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Hilton Als, Jacqueline Stewart, and Michelle Wright Deliver Gems on Art, Life, and Mastry

On October 1st, nearly one week after Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry exhibition closed, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) presented Art and Life, A Panel Discussion, which served as a moment to reflect in the show’s wake. The panel included some heavy hitters–award-winning writer Hilton Als, pioneering film scholar Jacqueline Stewart, and boundary-bending scholar Michelle Wright–who all touched on the intersections of art, life, and Blackness, drawing their points directly and indirectly from the ways in which Marshall’s life, work, and ethos operate within or push against these topics.

For talks like this, it’s hard to capture everything. Knowing that, I recorded it in order to listen back later and revisit the partial thoughts I scribbled in my notebook. More notes and pulled quotes came from the re-listening–many, many more–and they were so good that I felt the need to share. Even though these only represent pieces of the conversation and some unscripted musings, off-the-cuff responses, and newborn ideas, I want to put this out because these kinds of conversations provide fertile ground for new and challenging dialogue. I must be honest, I wasn’t thrilled by some of the topics–Black pessimism, for instance, is something that I work hard to steer clear of in my life, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful discussion to witness as it’s telling of other people’s experiences and forces me to internally defend or question my own views.  We should all hope to find ourselves in conversations where we feel simultaneously safe, celebrated, thoughtfully critiqued, and challenged–an environment that Als, Stewart, and Wright seem to effortlessly create.

So, the following are my notes, pulled directly from my recording of the talk, for those who weren’t able to attend or those who did and could use a refresher and reflection on what was discussed–passive/active Blackness, oversights in gestures of homage from Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, redefinitions of Blackness, and the shadow of Black pessimism. 

On the question “What is the role of Black artists?”, “What is Blackness?”, and how Kerry James Marshall renders Blackness:

Michelle Wright:
When I’m asked what is the role of the Black artist, my response is always, “What is Blackness? How are you defining Blackness in this moment?”

We need to become more specific about the Blackness we mean. One way we could describe it is what I would call Middle Passage Blackness. It’s a type of Blackness experienced by US Blacks who understand themselves as Black through several centuries of history that begins with the forced entry into the Americas, enslavement, and a long complicated history of pushing towards freedom and having to deal with constant pushback on that at various moments. This is a way we can think about Blackness as a historical product.

There are a lot of pluses to this type of Blackness. It carries an enormous moral and political weight and it is absolutely central to understanding US history. Imagine trying to learn the history of this country–its morality and its politic–while skipping over the slave trade or simply treating it as a blip.

There can also be moments when we come back to this question about what is the role of the Black artist in their society where we understand that [this] type of history works to make profound arguments and give us important insights–but there are times when it won’t fully work. That is because there are times when we’re stuck with the fact that Middle Passage history is simply Blackness as an object of history rather than an agent. In other words, if we restrict our understanding of Blackness only to this particular history (and of course I’m leaving out all the other Blacknesses that are in the US that do not come through the Middle Passage)–then whiteness is the agent in Middle Passage Blackness. Whiteness created the slavery. Whiteness determined when slaves were going to be free. Whiteness started the Civil War. Whiteness started Jim Crow. So, if we limit our understanding of Blackness only to that history and only as a product of that history, then we reduce Black art to nothing more than a reaction to whiteness. White people are always in the background. When engaging in the work of Kerry James Marshall, we know that his work goes much further than that.

What we can really get into in this moment is to think about the other ways in which Blackness exists as a cultural expression, not always necessarily the culmination of history.

Jacqueline Stewart:
One of the things that makes art a place that’s so productive when thinking about definitions of Blackness is that we have to think about content and form. This is one of the reasons why Kerry James Marshall’s work is so evocative–he makes these really unique and powerful decisions on how to render Blackness. One of the things that gets commented on the most is the blackness of the Black subjects in his work–[him] choosing the darkest pigments to represent Black skin color, and not creating a lot of variation. We’re always talking about how Blackness is diverse and not a monolith. He creates a visual monolith. And in doing so he forces us to think about what we mean when we’re calling ourselves Black or when we call a subject Black. That’s a formal decision. An aesthetic question then becomes this really important political and social question.

Hilton Als:
His work is such an impetus on artists who came after him, like Kara Walker, who uses Blackness not only as the figure but as an abstraction. Kara’s Blackness, in her work, is flat in a way that’s equal to the flatness of the whiteness. The drama of history doesn’t get played out against or for one side or the other. She showing a general holocaust of experiences. Mr. Marshall has a more hopeful love for the people in his paintings.

I think the issue, the question or reality of love is something that doesn’t get articulated enough vis-à-vis his work. Generally, what we get is anger, degradation, or oppression. [Sometimes] it makes you feel as if you’re entering a gallery or a museum with a meat cleaver at the back of your neck before you’ve even seen the work.

When it comes to Blackness as subject, what I’m looking for is style more than ideology–or style as ideology–but not the ideological before I get to the magic of style.

On Black pessimism and making space for Black love and humanity:

Jacqueline Stewart:
The project of African American art for so long has been to demonstrate Black humanity and the creation of empathy from the white world. We’re at a moment now in critical theory where we’re questioning the category of the human and post-humanism. The question is, “Where does the kind of thinking about race and where does the project of Black liberation [go or] fare if we destabilize the notion of the human?”

Michelle Wright:
How do we continue to construct our humanity when we know that people are watching us, and if they see our vulnerabilities then maybe they’ll take advantage of them? How do we continue to explore and theorize the nuances of Blackness that show the vulnerability […] if in the moments when we are in the spotlight we’re constantly judged?

Hilton Als:
The idea that I would engage in anything called Black pessimism or pessimism is a way of discrediting [my family], or the people who came before them–[like] my grandparents coming from Barbados and working really hard in a community of Black people for Black people. [Black pessimism] seems like a kind of smear on what they’ve given us, which is my ability to sit up here, for instance.

Jacqueline Stewart:
In [film] that I would classify as afrofuturist or afrosurreal, I don’t see pessimism or nihilism in that work. [Though] I think it’s responding to the same set of conditions–this ongoing sense of struggle. Particularly, the ways in which certain promises of the digital–a kind of broad participation and creation of images, and the ability to engage in a universal civil discourse– still have not produced the effects of improving the lives of Black people in the world.

[…]

This term, [Black pessimism], could be really interesting if it had sarcasm or irony. Or if it was used to articulate a positionality but then used to engage in an institutional critique of the university, let’s say. There are ways in which there could be a kind of 2.0 version of the origins of African American studies where the first was about demanding inclusion–physical inclusion, curricular inclusion. Then we could talk about how there’s a certain purchase that one can have with an Afro-pessimism that then makes the institution question why they claim to prize something like diversity.

Hilton Als:
But can we be pessimistic toward the institution instead of ourselves? I think it feels self-directed to some degree that I don’t like. Let’s be pessimistic about the institution, which I always am.

Jacqueline Stewart:
This could be the kind of thing that art does. This could be a kind of performative model that’s different from the way protest normally looks.

On homage, appropriation, citation, Julie Dash, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade:

Jacqueline Stewart:
Beyoncé’s Lemonade quotes [Julie Dash’s film, Daughters of the Dust] rather extensively–the way it lingers on Black women’s beauty. On one hand, this has been a wonderful boom to Julie Dash because it calls attention to this work she made in 1991. There is always something flattering about homage. At the same time, though, as much as I’m interested in what Lemonade is doing, formally and commercially it’s a really weird thing. It’s selling the album, it’s selling this person. There’s a feedback loop. It’s not doing the work that Julie Dash was seeking to do, which I think is a more profound political and aesthetic work which had to do with completely reimagining the way that you could picture Blackness on screen and Black women on screen. Blackness through Black women on screen.

I’m sure there will be some frustration on Julie’s part that even after all this it doesn’t mean she gets a new movie deal. Her sensibility was mined in a way that raises a lot of important questions, but then doesn’t give her the material conditions to do the work that she is doing. This could be a lesson for the students that we interact with–to think about citation and to think about what their own possibilities of success can and should mean for the traditions that they’re drawing upon.

Hilton Als:
How do we teach children to use their source materials themselves to make original work? Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was too much work? How do we encourage the children to overdo it? One way, certainly, is to encourage them to find a language for all aspects of themselves that they can access at this time–whether it’s painful or joyous, magical or realistic–there has to be a way for us to help access the magic of being an artist. How do we make people not construct artistry or intellectual life, but to live it? I don’t know how we do that except by example.

Michelle Wright:
There’s a great paradox here because on one level we’re lamenting Julie Dash’s message being corrupted and not getting out–so we have that notion of the Black artist being harnessed to a particular Black-specific message and I’m sympathetic to it. Then at the same time were wondering how we get more Black children to produce art. And the first thing I thought of was that they probably have to be unharnessed from the notion of, “Okay! Go create some Black art! That’s not Black enough!” Then, how many of them get shown in galleries if they’re work is not ‘Black enough’?

Jacqueline Stewart:
Kerry James Marshall is engaging a kind of practice that encourages a curiosity of, “Where did this come from?” I don’t know if Beyoncé’s Lemonade is engaging that kind of curiosity. Instead we’re being struck by the power of discrete images. [Hilton Als: “And the pyrotechnics of stardom.”] There’s a thoughtfulness that doesn’t really suit the mold of the way she’s working but she has the celebrity power where she could do the work that would encourage that. Part of it has to do with finding ways for younger artists to know where the sources that are circulating come from and thinking about how to create or suggest formal strategies that give some value to honoring those past records. I think it’s a complicated project.

On finding value and currency in global understandings of Blackness:

Hilton Als:
Why is it that Black American culture has never put itself forward as a currency, having value. Does this mean that we’re so debased that we don’t believe in our own currency or is it because of the power structure?

Michelle Wright:
One of the differences we can see between people who are literally African American–their parents were born in Africa and they came to the US […] they have a culture that they belong to and a particular history, so they automatically understand and see the value of [their culture]. It’s more complicated with Middle Passage Blackness because Blackness was an identity that was invented by racists to justify all of the things [they did]. In so many different venues Blackness is simply a reaction to something and a record of humiliations, abjectness, etc. I can see that as part of the problem.

On how we acknowledge that there are factors, like trauma, that we need to recognize while still pushing forward, creating art, and seeing the value of Black art.

Michelle Wright:
I didn’t get into Black Studies because I find Black people to be the most fascinating people in the world–even though we are. It’s because it’s one of the best ways to come to understand the world. We do not have a wall around us to where our experiences have nothing to do with the rest of the world. So, when it comes to questions about trauma, violence, etc.–when we talk about Middle Passage Slavery, we also need to open up the discussion to the fact that slavery was one of the most common forms of labor in the world and horrifically, it still is. We have slaves in the US–mostly sex slaves but also domestic slaves. There are people on plantations picking fruit, lettuce, tomatoes, and when you go to Burger King or McDonalds, that’s slave labor. When you have a bar of chocolate, that’s slave labor.

One of the things I want to get at is how we need to talk about the people that are traumatized. And in talking about Black trauma, we can open that up so easily to how the world exercises trauma on a variety of bodies. We are significant not just because people should only care about Black bodies, but because quite often the most vulnerable people in society are the ones that get hit first and hardest with radical change and the move toward violence. That’s what I want to bring up–let’s not build a wall around it and focus on our trauma, but [say], “this is how our trauma is significant in so many different ways.”

Hilton Als:
Isn’t art supposed to be an act of defiance? Isn’t speaking supposed to be an act of defiance? I don’t know how to do it in any other way. I’m not supposed to do it, so that’s why I do it.

On jazz, its freedoms, and active versus passive Blackness.

Hilton Als:
I tried for two years to write a profile on Cecil Taylor for the New Yorker. It was profound because he made no sense in two years of interviews. When I really thought about it [I wondered] why should he? Why should he be an audience for this magazine? He’s an audience to himself and he has his own language. One of the things he would always do was laugh because there was always something humorous in the world to laugh at to counteract the incredible pain of being a Black, gay artist in the equivalent of hip-hop.

Michelle Wright:
If Blackness is not biological, if Blackness is not a thing, then that means it’s not something that is fixed on the body. It’s not a passive presence. Blackness is something that has to be made actively present. So, if you were playing jazz, and your family was present listening to you, they may or may not be bringing Blackness actively into that room. […] That’s the complexity of Blackness, right? I’ve been at talks where a white professor has stood up and said, “Jazz is not Black! It’s American!” And suddenly Blackness looms large in that room the moment he says that. He brings it in. Blackness is something that becomes an active presence, it’s not passively there.

Other relevant readings and listenings from the talk:
– Michelle Wright on Middle Passage Blackness
– Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust at the Chicago International Film Festival
– Prince, Cecil Taylor, and Beyoncé’s Shape Shifting Black Body by Hilton Als
– Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, 1951
– Anita O’Day performing Sweet Georgia Brown
– Jazz, an essay by Gordon Parks

Please note, this has been edited a bit for readability and the word “Black” in all its forms is capitalized throughout this article as a decision of the writer, not the speakers who are quoted here.


Processed with VSCO with m3 presetTempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, artist advocate, and founding editor of Sixty Inches From Center. Her writing has been published in the Support Networks: Chicago Social Practice History Series, Contact Sheet: Light Work Annual, Unfurling: Explorations In Art, Activism and Archiving, on Artslant, as well as various monographs of artists and exhibition catalogues. tempestthazel.com