Contemporary& magazine and ArtsEverywhere commissioned a series of essays and articles inspired by six books in C&’s Center of Unfinished Business, which was installed at the Akademie der Künste and ifa Galerie in Berlin. The six books were selected by C&’s Deputy Editor, Will Furtado, who commissioned the essays in this series and also wrote two of the texts.
In “The First Artist to Challenge the White Queer Gaze in a Biennial”, Will Furtado is inspired by Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History: 1962–2002 and writes about the legacy of Glenn Ligon’s pioneering work that unpacks the colonial gaze in Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book. Furtado draws on Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of The Black Book (1991-93) for his analysis.
In “’Germanomania’ and the Myth of Nationalism”, inspired by Marimba Ani’s book Yurugu: An African- Centered Critique of European Thought and Behavior (1994), author Natasha A. Kelly looks at how the title still proves relevant in understanding the continuity and centrality of racist thoughts and racial myths in Germany and Europe.
In “How Franz Fanon Has Influenced Generations of Queer Artists”, Will Furtado is inspired by Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and writes about how the book went on to influence intergenerational Black queer artists despite its shortcomings on gender issues.
In “The British War on Yoruba Spiritualism”, author Olamiju Fajemisin is inspired by Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981) and writes about how the book’s pre-WWII Nigeria compares to her own post-imperial childhood in Britain.
In “Fatima El-Tayeb: Reclaiming Nefertiti”, German scholar and author Fatima El-Tayeb explains how European institutions have consistently appropriated Black historical personalities, while denying Africans their own history. She draws on Ivan van Sertima’s Black Women in Antiquity (1988) as an example of one such counter-narrative.
In the essay “How Germany is in Denial of its Historical Racism Today”, political activist and culture and media theorist Nelly Y. Pinkrah is inspired by Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks and James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s A Rap on Race. Is it possible to talk about an ordinary German experience as a structurally racialized one in the sense Baldwin and Mead did?
Contemporary And (C&) is a dynamic space for the reflection on and linking together of ideas, discourse and information on contemporary art practice from diverse African perspectives.
The most famous African woman of antiquity – arguably one of the most famous women of antiquity, period – is almost German. In fact, each year hundreds of thousands travel to the nation’s capital, where she has been living for a century, to catch a glimpse at her famous portrait. I am of course talking about the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
Nefertiti’s bust is housed in Berlin’s Neues Museum on the city’s famous “museum island” and the German government steadfastly refuses to return it to Egypt, despite Egyptian authorities demanding exactly this since 1925. In justifying their rejection, German officials do not actually claim Nefertiti as a national treasure, rather, they claim that she belongs to the world. When Germany denied the Egyptian request for the last time in 2011, the Under-secretary of Culture declared: “Art is part of the universal human heritage and – wherever it is – should be made accessible to as many people as possible.” And this accessibility happens to be given in Berlin rather than Cairo – accessibility at least to the people who count, since much of the world is not allowed into Europe, especially people from the regions the art filling European museums was stolen from during colonialism.
And it was stolen indeed; the colonial laws that European nations cite to assert their contemporary claims were based on the West’s right to exploit the “racially inferior.” The enlightened universal museum celebrating European humanism was only possible because European powers could acquire art for nothing. And they continue to profit: the Neues Museum without Nefertiti (or the Pergamon Museum without the Ishtar Gate) would be a significant blow to Berlin’s tourism industry and could cost the museum island its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. Nor is this a thing of the past: art is becoming an increasingly important investment for the rich, but also for multinationals directly involved in neocolonial exploitation. Iraq was raided not only during the 19th century but also after the US invasion in 2003. While the protection of pre-Islamic art from ISIS provides additional legitimation for the West, the lucrative trade with Iraqi and Syrian art sold primarily to Europe, the US, and the Gulf remains as unexplored as the destruction of historical sites to build US bases.
The issue of stolen cultural artifacts is a small, but significant part of the debate around the colonial legacy. The 15 Caribbean nations who form the CARICOM addressed this directly in 2013 when they invited Europe to a “reparative dialogue” on the aftereffects of slavery, colonialism and genocide (their call remains unanswered). The immense financial value of stolen pieces like the Nefertiti bust, estimated at €350 million, raises the question of financial reparations, but colonialism also included systematic cultural brainwashing: in state and missionary schools the “natives” were taught European superiority and their own inferiority and lack of culture (meanwhile, the colonizers systematically stole as many of the supposedly non-existing cultural artifacts as they could get their hands on). Africa in particular became the continent “without history.” Centuries, millennia even of cultural exchange were erased from historical records. Meanwhile, testaments to African culture such as the Nefertiti bust are claimed as a “universal human heritage” that is actually understood to be largely European. It is significant that the museum island housing the bust is devoted to art from “Europe and the wider Mediterranean,” while African and other “non-European” artifacts will be concentrated in the Humboldt Forum. The sneaking inclusion of “the wider Mediterranean” into Europe’s cultural heritage is especially grating since currently the Mediterranean stands for a cultural, economic, religious and political divide that literally marks the world’s deadliest border (in particular for people from “the wider Mediterranean”). It is also the continuation of a long Western tradition of separating Egypt from the rest of the continent (insisting that if it produced a significant civilization, it can be neither African nor Black).
The writing and presentation of dominant historical narratives – of which museums are a primary site – is as much about hiding as about making visible, about pretending that history unfolds automatically and inevitably, that the present necessary follows a past that logically led to exactly this here and now, about erasing alternative pasts that point to the possibility of different futures. But there always also exist counter-narratives reminding us that neither the past nor the future is set in stone. These narratives offer the context necessary to understand the dominant historical truths as subjective and serving particularist interests, interests that can and should be challenged. Ivan van Sertima’s Black Women in Antiquity is one such counter-narrative, tracing the long and ongoing history of Black women in Africa and the Diaspora, allowing us to reclaim Nefertiti as not merely a colonial trophy but as part of this – our – history.
Book: Black Women in Antiquity, edited by Ivan Van Sertima, 1988
1) Cultural Institutions: Europeans have invested in the development of institutions such as museums and research centres in order to prepare their citizens for an understanding of their imperial history that defined them as rulers and beneficiaries of slavery. There are no such facilities in the Caribbean where the crimes were committed and the victims left disenfranchised in respect of their institutional and cultural experiences and memory. This crisis must be remedied.
2) Cultural Deprivation: The primary cultural effect of slavery was to break and eradicate African commitment to their culture. African culture was criminalized and the cultural basis of identity shattered. Africans were deculturalized and today remain impoverished in respect to cultural legitimacy and supportive appropriate institutional arrangements. These matters represent the colonial legacy of slavery and must be addressed.
CARICOM Reparations Commission 2013
How Frantz Fanon Has Influenced Generations of Queer Artists
“O my body, make of me always a man who questions!” is one of the most memorable quotes from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Released in 1952, the book has become a seminal text in postcolonial theory for its interrogation of the colonized self and its unpacking of the complex ways in which identity, particularly Blackness is constructed and produced in the context of colonization.
The main premise of the book is that the process in which Black men internalize myths of Blackness invented by colonial society leads to them damaging their psyches. Consequently this produces an inferiority complex that leads Black subjects to appropriate and imitate the culture of the colonizer, especially if they are upwardly mobile and educated (like Fanon himself).
The book and the author are largely influential but also controversial. To this day the book still draws praise for the issues it identifies, and criticism for its generalization of feminist and queer issues. Yet, so instrumental and groundbreaking are the main ideas of the book that it went on to influence whole generations of Black queer artists who not only used Fanon’s ideas but transgressed them to rethink the nature of Black homosexuality, masculinity, and femininity.
Fanon described colonialism and its impact as being largely made up of visual experiences. This colonial gaze, according to him, appropriates and depersonalizes its subjects while ignoring their way of seeing. In turn, queer theorists, especially in film, have appropriated these terms and applied them to gender. Rotimi Fani-Kayodé was one of those artists and he even made art that directly referenced Black Skin, White Masks. “On three counts I am an outsider,” the Nigerian artist said in relation to his postcolonial position in the world. “In matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for.” Born in Lagos in 1955 and from a wealthy Yoruba family, at the age of 12 he moved to England with his parents as a refugee from the Nigerian civil war. After his studies in fine arts and economics in the US he returned to London where he worked as an artist until he passed in 1989 due to an HIV-related illness condition.
Fani-Kayodé combined sexual and cultural differences to deal with Black homosexuality head on. In The Golden Phallus (1989) the artist shows a young naked athletic Black man posing on a platform wearing a white beak mask and looking into the camera. His penis is gold-plated and held up with a white string. So, on the one hand Fani-Kayodé explores Black sexuality in relation to a Black subject being gazed upon by the world. But on the other he challenges Fanon’s suggestion that male homosexuality only exists for the enjoyment of the white man by attaching the subject’s penis to a string and showing that he is not readily sexually available. Yet the multilayered work further challenges straight male assumptions of homosexuality with its ambiguous quality, full of both deliberate connotations and various possibilities for interpretation.
Also in London, in 1995 a pivotal group exhibition in London marked a moment considering the importance of Frantz Fanon and ways in which his writings intertwined with artistic practices, gender, and race. Entitled Mirage: Enigmas Of Race, Difference & Desire and curated by David A Bailey at the ICA, the show included queer artists such as Isaac Julien and Lyle Ashton Harris, among others.
The North American artist Lyle Ashton Harris showed a series of photographs exploring family bonds and homoeroticism through portraiture. Dread and Renee (1994) portrays a topless couple, apparently a man and a woman embracing. Both have deadlocks and realistic facial hair. By showing two Black people in an intimate and homely setting, the picture challenges, if not downright negates, what Fanon suggested about homosexuality only existing as a victim of the slave mentality. Simultaneously it agrees with Fanon’s premise that ultimately we as Black subjects need to self-reflect and self-analyze. Harris’ Brotherhood #3 takes it one step further by showing two naked Black men wearing make-up embracing. Not only are they looking at the camera but they’re also pointing two guns at it, clearly affirming their awareness of being under constant attack and needing to defend themselves, but also reinforcing their agency and refusing to be victims.
In Zanele Muholi’s 2017 solo show, Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness, the South African artist proposed another fierce study of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. This time around, the photographer who has become known for her visual activism documenting queer communities of South Africa, turned the camera on herself. This she argued was needed in order to reconnect to herself again. However, she does it with powerful self-reflection and always giving the camera an intense, fixed look. In addition to the self assured stare, the artist also darkens her skin, highlighting that she knows that she is not only a queer woman but also a Black African woman and that that is how the world sees her or how she wants the world to see her.
In Alain Polo’s Serie blanche (2016), the Congolese artist plays with similar codes but in reverse by bleaching the image of Black naked bodies so that they become ethnically ambiguous. In this way, the artist tries to free the photographed body from a Western gaze that exoticizes it by himself controlling the image (and his own body). Also confronting this very difference that Fanon so emphasized, is Eric Gyamfi. In Just Like Us (2016), the Ghanaian artist documented the daily lives of the heterogeneous queer community in Ghana, forcing us to question what is actually “different”. This approach challenges the heteronormative gaze and the artist takes it one step further by juxtaposing photos with offline and online abusive comments, complicating Fanon’s maximums by emphasizing the importance of how the Black community sees itself regardless of the white gaze.
What’s so remarkable about Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is that despite being shortsighted in terms of gender it still remains an enduring tool for Black queer artists. In 1997, Isaac Julien even made a film about the book. The film essay Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask criticizes Fanon as much as it praises him. And perhaps that embodies the biggest gift that Fanon has given Black queer artists – the impetus to question everything, to regard no one as a hero, and, most importantly, to question and place ourselves in relation to the world around us.
The nuances surrounding the way in which Wole Soyinka refers to religion in imperial Nigeria in his memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood are evocative of those I experienced growing up in post-colonial Britain two generations later. The concept of “home” is brought into question and we must ask if the eradication of Yoruba spiritualism is responsible for the lack of ancestral connection felt by those of Yoruba heritage long after the regime’s collapse.
Aké: The Years of Childhood tells the story of Wole Soyinka’s boyhood between the mid-1930s and the early 1940s, the final chapters of British imperialism. His critique of the injection of European colonial mentalities into Nigeria is subtle yet incredibly thorough as he recalls the observant tendencies of a child to invoke the impact colonialism had both on himself and his environment via the discussion of religion. While Soyinka often questioned religion in mid-20thcentury Nigeria, I did the same for Britain in the early 21st century. Blonde Jesus made sense in the UK, where I was born and raised by my Nigerian-born parents. But during childhood summers in Lagos, a hyper-Western Christ encouraged scepticism. Why was the iconography of the pervading religion physically so utterly unrepresentative of my family, the congregation and myself? I began to wonder if this could really be the Nigerian religion. One explicit link between Soyinka’s Nigerian and my British childhood is that colonialism meant supremacy.
Ilé-Ifè, the cultural and spiritual Yoruba capital, was settled in 400 BC. In the centuries to come, Yorubaland the precursor to Nigeria, Togo and Benin would become one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most artistically rich and complex cultures, with Yoruba art often paying homage to a plethora of deities. The selective imperial amnesia of post-colonial Britain meant that the first time I witnessed the fruits of this era was in 2010 at the British Museum’s exhibition,Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa. The destruction of Yoruba history is part of the larger legacy of cultural whitewashing and religious abrogation, making one feel displaced. I felt this at the exhibition, and Soyinka felt similarly during an upbringing at the hands of a traditionally spiritual grandfather, an Anglican minister father and a mother whom he dubbed “Wild Christian”. In reference to the Yoruba experience Soyinka said, “All experiences flow into one another”.
Aké recounts a still-colonised Nigeria, a “country” much older than Soyinka’s parents, whereas I navigated the ins and outs of a second-generation upbringing in the country responsible for – at the height of the regime between 1914 and 1923 – holding sway over 458 million people, a quarter of the world’s population. Spiritual connection strengthens an idea of ‘home,’ and longing for this feeling is lonely and tiresome. Our mutual experience of not knowing how to relate to messy, forced Euro-Yoruba childhoods can be argued as being one of the many things Soyinka was referring to in his aforementioned quote.
British colonialism blossomed under the lazy guise of an anti-slave trade initiative, steadily pillaging the fertile Nigerian land and laying waste to the people’s beliefs. As is discussed by Deidre Coleman in Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery (2005), the growing global rejection of slavery instigated a search for a system in which the West could continue to profit from the fruits of the African and Asian continent through “influence” and mission rather than the blatant enslavement of people.
Christianity and Yoruba religion are far from congruent, but the four-year-old Wole had no choice but to allow a concurrent existence. With a hopeful amalgamation of his grandfather’s spiritual teachings and those of the Wild Christian, Wole-the-Boy was able to make sense of the two. Could the illness of Christian colonists be explained by witchcraft? This dichotomy is alluded to on page 32 of his memoir. Wole and a friend observe the stained glass windows in St. Peters Church depicting saintly white figures wearing egúngún masquerading dresses, yet with uncovered faces. Naturally, confusion was inspired.
“They are not egúngún’ she said, ‘those are pictures of two missionaries and one of St Peter himself.”
“Then why are they wearing dresses like egúngún?”
“They are Christians, not masqueraders. Just let Mama hear you.”
Early on in the text, Soyinka cleverly subverts one of the Bible’s most retold allegories to explain colonial indoctrination. A pomegranate takes on the role of the apple, representing the plastering of European beliefs over a generations old spiritual school of thought. Nigeria takes on the role of Eden. “The pomegranate was foreign to the black man’s soil, but some previous bishop, a white man had brought the seeds and planted them in the orchard… Before the advent of the pomegranate it had assumed the identity of the apple that undid the naked pair.” Soyinka goes on to insinuate that the “pomegranate” is responsible for the downfall of Aké, in fact the collateral damage caused by said “pomegranate” is the reason why the Yoruba religion remains a myth to people like myself, ethnically Yoruba but legally a Western millennial, referring both to the fact that it is no longer part of our oral tradition and that it is shrouded in mystery and magical ritual.
Modern interpretations of Yoruba faith as for example Santería (Spanish Catholicism meets Yoruba religion) are seldom practiced outside of the Caribbean, and so were lost on me, a British-Nigerian. In an interview with Vogue, one half of the French-Cuban twin sisters and singers Ibeyi insisted, “When you sing these songs, you hear the thousands of women who sang them before you”. She referred to a Yoruba chant they sang in May 2016 for the opening of the Chanel fashion show in their childhood hometown of Havana. This spiritual link bridges the gap between the no man’s land one finds oneself in as a second-generation immigrant – and how I wish this bridge was also built between modern Yorubaland and Europe. If one has no means of hearing the singing women, is it still possible to identify wholly with the culture of one’s ancestors?
Nigeria’s lingua franca, Pidgin English has become its own language. With an estimated 20 million speakers, it would be unfair to say that language is the most recognizable colonial souvenir, but in the case of religion, Nigeria is unrecognizable. To argue that colonialism took away from the ancestral idea of core “Yorubaness” would be entirely fair. 51.9% of the country’s citizens identify as belonging to one of the many schools of Christianity, with a measly 0.8% identifying as “other”. “If we do not tame religion in Nigeria, it will kill us,” Soyinka lamented in Abuja last January. A millennial translation could be the ever-trending call to “decolonize the mind”.
Times critic John Leonard described the author as a child who grew up “…in a garden of too many cultures,” giving reason to Soyinka’s melancholy. Now Soyinka speaks with the bitterness of a stateless man who saw the heart of his culture forgotten. Personally speaking, feeling neither a deep connection to my ancestral culture nor to that of England, leads me to conclude that such a complex childhood in this multifaceted garden can only engender an adult who knows no home. But then again, what is “home”?
Amma, the supreme God of the Dogon people of West Africa, created all beings according to the universal principle of complementarity. S/he therefore equipped each individual with twin souls – both female and male – at birth. In one case, however, a male existence named Yurugu did not want to wait for the completion of his full formation process. Instead, he arrogantly competed with Amma, which resulted in his spirit being incomplete. Therefore Earth emerged imperfectly and some of the planet’s inhabitants were single-souled beings. Today, Yurugu’s descendants remain destructive and rejected by Amma, who had given his female soul away.
Published in 1994, African American anthropologist Marimba Ani’s book Yurugu uses the figure of Yurugu to describe Europe’s self-claimed superiority and destruction. Her comprehensive critique of European thought and behaviour examines the causes of global white supremacy, proposing a three-fold conceptualization of culture, based on the concepts of asili (origin), utamawazo, (worldview), and utamaroho (energy) – three terms Ani borrows and/or transforms from Swahili. The book also addresses the term maafa, based on a Swahili word meaning “great disaster” to describe the enslavement of African people.
Utamaroho and utamawazo are extremely forceful phenomena in the European experience. They are brought together in the asili, the root principle of the culture. Neither the character of the European utamaroho nor the nature of its utamawazo are alterable unless the asili itself changes. (p. 17)
Ani characterizes the origin of European culture (asili) as dominated by the concepts of separation and control, with separation establishing dichotomies like “the European” and “the other”, “thought” and “emotion”, and control being disguised in universalism. Her model describes the European worldview (utamawazo) as structured by ideology and biology. Its vital force (utamaroho) is domination, which is reflected in the imposition of European culture and civilization on peoples around the world. Europe’s success, however, is dependent on the construction of national consciousness because of the pre-eminence of the political nature of Europe’s utamaroho. The question of national identity is therefore essential to inspire the people to achieve what they perceive to be greatness.
According to Ani, European cultural history reveals the centrality of myth and myth-making to political successes. She describes the myth of national origin among Europeans as “Germanomania”, as Germanic people were perceived (and perceived themselves) to be of “unmixed origin” (p. 259) and therefore superior with a universal civilizing mission in relation to all other nation states. In Spain, England, and other European countries, the desire to be associated with a German was compelling. The English, for example, prided themselves in their alleged German heritage until World War I. Anglo-Saxonism held that the English people descended from German Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
The myth of the Aryan soon became a conviction that helped Germans to seek power over others. What surfaces as central in the European experience in this regard is the myth of the national/racial origin. For example, Martin Luther, who was celebrated for his inspiration of religious reformation, was above all a German nationalist rebelling against the control of Latin Christians. He compared the Pope to the Antichrist and gave voice to national feelings of the German people who felt exploited by Rome. Centuries later, Adolf Hitler would follow in the same tradition. The earlier claims by biblical characters were then replaced by racial and nationalistic ideologies. After the end of World War II, much of Europe was in ruins. Only few national states could consider the liberation from National Socialism their victory. Europeanization eventually (re-)gained strength, which in a cultural context referred to the loss of national identities through the emergence and alignment with a unifying European identity – with the myth of Aryan descent always reigning supreme.
Presently, the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) wants to rebuild the European Union into a loose union of nation states, as they believe that Germany is losing its sovereignty. In their political program for the federal election in 2017 they clearly claimed that Germany would leave the EU in the same way Great Britain had, if the current union did not return to a “Europe of Fatherlands”. At the same time the party called for Germany to cancel the transfer-union and leave the Euro zone, as the basic monetary rules (no liability for the debts of other countries and no public debt over 60 % of the respective GDP) had not been followed. Since – in their opinion – migration from Africa to Europe is expected to destabilize the European continent in a few years, the party seeks to, “leave our descendants a country that is still recognizable as Germany”. This statement makes AfD’s national/racial ideology evident, which did not prevent the party from being (re-)elected into the German parliament, coming in third with 13% of the national vote.
Moreover, the various manifestations of the European self-image reveal an utamaroho that is consistent with that of white nationalism. In this sense, Ani’s publication still proves relevant in understanding the continuity and centrality of racist thoughts and racial myths in Germany and Europe, offering an analytical tool to remove the mask of white supremacy. Thus, the concept of asili allows for the unveiling Eurocentric worldviews and dominance by observing the various expressions and characteristics of European identity through an African-centered lens. And this, according to Ani, is the only perspective from which Europe can be observed as culturally and ideologically incomplete.
 Cited by Marimba Ani, p. 256, with reference to Leon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe, trans. Edmund Howard, New American Library, New York, 1974, p. 82.
The First Artist to Challenge the White Queer Gaze in a Biennial
I have a theory that, albeit not inherently, all art is political and inseparable from identity politics. The former because all artworks communicate the political context in which they were created. And the latter because—unwittingly or not—all artists position their biography and heritage in relation to the worlds around them.
Identity politics as a topic of discussion has been waning in the past years. Yet when it entered the art discourse it rocked a system that had flattened out artists’ very specific differences and particularities beyond the artwork. One of the events that shot identity politics to the top of the Western art world’s plinth was the 1993 Whitney Biennial in New York. Curated by Elisabeth Sussman, Lisa Phillips, John G. Hanhardt, and Thelma Golden, the biennial was seminal for its fierce social conscience that challenged the establishment at the time.
Artist Daniel J. Martinez designed admission buttons that read “I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE”. Coco Fusco locked herself in a cage in the courtyard, costumed as a Native American; and Nan Goldin showed pictures of deceased people. Needless to say, the mainstream art media blasted it for being the “wrong kind” of political. A headline in the Village Voice read: “Art + Politics = Biennial. Missing: The Pleasure Principle.” And even Thelma Golden’s very position was questioned by art critic Hilton Kramer simply for being African American.
Arguably all of the artists taking part in the biennial made history and are now well renowned, including Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson, and Cindy Sherman. However, here I will highlight Glenn Ligon who uniquely and deftly explored the intersection of sexuality, race, privilege, and fetish(ization). The Bronx-born conceptual artist made history by showing Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), a series of texts and reappropriated images commenting on Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book.
As the name might suggest, the 1986 book features mostly idealized and homoerotic nude photographs of Black men. When it was first published, Mapplethorpe’s publication split audiences. Some thought it was a stylish homage to the beauty of Black men, others thought it was mindless fetishization, while others claimed it was naive at best. And decades later it’s still divisive. In 2016 the Getty Museum in Los Angeles honored the artist with the retrospective show Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium. The museum decided to include images from the Black Book, but not without explanatory notes.
In addition, the museum in conjunction with LACMA and ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries held a panel discussion about the series which I was fortunate enough to attend. The talk was between multidisciplinary artist M. Lamar, who uses performance and video to interrogate the violent and sexualized surveillance of Black male bodies, and Uri McMillan, the author of Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. They discussed white supremacist fantasies and the recovery of Black male subjectivity in relation to Robert Mapplethorpe’s Z Portfolio. And what became apparent to me during the talk was that their analysis of the white queer gaze had been heavily influenced by Glenn Ligon’s early critique of it.
Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93) is pioneering in how it challenges not only the white gaze but also the queer white gaze, while pulling a myriad of references and connecting them to expose a whole system of oppression behind a single unassuming body of work.
Maintaining Mapplethorpe’s initial order, Glenn Ligon had installed two rows of the pages from The Black Book on a wall, sandwiching two rows of typed texts by various writers, thinkers, historians, evangelists and activists. Some of the texts were written specifically for the work, while others offer possible interpretations and contextualize the multiple fears and fantasies that are often projected onto the Black male (nude). One James Baldwin quote reads: “What one’s imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the laws of one’s own personality and it is one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.”
In the imperfect conditions we live in, sex, gender, ethnicity, skin tone, desire(ability), power, money or social status cannot be untwined from art—and by extension everything else that comes from humans. Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93) as well as many other of his works complicate representations in art and expose the complexities and the importance of identity. And in a world that demands simple explanations and solutions for complex situations, Ligon’s legacy remains as relevant as ever.
How Germany is in Denial of its Historical Racism Today
While I’m reading the conversations between anthropologist Margaret Mead and political writer and poet James Baldwin, I am drawn to the latter’s rigor and baldness. The transcripts of their seven and a half hours of conversations from 1970 were published in 1971 as A Rap on Race, and race is, among other concepts such as identity, history, responsibility, and guilt, indeed what they are talking about. In one edition’s blurb it is said that Baldwin brought creativity and fire, whereas Mead was the voice of reason and scholarship. Already, this seems to be a racially charged characterization. Nonetheless, Mead’s experience and will to humanism challenges and is challenged by Baldwin’s pessimistic optimism, his analytical, careful, and abiding mind.
At one point the two discuss “the ordinary American experience” – an account that leaves me wondering what exactly that was, and how it would be today. And since I am more suited to talking about my own experience, I ask: is it possible to talk about an ordinary German experience in the same sense? I think it is. Mead, in this section, describes an abusive and criminal scenario in which relations, more often than not, were imagined in the same way: white person as the victim and Black person as the perpetrator. Because the ordinary American experience is coded in a very specific way, with white not merely symbolizing innocence (as with the white sacrificial lamb of Christ), but also purity and power, whereas Black is the bleak opposite (see Richard Dyer’s 1997 book White: Essays on Race and Culture). This is the ordinary American experience repeatedly described in A Rap on Race through different motifs, models, and means.
The implication of any post-colonial nation’s “ordinary experience” is crystal clear: race. The specter of race still haunts everyone, it is affecting and infecting – some suffer or die from it, while others benefit from and exploit it. Eighty-four years ago, in 1934, US-American poet and activist Langston Hughes depicted the differences in experiencing race in a remarkable way in The Ways of White Folks. The book carries fourteen humorous, unbearably tragic, and insightful stories about Black life and Black culture as ingrained in white America of the 1920s and early 1930s. These portrayals of unusual but very real characters are revealing of the conditions of the time and, simultaneously, of human nature. Life then was marked by an inescapable racial segregation enforced via the so-called Jim Crow laws in the southern United States, where lynchings still were usual, and a more subtle racism in the north. So the racisms coming to life in The Ways of White Folks are complex, at times implicit, even playful, or only hinted at.
The materiality of race – that is, experience – can only be undeniable, for it is the simplest of all equations: right-handers are usually unaware of how (often) left-handers are hindered in everyday life because the world was built for the former. Likewise, white people are usually unaware of how often racialized people are hindered in everyday life because the structures that constitute society yield a white perspective. This is where power enters the arena, power which for centuries now has dwelled in whiteness. Or, as Stokely Carmichael once put it: “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.”
Things tend to become invisible when they become structural. Opposite to the widespread belief of the majority, the levels of the individual and the structural are not mutually exclusive, they are dialectic. Racism is part of individual experience precisely because it is so deeply engraved into society’s structures – its schools and universities, prisons, media, its legal systems, its penal systems and so on. Racism, today as well as 100 and also fifty years ago, informs the economic, political, legal and geographical arenas of the world. It is a system of knowledge that structures the social. Racisms are manifold and they transform over time, which is also the reason why radical analyses of the different forms in respective areas are mandatory. Explicit Jim Crow racism, for example, has shifted into today’s condition, which many – in the United States – call the “post-racial.” This buzzword, implying the end of race and racism, helps shift responsibility from the structural to the individual (see David Theo Goldberg’s 2015 book Are We All Post-Racial Yet?). It is a handy tool for those who deny the fact(s) of racism, who turn a blind eye to the daily struggles of so many and to the struggles of many of them to overcome these structures. Whiteness bears the license to do just that when it’s convenient: deny responsibility.
“You know my fury about people is based precisely on the fact that I consider them to be responsible, moral creatures who so often do not act that way. But I am not surprised when they do.”
James Baldwin, A Rap on Race
To return to Mead’s remark from the beginning: If we take a look at who is entitled to be the victim today and who is condemned to be the perpetrator, nothing much has changed. US-American imagery of police brutality against Black people and people of color, images of border detainment and the like, fill the social media newsfeeds of those same people; more so than the mass media news or the minds of those in power to make a change. The same holds true for German public service broadcasting, filled with pictures of Black refugees headed to the West on boats. By crossing the Mediterranean many of these refugees die in the sea which, on several levels, is a grim reminder – if not continuation – of the Middle Passage.
Now, shortly after the end of the unfathomable trial of the terror cell National Socialist Underground (NSU), it is more evident than ever that we do not have the slightest idea of how infused Germany is by Neo-Nazis and their peers. What has recently been going on in Chemnitz – marches by outspoken Nazis, who are proudly doing the Hitler salute and who hunt presumed non-Germans – is a stark exemplification. Beate Zschäpe, the surviving alleged member of the terror group, which killed nine migrants and one police officer, was sentenced to prison for life. Yet the whole proceedings revealed racism’s obscure workings as the police continuously showed their deep institutional racism, from initially labeling the case “the Kebab murders” to turning a blind eye to the NSU while it was still active.
Germany is still in denial of its racism and evidence is everywhere. Recently footballer Mesut Özil quit the national team amid a racist discussion around a picture capturing him with Turkish President Recep Tyyip Erdogan. The police think that they are allowed to racially profile people. In the cultural field, there is the debate on whether the reconstruction of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin simply glorifies Germany’s imperialism. The harboring of colonial artifacts by German museums in general is mostly unquestioned. In the German language there still is no equivalent to the English term race, and the German discourse around it is especially scarce. This includes the circumstance in which people think the German term “Rasse” – more similar to the English “breed” in its meaning – is a perfectly valid way to describe people from different backgrounds. Tellingly, “Rasse” is used in the German constitution, and was part of the justification of the German Empire’s racial extermination campaign in present-day Namibia between 1904 and 1908. This, the first genocide of the twentieth century, was only recognized in 2004 when an apology was issued to the Herero people, but the lawsuit for reparations, launched in 2001, is ongoing. In Berlin’s Wedding district especially, many streets still bear the names of the colonial generals who ordered the atrocities. After years of fighting by activists, three streets in Wedding will be renamed soon but the subway station “Mohrenstraße” (blackamoor street) continues to be a monument of the cities entanglement with colonial history. Language is power, it mediates and manifests the social and here, clearly, power lies with the institutions. Above all, there is evidence in everyday life, manifested in real-time tweets triggered by the #MeTwo movement. Surely we need to teach a lesson to outspoken Nazis through and within the possibilities of the courtroom, as has happened in the NSU trials. But the bigger issue is our whole way of life, a culture that naturalizes the privileges that come with whiteness – and these privileges involve a lot more people than we might initially think.
“The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me.”Berry, in Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks