as performance (with a line of thinking about how black women anticipate racism in the self-construction of their image, and react to it).

Tarek Lakhrissi, Out of the Blue, 2019. HD short movie. View of the exhibition Tarek Lakhrissi, « Caméléon Club », La Galerie CAC, Noisy-Le-Sec, 2019. Photo : Pierre Antoine. Courtesy Tarek Lakhrissi ; La Galerie Noisy-le-Sec.

Blackness as a medium

So what is involved is no longer simply a de-colonization process (far from being a done deal) but also a positive assertion about ‘blackness’. Anne Lafont identified this notion as a nebula covering the culture produced by black people (‘negritude’ in the broad sense and not just the historical movement) and the transcontinental social and cultural Africanness of the diaspora. Blackness is thus the black contribution to culture, without having it based on any biological evidence and even, on the contrary, seeking to understand the cultural and social mainsprings which are its condition. This almost imperceptible shift is nevertheless visible in the present-day art arena. It is also causing a stir among a young generation of French artists (Paul Maheke, Tarek Lakhrissi, Gaëlle Choisne, Julien Creuzet, Minia Biabiany, Samir Ramdani, Josèfa Ntjam) whose sensibility is conveyed in an exemplary way in the concerns espoused by Cédric Fauq, curator at Nottingham Contemporary and author of a manifesto-like text: “Curating for the Age of Blackness”.12 Starting from an analysis of the political project of 19th century human zoos, “where what was involved was performing life in order to exhibit death”, rubber-stamping the pre-conceptions of visitors about the “primitive”, he established a critique of current methods of curating addressed to an eye fuelled by the exotic, the spectacular and the knowable. “[These] exhibitions have never been devised to welcome the surplus that blackness is, contains, and exceeds. More than that: they have been devised for that surplus to be suppressed.”, he explains. With him, the indefinable character of blackness and the consciousness of the act of making things visible (and thus vulnerable) are turned into a desire to go beyond the production of exhibitions “about” blackness, in order to make the choice of devising them “in and through” it. Frantz Fanon and the artist Victoria Santa Cruz (in her performance poem They Called Me Black, 1978) remember the first time they were called “black”, as a fall. The way of reversing this long history of falls associated with a “forced exhibition” may pass as much by way of the re-appropriation of a blackness before it is named (by broadening the lexicon) as by way of the possibility of a disappearance. Cédric Fauq thus brings up the possibility of exhibitions which blackness “unperforms” (following the “nonperformance” theorized by Fred Moten),13 “work toward the surfacing of what it takes for a body—and a voice—to appear and disappear (thus already blurring the lines between the living and the dead, as demarcated in the West)”. In refusing the idea of a blackness as representation, and also refusing the fact that it belongs solely to black people, he imagines exhibitions in motion, and tangible (as a counterpoint to visible), where blackness is a medium which conducts and catalyzes.

Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, 2012-ongoing. Wallpaper. 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times.
  1. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Durham / London, Duke University Press, 2016.

2 Françoise Vergès, Un féminisme décolonial, Paris, La Fabrique, 2019.

3 Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images, Durham, Duke University Press, 2017

4 Conference “The Sojourner Project, Dialogues on Black Precarity, Fungibility and Futurity”, viewable on the Youtube channel of the Barnard Center for Research on Women: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFU6NGB0XdE

5 Stories which hit the headlines of French magazines for a year: “La tyrannie des susceptibles : enquête sur les nouveaux censeurs”, Le Point, 7 June 2018 ; “La fin du vivre ensemble : la France des communautarismes”, L’Express, 26 September 2018 ; “L’offensive des obsédés de la race, du sexe, du genre, de l’identité”, Marianne, 12 April 2019 ; “Le grand noyautage des universités : islamo-gauchisme, décolonialisme et théorie du genre au programme”, Le Figaro Magazine, 13 May 2019.

6 Anne Lafont, L’art et la race. L’Africain (tout) contre l’œil des Lumières, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 2019.

7 Anne Lafont and David Bindman, “L’art, les cultures et les figures noires en expositions”, in Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Orsay, Flammarion , 2019, p. 20.

8 Françoise Vergès, “Corps noirs, vies muettes. Quand le modèle noir masque l’histoire de la fabrication du blanc, Documentations, 11 May 2019,

https://documentations.art/Corps-noirs-vies-muettes-Quand-le-modele-noir-masque-l-histoire-de-la

9 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor” in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol 1 nº1, 2012 ; Catherine E. Walsh, “On Decolonial Dangers, Decolonial Cracks, and Decolonial Pedagogies Rising” in Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, Durham, Duke University Press, 2018.

10 Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, “For They Shall Be Heard: On sonic trajectories and resistance”, Frieze, 28 October 2018.

11 Olivier Marbœuf, “Décoloniser c’est être là, décoloniser c’est fuir : marronage depuis l’hospitalité toxique et alliances dans les mangroves “, in Décolonisons les Arts !, edited by Leila Cukierman, Gerty Dambury and Françoise Vergès, Paris, L’Arche, 2018.

12 Cédric Fauq, “Curating for the Age of Blackness”, Mousse Magazine, nº66, winter 2019.

13 Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nonperformance”, lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on 25 September 2015, viewable at https://www.moma.org/calendar/events/1364

Paul Maheke, Kasangu, 2019. 3D laser engraved drawing in a glass cube, 9 × 6 × 6 cm. Photo : Aurélien Mole. Courtesy Paul Maheke ; galerie Sultana.

Image on top: Anthea Hamilton, The New Life, 2018. 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times. Photo : Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.

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