Back & Forth: Reframing the Parameters of Black Subjection Through Appropriation

In 1994 the late singer Aaliyah Dana Haughton, mononymously referred to simply as Aaliyah, released her smash single Back & Forth to urban and pop radio. The single, a contemporary r&b song that blends elements from both traditional soul and the still relatively new genre of hip-hop, starts with an introduction from featured artist and producer R. Kelly stating “Let me see ya go back…” signaling the infectious melodies and rhythms that compose the beat to begin. As the song continues, Aaliyah, now taking cues from Kelly, instructs listeners to move their bodies “back, back, forth and forth” repeatedly over the course of the three minutes and fifty-one-second song. This backward and forward motion the singer instructs the listeners to participate in ultimately leaves the audience in a similar position to that in which they started. The repeated phrase “Back & Forth” lent itself to me in developing the title and theme of the exhibition and acts as a reference not only to the late singer Aaliyah’s debut single of the same name but also as a reference to Shawn Michelle Smith’s theory of “temporal recursivity” which argues that archival materials (specifically photographs) “have an intrinsic backward and forward movement inherent to them that invites returns.” In Photographic Returns: Racial Justice and the Time of Photography, Smith identifies that current Black artists working the medium of photography possess a “pattern of historical revelation and return a unifying impulse to look to historical moments in order to negotiate the present, and an inclination that is activated by photography’s temporal dynamic”. Through this exhibition, my goal is to expand on Smith’s theory by including artist working in a variety of mediums, ultimately reframing her theory of temporal recursivity to include not just photographs, but paintings, and sculpture as well to think about the ways in which Black artist must revisit the past and often borrow techniques, styles, and understandings of racial difference from the archive to reframe what it means to be a Black subject and artist in Western Art.

Black artists are constantly returning to and reinterpreting the past through a myriad of techniques as a means of understanding the place Blackness has within the canon, the most obvious and salient example is the act of appropriation. Dale Kinney, in the introduction to Reuse Value: Spolia and Appropriation in Art and Architecture from Constantine to Sherrie Levine defines appropriation as a “common political strategy for asserting “fictive continuities” … These continuities may be lateral – within or between cultures- or vertical, between the present and cultures or values of the past.” The latter half of this definition, focusing on the vertical relationship between past and present cultures, is how I approached the term appropriation within this exhibition. Through vertical appropriation, one works in the hopes that the histories and values associated with the appropriated object or image is then transferred to the appropriator, thus relinquishing the object of its original meaning and offers the appropriator (or in this case, artist) the ability to challenge the history through the creation of new narratives. Continuing with his definition of appropriative acts, Kinney also claims that appropriation is “fundamental to human nature” thus, the use of appropriation for Black artist working in the Western Canon is imperative to not only their practice but also in their desires to fully recognize the Black figure as a whole being, void of the limiting tropes and stereotypes placed upon them by the histories of limiting visualizations.  It is also necessary for these artists to work with the imager of the past to deconstruct the

Back and Forth: Reframing the Parameters of Black Subjugation Through Appropriation looks at the work of contemporary Black artist Titus Kaphur, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, Renee Cox, Rashid Johnson, and Kehinde Wiley, all of whom use borrowed imagery to confront the history of anti-black rhetoric within the Western art canon; specifically critiquing the era of rampant colonialism and the institution of American Slavery. These artists revisit various moments in history as a means to reframe history in a manner that highlights the discrepancies of racial difference and tackle these complicated narratives head-on, thus eliminating the stifling parameters of representation historically attached to the Black-figure and expands on the possibilities for both figure and artist to exist within or outside of. By focusing on artists who work in a wide range of mediums and appropriate elements from archival materials within their work as a means of critique to the histories of anti-black violence that lie within the photographs and paintings of the past, my goal is toBy using imagery of the past, these artists resituate their perspectives within the canon of art-making connections to both the past and present this act thus fulfills and by doing so are participating in those “fictive continuities” that Kinney expressed was necessary of appropriated objects.

Bell hooks, in her seminal collection of essays Art on my Mind: Visual Politics, after speaking on the “transformative nature of art” asks her audience to consider “why in so many instances of global imperialist conquest by the West, art has been appropriated or destroyed?” This question in relation to Kinney’s definition of appropriation makes the case that the artist in this exhibition and their appropriative techniques are natural facets of Western art-making. Though when used by Black artists, appropriation is seen as a tool of self-visualization in an industry that has often erased the voices of Black artists and relegated Black subjection to the white male gaze. Hooks goes on to state that “Black artist [and critics] must continually confront an art world so rooted in a politics of white capitalist patriarchal exclusion that our relationship to art and aesthetics can be submerged be the effort to challenge and change this existing structure”. This further moved me to think of the manner that these Black artists are approaching the violent history of Black representation in art and why now, it is even more vital to critique these histories in a direct manner as opposed to relying on subtleness. This direct criticism avoids the confusion that comes with subtlety and makes clear the purpose of the artist and the need to make this confrontational work as a Black person.

As noted above, the use of appropriation situates these artists work within the context of western art-making practices and aligns my theory slightly with that of Darby English who in his 2007 book How To See A Work of Art In Total Darkness interrogates the idea of a distinct “black representational space” by arguing that  “themes, problems, and tactics [used in the creation of black artists practices] derived from a variety of art-historical and sociopolitical contexts …simply embarrass claims of distinctness but, far more consequently satisfies the representational demands of artists for whom the question of cultural position is not given but historically shaped and to a degree a matter of preference.” While English and I’s understanding of Black art-making and the need for cultural distinctness within the practice differs, I do agree with the idea that Black art should be considered wholly and within the overall context of western art thus, by using appropriation as a means of creating new narratives these artists are actively demanding visibility within the canon.

Returning back to the text of Shawn Michelle Smith, she talks about the idea of these contemporary artists returning to the iconic images of the past as a natural means of encountering the imagery at hand. This thought made me ask the question “How do appropriations racialize the imagery and simultaneously create iconic imagery for the Black community?” This led me to Nicole R. Fleetwood’s essay On Racial Icons where she argues “the racial icon is widely consumed in the midst of persistent, quotidian, and extreme racial inequality and suffering. And thus, the racial icon presents a challenge. Inasmuch as it stands for a marking of a democratic notion of racial trajectory, it continues to serve as a plea for recognition and justice for black Americans in light of historical and ongoing forms of racism.” Through this exhibition, I will attempt to work through my understanding of these re-visitations and how the creation of “racial icons” through appropriation and exhibit its importance in creating complex visualizations of Blackness. I also aim to understand how these images stand up to the histories in which they’re confronting and the ways in which they are understood within such a complex contemporary racial system and if, ultimately these images are icons in their own right.

Duration: Dec. 2 - 31, 2020


Curated By: Shabez Jamal


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