In 2013, I was the moderator, for “Black Portraiture III”, of a conversation with Lilian Thuram, the famous French soccer player, champion of the 1998 World Cup, at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts in Paris. Thuram, who had by then retired from sports, had become a famous “Race Man” in the land of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The conversation was on “Sports and Racism,” and it was held in an early grey and cold January morning, in the largest amphitheater of the Ecole, at 6 rue Bonaparte. The placed was packed, predominately with young Black women and men from France, the UK and Germany who had come to see and hear the racial discourse of the African American, toward which they had a double ambivalence.
While they were raised not to see race and color in human beings, they were attracted to the blackness of African Americans, which produced the likes of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Michael Jackson, and now Barack Obama. They were caught between, on the one hand, an anti-essentialism of race, which rendered them invisible in Europe; and on the other hand, the essentialized ethos of the black community which, as they say, is “in your face,” and which produced its heroes in the midst of the racial discrimination and violence that America is known for….
…[Seeing] all these young black artists and art historians fill the conference room in this prestigious and exclusive art school in Paris, I could not help but to be reminded of Robert Colscott and his anthropophagic repositioning of La Danse (1910) by Henri Matisse, one of the most famous students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. As if to say, “There ain’t no Black” in this painting, Colscott redrew the Matisse masterpiece and colored half the dancers brown, with a self-portrait of the black artist sitting in the middle of the circle [see Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder, 1979].
Colscott turned the same postmodern trick, which he called the art of appropriation, or “theft,” or cannibalism, on paintings of other Paris based masters, such as Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) turned into Sunday Afternoon with Joaquin Murietta (1980); and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), transmogrified as Les Demoiselles d’Alabama (1985). To be sure, one of the purposes of Colscott’s “in-your-face” appropriation of the classics of European modernism is also to reveal the absence, the silencing or the reification of the black body in them, which Colscott’s art turned into presence, agency and a rethematization of the history of a new humanism. For some of us present at the conference at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Colscott’s signifyin’ on Matisse’s La Danse amounted to the young black and artist appropriating the space of the Ecole, which had until then been closed to him/her.…
…[What] does it mean when African American artists from [David] Hammons to [Ellen] Gallagher begin to dominate the art market, while refusing at the same time to shed the black label, in order to become artist “tout court?” Or, as Thelma Golden, the celebrated black curator, puts it, “Post-Black?” I remember that at the same black portraiture conference, a young woman interrupted Thuram with a question: “Obama is not black; he’s mixed race, a Métis, born out of the union of a white woman and an African man; so he’s both black and white. So why do you persist in calling him a black President?”
This inextricable question of mobilizing race in order to identify and define groups, which W.E.B. Du Bois called the “Problem of the Color line,” is still perceived by some as the monkey on black people’s backs. Some curators, like Golden, believe that if you remove the racial label, which carries some stigmatic symbols, black artists would be able to join the universal club of artists, without losing their blackness. It becomes therefore redundant to describe such artists as black artists when everybody already knows it. Even more fatally, the black label may dissuade some collectors from buying an art object simply it is made by a self-identified black artist.…
Let’s now… consider some of the consequences of Post Black Art and the view of Obama as less African American or black than someone whose ancestors came up from slavery. By now we are all familiar with Debra Dickerson’s “Colorblind” article in Salon magazine, in which she argued that Obama was an African, hence: “’black’ but not black. Not descended from West African slaves brought to America, he steps into the benefits of black progress (like Harvard Law School) without having borne any of the burden.”
Dickerson’s definition of African American as only designating those groups in the continental USA whose ancestors experienced slavery is in fact too limiting, closed and exclusive…. Invariably, I find these ethnicist concepts of Blackness, Africanness, African Americanness, Métis, Creole as closed and limiting to the full creativity of Black arts and politics. They are doomed to become as reactive and discriminating and to suffer the same superiority complex as the white ethnic supremacists they were meant to fight in the first place.
What the idea of blackness in arts and politics proposes, instead of these atavistic gestures toward rooted and closed identities, is a relational identity, which is open and in perpetual motion. It is in this sense that [Édouard] Glissant proposes his right to opacity, a disposition that is more favorable to the notion of identity as something that we arrive at, something that we become through our relation with the other, a radical departure from identities that are rooted and derived from a genealogy.
Kerry James Marshall’s uses of blackness in art are what I am referring to here as new humanistic myths. In his paintings, Marshall covers the canvas first with a thick layer of a charcoal blackness, over which the artist paints other colors, which enter in a marvelous relation with the blackness to reveal beautiful and unique black portraits, strong bodies and angelic faces. The darkness of Marshall’s canvases is always what first strikes the viewer. It’s as if the artist is telling us that form, shape, rhythm and the life energy emanating from each portrait come from the opacity, the deep darkness of the painting. So, if, as Glissant puts it, beauty resides in opacity, one could add that an important aspect of Marshall’s art is to show glimpses of that beauty of blackness with the help of sunlight and moonlight, flowers, sparkles of shooting stars, as well as the presence of other colors in the paintings. [See Lost Boys series: 1993.]…
The lasting and universal magic power of contemporary African American art resides in its endeavors to keep pushing the doors open to new humanities and new imaginaries that subvert the color lines of race, economics, religion, gender, and sexual preferences. Thus, blackness, as it was re-appropriated from the masters by the slaves on the American plantations, is a crucial component of the new humanist shouts against all forms of degradation of life, and objectification of the environment.
Its universalistic potential is unlimited for what it can do for other people and places where the life world is still suffering from some form of discrimination and oppression. It is in this sense that I argue that blackness thus conceived, as a universal and emancipating project, transcends the slaves who invented it while carrying the burden of the master’s labor and whip.
For example, the sons and daughters of former slaves used the magic of blackness to invent jazz, which now belongs to the whole world; they used it to create dance steps for everybody; they used it to make the world empathize with the suffering of other people, or to make us tremble with the trembling from the suffering of people, no matter who and where they are. This kind of blackness is opposed to closed ethnic identities. As an artistic practice, it constantly worries the in-porousness, the intransitive and the unbridgeable color lines in works, in rooted identities, and in xenophobic politics.