Latest
0

The Sugar Sphinx

AP472881413685-580.jpg

Over the past twenty-five years or so, ever since her spectacular New York début at the Drawing Center, in 1994, the now forty-four-year-old artist Kara Walker’s visual production—sculptures, cutouts, drawings, films—has been diaristic in tone. But the diary Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black and white souls alike.

Walker knows that ghosts can hurt you because history does not go away. Americans live, still, in an atmosphere of phantasmagorical genocide—we kill each other with looks, judgments, the fantasies that white is better than black and that blackness is bestial while being somehow more “humane”—read mentally inferior—than whiteness. But what do those colors even mean? In Walker’s view, they are signifiers about power—the power separating those who have the language to make the world and map it, and those who work that claimed land for them with no remuneration, no hope, and then degradation and death.

In her silhouettes, Walker’s black characters are often fashioned out of black paper—the color of grief—while her white characters live in the white space of reflection. But, in recent years, this scheme has begun to change—radically, upping the ante on what Walker might “mean” in her gorgeously divisive work. Take, for instance, the success of Walker’s latest piece:

At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

The title says it all, and then not.

Located in Williamsburg, the Domino Sugar Factory was built in 1882; by the eighteen-nineties, it was producing half the sugar being consumed in the United States. As recently as 2000, it was the site of a long labor strike, in which two hundred and fifty workers protested wages and labor conditions for twenty months. (I saw the piece before the installation was complete and look forward to going back.) Now the factory is about to be torn down and its site developed, and its history will be eradicated by apartments and bodies that do not know the labor and history and death that came before its moneyed hope. The site is worth mentioning at length because Walker’s creation is not only redolent of its history, it’s of a piece with the sugar factory—and its imminent destruction.

Measuring approximately seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet high, the sculpture is white—a mammy-as-sphinx made out of bleached sugar, which is a metaphor and reality. Remember, sugar is brown in its “raw” state. Walker, in a very informative interview with Kara Rooney, says that she read a book called “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.” There, she learned that sugar was such a commodity that, in the eleventh century, marzipan sculptures were created by the sultans in the East to give to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe, eventually, where royal chefs made sugar sculptures called subtleties. Walker was taken not only with those stories but with the history of the slave trade in America: Who cut the sugar cane? Who ground it down to syrup? Who bleached it? Who sacked it?

Operating from the assumption, always, that history can be found out and outed, Walker’s sphinx shows up our assumptions: She has “black” features but is white? Has she been bleached—and thus made more “beautiful”—or is she a spectre of history, the female embodiment of all the human labor that went into making her?

Walker’s radicalism has other routes, too: in European art history, which made Picasso and helped make Kara Walker. But instead of refashioning the European idea of coloredness—think about Brancusi and Giacometti’s love of the primitive and what they did with African and Oceanic art—Walker has snatched colored femaleness from the margins. She’s taken the black servant in Manet’s “Olympia”—exhibited the same year black American slaves were “emancipated”—and plunked her down from the art-historical skies into Brooklyn, where she finally gets to show her regal head and body as an alternative to Manet’s invention, which was based on a working girl living in the demimonde.

Walker’s sphinx is triumphant, rising from another kind of half world—the shadowy half world of slavery and degradation as she gives us a version of “the finger.” (The sphinx’s left hand is configured in such a way that it connotes good luck, or “fuck you,” or fertility. Take it any way you like.) Now she’s bigger than the rest of us. Still, she wears a kerchief to remind us where she comes from. She is Cleopatra as worker: unknown to you because you have rarely seen her as she raised your children, cleaned up your messes—emotional and otherwise. Walker has made this servant monumental not only because she wants us to see her but so the sphinx can show us—so she can get in our face with her brown sugar underneath all that whiteness. And, if that weren’t interesting enough, Walker has given her sphinx a rear—and a vulva. Standing by the sphinx, you may recall the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1995 essay “The Rear End Exists”:

 

Legend has it that when Josephine Baker hit Paris in the ’20s, she “just wiggled her fanny and all the French fell in love with her.” … [But] there was a hell of a lot behind that wiggling bottom. Check it: Baker was from America and left it; African-Americans are on the bottom of the heap in America; we are at the bottom on the bottom, practically the bottom itself, and Baker rose to the top by shaking her bottom.

The sphinx crouches in a position that’s regal and yet totemic of subjugation—she is “beat down” but standing. That’s part of her history, too.

And then, again, there’s art history. Over the years, we’ve seen the sphinx at the Pyramids, but have we ever wondered what was beyond that mystery? Walker shows us the mystery and reality of female genitalia while calling our attention, perhaps, to all those African women whose genitalia have been mutilated because they are “slaves” in blackness, too. When has the sphinx ever had a home? What is her real secret? The monumentality of her survival, the blood of her past now “refined,” made white, built to crumble.

Photograph by J Grassi/Patrickmcmullan.com/AP.

1

Talking Back to Maya Angelou

NYC151867-580.jpg

A writer’s byline follows her even as she becomes a different self and develops into a different kind of writer. I do not valorize the dead; our best work—as people and artists—happens in those moments when we can best serve the living.

I was most moved by Maya Angelou when viewing her in connection to an artist I will always learn from: James Baldwin. Her support for her brother in the important 1989 documentary “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket” is seen in her face; it’s a face that can hold the screen, especially when she describes Baldwin’s great generosity of spirit. (Another tale has the writer taking Angelou home to meet his mother, a woman with many children, and saying something like, “Well, the last thing you need is another child, but here she is.”) In the documentary, Angelou talks intelligently, emotionally, and openly about Baldwin’s ability to transgress certain categories, like the American penchant for defining the world through gender. She’s also very funny about the acceptance of blacks in Paris during the great modernist age. “They were so exotic and so colorful,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want them?”

Wanting—I think that’s a word that applies to Angelou’s work as a memoirist. She wanted so much, and she got so much in the bargain. Along with the Baldwin documentary, which certainly deserves wide distribution, Angelou herself worked in film as a writer, producing two scripts of historical interest: “Georgia, Georgia,” from 1972, starring the unforgettable Diana Sands, and, ten years later, the fascinating “Sister, Sister,” featuring the legendary Rosalind Cash. In that television movie, Cash plays an emotionally down-on-her-luck woman who wants to be embraced by her stern older sister, Diahann Carroll. If you come from anything like Angelou’s admired family, you will recognize the verisimilitude of her words, and how Cash fits her body into them. It’s a great performance. “Georgia, Georgia” haunts me because I have never seen it. I procured a copy through some museum friends, but, before they could set up a screening, they misplaced the DVD. It’s a haunting of a haunting—the now dead Sands and Angelou lost in the bowels of carelessness.

But, even without having seen it, I know that the film is of great historical value, like the black-and-white images that we have of Angelou as an actress, particularly in the 1961 production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” featuring Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, and Roscoe Lee Browne. In that show, Angelou played the Queen, an imperious figure with lines of such linguistic lusciousness that you want to bite into them, no matter how rotten they are in the center. While these are the elements of Angelou’s life and work that interest me most, and I am a different person from the one who wrote this essay about her books, I stand by what I’ve written and am, as always, grateful to those artists who produce the work that inspires me to speak as well, which is what our remembered dead leave the living.

Photograph of Angelou, taken in 1974, by Wayne Miller/Magnum.

0

Thinking of Ruby Dee

ruby-dee-remembranceI was lying in bed—otherwise known as my office—just now, listening to WBLS, when one of the commentators announced that Ruby Dee had died, at the age of ninety-one. I had such a rush of feelings about this, because Dee had been present during a much cherished time in my life. A time that, when I look back at it, resembles a long stream filled with all sorts of details and a kind of light that I shall never forget, nor would want to.

It was the late nineteen-seventies; I was not out of my teens. In those days, Dee and her husband, the actor, writer, and director Ossie Davis, were friends with my mentor, the theatre director and poet Owen Dodson. That fabled couple—the Lunt and Fontanne of Harlem—had known Owen since the nineteen-forties, when he was making a big name for himself, at Howard University, as a dramatist, teacher, and director who, for instance, took his all-black student company to Norway to do Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck.”

Meanwhile, Dee and Davis, who married in 1948, and whose marriage lasted until Davis’s death, in 2005, had become, together and separately, stars in a world that didn’t exactly welcome actors of color or handle them with anything approaching sensitivity. Dee was born in Ohio, in 1922; she moved with her family to Harlem while still a young girl, and it was there that she became immersed in theatre, her great love. With the support of black-run theatre companies formed by the likes of Frank Silvera, Dee was able to work and hone her craft. Being in the majority always gives you confidence, and for many years her world was the black stage and, eventually, black film.

By 1950, Ruby Dee was appearing in “Negro” movies, like “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in which she played the wife. Dee was small, with large, liquid eyes that looked as though they were being lit from within. It was not difficult to imagine what the Georgia-born Davis saw in his co-star when they appeared together on Broadway in “Jeb,” in 1946: not just a woman who could match his will to succeed in non-stereotypical roles but an artist who would not be defined solely as a performer. After the couple married—Dee had divorced her previous husband, a blues singer, some years before—they wrote a number of plays and memoirs, including one in which they disclosed the fact that they had an open marriage, a decision that they later changed their minds about. (They were artists, after all.) They were also, along with their friend James Baldwin, forceful members of the civil-rights movement—indefatigable because they never lost the ability to dream.

Dreams are energizing; they feed the imagination. Dee and Davis shared many things, including two of the most beautiful voices we’ve ever heard in film or onstage. Davis’s was round and deep; it vibrated you the way it seemed to vibrate his chest. Dee on the other hand always sounded, especially if she was laughing, as though she had just finished crying—and the laughter was her relief over being sad. She took in great draughts of air as laughter, tears, and the joy of being rippled through her small body.

In 1961, Dee reprised her role as Ruth Younger in the film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” It’s a performance that I can barely take; everything Dee does is so on the surface—so thin-skinned and real—that it never fails to remind me of my mother. Who were these women who worked in other people’s kitchens, but who looked so much more elegant than their employers, especially when they put on their white gloves and gave a Sunday air to the day’s proceedings in the company of their children, who were their everything?

I could barely look at Dee when I would see her at Owen’s, in that penthouse on West Fifty-first Street, where his parties were legion. There, one saw one beauty after another: Josephine Premice, Derek Walcott, Mary Mon Toy—a whole colored world of mutual support. And sometimes, there, in that dream of Manhattan sophistication, I would stare at Dee in my mind while trying not to stare at her, recalling how the performances of hers that I loved best had less to do with her public self and her righteous indomitability than with the wizardry she could spin as an artist, when she could use all the things she was.

In addition to Ruth, there was Dee’s hugely imaginative work as Thief in the 1963 film version of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” and as Julia Augustine in Joseph Papp’s 1974 television version of Alice Childress’s “Wedding Band.” Indeed, it was Dee’s portrayal of the lovesick Augustine, struggling to make it with a white lover in a segregated world, that inspired me to stage the play this past winter at Harvard under the aegis of the American Repertory Theatre. While the unsurpassable Khandi Alexander owned the role in our production, Dee was our impetus—profound and true and, again, so stripped bare in the part that you wondered how she was able to get through it. But that’s the secret, and the gift, of a performer who is perfectly aware of her technique and how to use it—especially when it comes to exploring and showing human weakness and weirdness.

The magic of Dee’s work in those roles was such that she became a different person altogether—I did not understand how, but she did—beautifully suited and a little flirtatious and always serious about what someone else had to say. Despite my pathetic attempts not to stare at the legend as she made her way to the door, I couldn’t look away when she would bend down to kiss Owen goodnight in that blaze of glamour, calling her old friend “darling,” for what felt like a long time, before she took the candle that was herself into the starry night.

Above: Ruby Dee, January 15, 1966. Photograph courtesy FremantleMedia Ltd/REX USA.

0

Can We Know Her?

Black-in-Western-Art-1Years and years ago, a friend and I thought to write a movie. The film was the story of a Caribbean-born woman who leaves her island as a teen-ager; she’s employed as a kind of companion to the wife of a wealthy vacationing French family. The time: the nineteen-twenties. Once in Paris, the young woman, partly because of her talent—she’s a dancer, a performer—and partly because she’s black, becomes the toast of the town; she falls in love with a Corbusier-type artist and lives with him for a time in Switzerland, where they hang out at the Cabaret Voltaire, a chic, “avant-garde” boîte that was popular at the time. In fact, the film was named for that historic place. I never got any further with the story, and would have forgotten certain details altogether, had I not come across Jan Sluyters’s devastating 1922 painting “Portrait of Tonia Stieltjes” in “The Image of the Black in Western Art, the Twentieth Century: The Impact of Africa,” edited by the art historian David Bindman and the professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The archivist Karen C. C. Dalton is an associate editor on the project.) In Sluyters’s sublime work, we see a woman of color dressed in black—black hat with a wide brim, black dress. With her red lips and heavily powdered face, she wears a mask over her mask: we cannot know her, but we, and Sluyters, want to know her—for the pleasure of her ultimately unfathomable nature.

This is the first part of the fifth volume in a series that has profound and moral depth—the cumulative effect of all the books in the series is to see the ways in which ethics, aesthetics, and looking are entwined, and the ways in which they are made even more complicated by culture and by class. In their thorough introduction, Bindman and Gates tell us about the history of the project. During the height of the civil-rights movement, the French-born, estimable Dominique de Menil and John de Menil, whose wide-ranging collection in Houston contained a vast amount of material relating to or representing blacks in Western art, thought to finance a series of books with beautifully produced plates and essays that would explore that history. The de Menils hoped that the books would help foster a greater understanding of black life (they had been encouraged by a priest friend to think of collecting as a form of meditation and charity). Sometime after Dominique de Menil’s death, in 1997, the books were discontinued. (John de Menil died in 1973.) Gates picked the project up, hence the present volume.

Gates’s book is about the image of the black during the age of mechanical reproduction and how it changed, was modernized, denigrated, and, often, fetishized. It begins with artist and historian Deborah Willis’s essay about how photography became a force in the nineteenth century not only for documenting black life but also for editing it. The camera sees what the photographer wants to see: we then learn, in Tanya Sheehan and Gates’s essay, “Marketing Racism: Popular Imagery in the United States and Europe,” how advertising, which was tied to photography, developed its own long-standing narrative about blackness in the nineteenth century as well. That narrative was negative and ignorant, sometimes centering on, say, how blackness could be cured or washed away with various soaps manufactured in industrial-era England. The myth of blackness as soot, as stain, as something to be disappeared by virtue of a European product was especially appealing to colonialists.

Looking through the plates that Willis, Sheehan, and Gates chose for their essays, I was reminded of the extraordinary “The Black Book.” Edited by Toni Morrison, an editor at Random House at the time, the volume is a kind of collage, or scrapbook, about black American life from the time the ships rolled in through the civil-rights movement. In that pivotal work, Morrison included startling ads, poems by the incredible, largely unknown poet Henry Dumas, flyers for slave auctions, patents by black inventors, photographs of entertainers, snatches of songs, and so on. In a 2009 interview about the work, Morrison said that, at the time, there was a perception that books directed at African-Americans didn’t sell. “And I thought, Well, maybe we haven’t published anything that the larger African-American community wanted…. What about something that’s really popular and is about African-American life? And that’s when I began to put it together. … All I had were these pictures and newspaper clippings and sheet music and postcards.” Gates’s current project is not so much an addendum to that work as it is a companion volume to it, a reaching out to encompass blackness as it was perceived outside of the United States.

Esther Schreuder’s essay on portraitists like Sluyters is not only historically fascinating—it’s also vital because of the questions it raises, such as, Why did I find the images of blacks created by modern-day whites to be much more interesting than those produced by the black artists in the book? That has to do, in part, with personal preference: I am drawn to the complications inherent in looking at a different race and culture. In the case of Sluyters, he found ways to break away from the Dutch style while also adding something to it. Slutyers’s portrait of Tonia is a portrait of the Negro, but Tonia is an amalgamation of black and white styles—sartorially, attitudinally—that does not fall into agitprop. Slutyers doesn’t dissect Tonia’s mixed-race heritage or elevate her to a heightened status. Rather, the tension in the picture is based on what Slutyers was intelligent enough to know that she could not fully represent: how Europe made and could not make Tonia.

Tonia’s grave face is powdered white, as was the fashion of the time, but then there is her “real” skin and her style, which is something “other.” My imagination reacts to those levels of density and nonverbal expression more readily than to portraits of black people by artists ranging from Goldie White to Brent Malone. I find their work predictable: it elevates blackness to a kind of folkloric purity and strength that doesn’t allow for labyrinthine humanness, or for the fact that most blacks come from some place they don’t know but, like Tonia, make themselves up out of the whole cloth of Europe, or Africa, or whatever temporary home will have them. (The abstractions of the great Cuban-born painter Wifredo Lam are a beautiful record of that tension; he borrowed from those Europeans—Picasso, et al.—who were interested in “primitivism,” the better to reclaim his own Africa heritage. Another significant piece in the catalogue is the Brazilian artist’s Hélio Oiticica’s photographic portrait “Jeronimo, wearing Cape 5. 1965,” which shows queerness and dreams in a real setting.) It’s Tonia’s isolation in public, the theatricalization of her different self through paint and dress, that encompasses so much of what makes the black in Western art incalculably lonely, unknowable, troubling, and, sometimes, beautiful, just like other people.

0

The Haunting (1963)

I had not seen the film before now, too afraid that Claire Bloom’s gorgeous Mary Quant costuming would not have a good and proper home. I also have an aversion to Robert Wise films–he’s the jughead who cut “Magnificent Ambersons,” and added the bad ending while Orson was away shooting colored people in Brazil for “It’s All True.” In any case, Julie Harris’ kindness as an artist and Claire Bloom’s close friendship with the late Barbara Epstein made me simmer down and watch the film over a few days. It’s scary only if you have been close to someone who gradually begins to feel the terror of exclusion you’ve always felt, and you feel sad and anxious for them–for the waste land you will share together, or not. Claire was adorable as the preying mantis lesbian, but the relationship between Julie and Claire felt more sibling like than anything to me. But that might be where I am right now. Siblings sharing varying degrees of confusion and fear about the “family,” and exclusion in the family-as-group, shaped the film for me, but I may be re-writing. And I adored Claire’s large black haired head while dressed in varying degrees of internal and external blackness.
haunting10389680_10152888916717586_3088863343616390262_n 10341616_10152888915637586_3616559006371993123_n 10383881_10152888919632586_1887767945081527299_n

 

0

Archibald Motley Junior

Self_Portrait_of_Archibald_MotleyThe Art Institute of Chicago has a number of treasures and, near those treasures, hitherto unknown treasures, such as the work of Archibald Motley Jr. I was standing near Sargent’s 1897 portrait of Elizabeth Swinton–a relative of Tilda’s–when I felt my energy being re-directed to another painting, smaller, less “monumental” in presentation, but gravitational in its colors, form, psychology. Painted in 1920, Motley’s self-portrait is not only a portrait of the artist, but of the dandy-fied Negro, a city creature standing on the crossroads where Africa and Europe meet in that new land–America. I had never heard of his work before. I had never seen hands the way he painted his hands in his self-portrait: like vertical bats in action, a flurry of intention and then execution. Born in New Orleans, Motley was a Harlem Renaissance era painter who never lived in Harlem, and who never fully identified with being black or white–he would not choose. (His nephew, Willard Motley, was raised as his brother. Willard Motley was a “raceless” novelist, the author of “Clash By Night,” and the scary “Let No Man Write My Epitaph.” I have always wanted to write about his work.) Motley’s portraits were definitely about “the race,” but also his European-ness, those masters he felt close to (Rembrandt, etc). I am less inclined to be interested in his scenes of “urban,” life, they feel forced, noisy in a way that is not him so much as a him he thought he should be (racial uplift or ideology as corrupting to art). All of this I learned and wanted to learn and think about after I saw his beautiful self-portrait, thought about the shape of his mouth, the handlebar mustache, and those hands so anxious to get their work done.

Archibald Motley Portrait of Mrs_ A_ J_ Motley, Jr_, 1930_jpg