Rindon Johnson, 'Away with You,' 2016 still from VR video
Assistant Curator of Net Art and Digital Culture Aria Dean explores the themes of First Look: New Black Portraitures, a group exhibition co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum
First Look: New Black Portraitures began as a series of casual conversations between friends and colleagues. Although it’s disingenuous to claim this as an origin, because we’ve just taken up a project that long predates the lifetimes of any of the participants in this show. It’s a project that spans generations and characterizes the arc of black art history. So, this version of that larger undertaking began as a series of casual conversations between friends and colleagues.
One such conversation took place about a year and a half ago; I moderated a phone call between artists Lorraine O’Grady and Juliana Huxtable for the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’ Introducing interview series. Among other things, the two women discussed their emphasis on using their own figures in their performances and image-based work. O’Grady said to Huxtable:
There’s still so much unexplored work to be done on bodies that wanting to move from representation to abstraction really is a way of avoiding dealing with bodies, and especially a way to avoid dealing with bodies that are discomforting.
O’Grady and Huxtable’s dedication to centering the body and the figure, particularly the black femme figure, left me conflicted - but productively so. Prior to this, I had already been exploring what could be termed the “failures of visibility” through my own writing and studio practice and had settled into a fairly staunch suspicion of “representation.” My suspicion first took form as a response to a tendency toward visibility in strategies of self-representation among white feminists; but it grew into a wider critique of such strategies in a society and economic system that is increasingly dependent on online user visibility, legibility, and data extraction. While I agree with O’Grady and Huxtable’s assessment of the use of abstraction to invalidate approaching marginalized bodies directly, I still find myself occupied with the “historical violences wrought on these same bodies at the hands of representation, and at the hands of the singular, fixed, photographic image in particular.”
So, the tension that O’Grady identified, this push and pull between representation and abstraction or obfuscation, sets this exhibition into motion. First Look: New Black Portraitures draws this tension out, and then backpedals, asking what it means to represent in the first place, and specifically what it means to represent blackness and black people.
In discussing our practices as black artists, writers, and curators, we often begin with or end up at the question of representation. Many of us are preoccupied with this question of how to represent ourselves, and, increasingly, whether we should at all. There are countless ways to address these questions, but this exhibition takes the tradition of portraiture as its starting point.
There are a number of reasons to start at the portrait. First, there is the loaded history of portraiture itself; portraiture has served not only as historical record but is also inextricably tied to class, citizenship, and the construction and confirmation of the bourgeois liberal subject. When considering portraits in their historical context, we should keep in sight “the analogy between symbolic representation and political-legal representation.” How do we, as black artists, writers, and critics, approach symbolic representation when political-legal representation has always-already been foreclosed upon? What does the portrait do when that analogy’s bonds are broken?
A second–distinct but very related–reason for framing this exhibition as an exercise in ”portraiture” is the historical and philosophical relationship between blackness and the photographic image. The photographic image–more specifically the photographic portrait–does not only repress by producing certain bodies as liberal subjects and omitting others. It also, perhaps with even more aggression and urgency, produces a black subject and blackness itself.
Photographic and moving images are a primary mode through which normative–predominantly racist–conceptions of blackness and black life have been delivered to the public. For example, we can look to overtly anti-black Jim Crow-era memorabilia, or the wealth of racist imagery of black people circulated via cinema and television programming throughout the 20th century. Since its invention, the photographic image and its claim to truth have had a profound impact on fashioning what blackness is thought to be.
Finally, we begin with portraiture because it is a necessary consideration in the image-saturated internet and social media culture in which we currently find ourselves. This necessity is multivalent. On one level, we should consider portraiture because posting images of ourselves and of others is the name of the game; this online activity is an informal practice of portrait-making. Seemingly harmless, these practices thinly veil a larger system that feeds off of our legibility as users and subjects. Portraiture, in part and in many forms, becomes the labor required for certain kinds of digital citizenship. And on another level, we turn to portraiture because, in this image-saturated sphere, images of black people abound. These abundant images of black people come through multiple channels, with the major ones being memes, celebrity content, and images of protest and state-sanctioned violence. The circulation of this content invigorates concerns about surveillance, appropriation, and commodification.
First Look: New Black Portraitures asks the included artists to think about “portraiture” as an acute pressure point for tackling blackness and the image at large, and to consider this intersection–of the histories of portraiture, of blackness and photography, and of contemporary digital culture–as crucial in the process. In an essay about the work of Lorna Simpson, curator Okwui Enwezor wrote: “we would do well to linger on the nature and status of the photographic portrait: between the portrayed and depicted, the represented and the documented, the visible and invisible, the inchoate and the overdetermined.” This exhibition follows Enwezor’s suggestion and lingers on these relationships, acknowledging their muddier nature when blackness enters the picture plane.
The works included in First Look: New Black Portraitures vary in approach and medium– although the lion’s share are video works. Along with an affinity for video, many of the artists emphasize a refusal of or the insufficiency of the image. For instance, manuel arturo abreu’s ambient portraits (2017) is a suite of “sound portraits” created from selfies of five of the artist’s friends using a technique inspired by data-bending, the manipulation of a file with a program meant to edit other file formats. ambient portraits entirely refuses the image, and instead gestures toward blackness’ hypervisuality and the link between audio and the visual in black cultural forms. Similarly, N-Prolenta presents Banana Island: Hublots, another work that moves across image and sound; the artist livestreamed their music production process for the public while also producing a series of image-based works. N-Prolenta, like abreu, refuses and evades the image, even while working within a structure that demanded constant visibility and hyperconnectedness. During the livestream, they barred the audience from consuming aspects of their process, muting the stream and disappearing for chunks of time. In the resultant image-based works, they manipulated their own image in post-production such that they become abstracted to the point of being indistinguishable from their surroundings, warping inhumanly in front of the camera.
Other artists focus more on the insufficiency of portraiture, both conceptually and technologically. They mobilize or settle into an acceptance of portraiture’s failings. For instance, poet and artist Rindon Johnson’s Away with You (2017), a virtual reality ASMR and guided meditation, offers us a visualization of the NBA 2K16 video game’s facial recognition software’s inability to “read and output a black male face.” Johnson pairs the game’s failed attempt at outputting their image with a soothing meditative audio track. The artist sums the work up in one sentence: “NBA 2K16's facial recognition software cannot accurately read and output a black male face, now let’s try to relax.” Pastiche Lumumba’s social media performance Community Standards (a poortrait across platforms)–which will unfold throughout the course of the exhibition–also displays a certain level of resignation. Lumumba has created three separate Instagram accounts, making concrete the sort of diffraction of his personality that already occurs across social media profiles. Taking an antagonistic stance toward the unification and integrity of the subject online, Lumumba argues that “being whole on the internet is a struggle.” Community Standards (a poortrait across platforms) responds to this set of conditions by asking: in that case, why try to be anything but fractured? Lumumba’s performance explores this specifically digital fragmentation, while at the same time tapping into the longer history of fragmentation of self endemic to many black experiences–this fragmentation that we also know by the name of “double-consciousness,” that we see enacted by practices like code-switching.
This sort of tangled up timeline–where the fairly recent digital context is shown to merely deepen the conditions of anti-blackness, extending its long lifetime, where new and old sort of look the same depending on the angle–shows up as well in Sondra Perry’s video work It’s in the Game ‘17. In this work, Perry explores the appropriation and circulation of the identities of her brother and other college NCAA basketball players in an EA sports video game. Perry’s video draws attention to new forms of very old practices: the exploitation of black people, their images, and their labor for profits that they will never see. That these conditions are replicated in the US sports industry and its videogame franchises is thrown into sharp relief when Perry’s work–which considers black people as the unpaid labor for this image industry–is read alongside Johnson’s, which illuminates the way in which the industry explicitly constructs an imagined non-black audience. As Frank Wilderson said in conversation with fellow scholar Saidiya Hartman: “The possibility of becoming property is one of the essential elements that draws the line between blackness and whiteness.” The black body is “subject to a kind of complete appropriation.” Perry’s work puts pressure on our understanding of ownership and rights to our own body and image, suggesting that to be black is to have always already lost such rights.
Alongside these practices that aim to complicate portraiture’s very structure, a number of artists in New Black Portraitures still come to portraiture with what looks like a traditional approach. Juliana Huxtable has contributed a series of photographs–also on view at Project Native Informant (London)–that each show fragments of the subject’s body emblazoned with tongue-in-cheek tattoos with images and slogans from contemporary culture (“black lives matter” and “anti-fa” for instance). Rather than abandoning the portrait, Huxtable inhabits it, devouring its borders from within. Redeem Pettaway also presents an apparently traditional portrait in the form of a video positioned as a “conversation facilitated by” the artist via a title card at its start. However,, the video ultimately denies this format and the level of disclosure it suggests. Pettaway moves too quickly to catch and speaks too briefly to capture; the conversation is actually a series of gestures and is posed between Pettaway, the audience, and an empty seat. And finally, Somali-Australian painter Hamishi Farah has converted a painting–depicting actor and comedian Mike Myers–into an animated video that captures Myers’ reaction in the moment of Kanye West’s famous proclamation that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Farah puppeteers Myers and, by rendering him with thick, expressive brushstrokes that evoke Impressionist painting, flips the racialized power dynamic that characterizes portraiture’s history.
Still vulnerable to appropriation, and always in pieces, all of these artists soldier onward. They all, in some way, retain an interest in the portrait. No one has surrendered the enemy territory. Instead, they recognize portraiture as a battlefield worth revisiting in order to get to the heart of the relationship between blackness and its image - returning to the place where an initial war was waged.
First Look: New Black Portraitures might then be a misnomer; the works shown here have not been selected for their “innovation” upon the genre of portraiture or the artists’ experience of blackness. Rather, these new black portraits are new as in fresh. They act brand new when burdened with the heavy history of the portrait. New Black Portraitures is new in that it circles back and starts at square one.