Time Travel with La Négresse

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La Négresse, Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, 1868
It is no coincidence that I experienced “La Négresse” by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux while at the Berkeley Art Museum last week.  At the time I was reading “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, a pseudo science fiction novel (for lack of a better genre) set simultaneously in slavery and 1976.  In the book a woman is transported back in time armed only with her knowledge of the present but she is rendered powerless as she attempts to navigate her role as an enslaved black woman in the antebellum south.  She toggles between two worlds with the sole purpose of saving an individual who has caused her undue harm, unaware of how to navigate her new reality as a fish out of water.

In many ways the bronze sculpture feels exposed, like a fish out of water in the main gallery at BAMPFA.  La Négresse sits in proximity to a neon Dan Flavin, a collection of brightly colored, large scale Hans Hoffman paintings and a Philip Guston. The gallery placement of the bust reveals a dramatic contrast between time and medium.

Carpeaux’s bronze cast is a study that was part of “Fontain de l’Observatoire” in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris.  The fountain consists of 4 women representing 4 different continents, whose bodies subtly twist toward a global sphere placed in the middle of the fountain. The women are flanked by horses that appear to be charging out of the water.

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Fontaine de l’Observatoire, photo credit: EU Touring

 

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Inscription at the base of “La Négresse” reads: “Pourquoi naître esclave” (“Why born a slave?)
At BAMFA “La Négresse” is a bust of a bare chested woman twisting both her torso and gaze to the left. The loose ropes draping over her body suggest bondage, while the engraving at the bottom of the bust confirms it:

“Pourquoi naître esclave” (Why born a slave?)

It is unclear if Carpeaux was challenging the institution of slavery, Africa and Europe’s role in slavery, or America’s resistence to abolish it. I do find it interesting that in Carpeaux’s bronze study, the ropes are loosely bound, but her arm placement suggests that her hands could be bound.  The final fountain (which was completed while the artist’s health was failing) features a full standing figure in ankle shackles.  This not only distills Africa’s existence to the institution slavery, but it is also a monolithic portrayal that ignores the limitless, innovative contributions of Africans across the diaspora and the world.  In other words, do we see beyond slavery? Ultimately, Carpeaux’s question engraved on the bust challenges that monolithic view while also reinforcing it.

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“After la Negresse, 1872, 2006”, cast marble, dust and resin. Photo credit:  Kehinde Wiley Studio
This is why Kehinde Wiley’s “After La Négresse”, 2006 is so interesting to me.  In this marble and resin bust (not on view at BAMPFA), a young man wears a basketball jersey and casts a similar forlorn look over his left shoulder. In this piece Wiley transports the same visual clues from 1872 to 2006 and asks similar questions regarding the subject’s circumstance. Both subjects have shoulders that angle downward as if their hands are tied (or handcuffed) behind their back. Here it is unclear if the Lakers jersey is a liberator or an enslaver.  Are sports a ticket out of a particular circumstance or a salve that keep us dreaming unattainable dreams? Is it even fair to heap a one size fits all ideal onto a sculpture like that?

Both works explore the idea of people being enslaved by imagery.  In both “La Négresse” and “After la Négresse” we are left wondering if the subjects are being liberated from their plight or held captive to it.  As a representation of Africa, does slavery encapsulate an entire race?  Similarly, when we look at the state of black men today, are they trapped by imagery perpetuated by the media? Neither views are comprehensive but both demand exploration.

A Tribute to My Grandmother

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Editor’s Note:  Sometimes the important matters of life will creep onto this site.  In all honesty, I have had a hard time focusing on art while dealing with the death of my beloved Grandmother on August 30th.  I thought I’d share because she was so very special to me.  I look forward to jumping back into Culture Shock Art soon, but in the meantime I needed some closure. Thanks for understanding.

~Colony, Culture Shock Art

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My Grandmother’s long battle against Alzheimer’s ended in the early morning hours of August 30st.  As the only Grandparent I have known my entire life, her loss was particularly devastating to me.  With Alzheimer’s the final goodbye was a slow, gradual one as she slipped into various stages of memory loss and dementia, but a few important things remained: her wicked sense of humor, her love of music and the joy she found in photos.
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My grandmother doing what she loved;  looking at photos. 
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This is the picture my grandmother is looking at above. Four generations. 
Grief took up residence in my heart over the last 12 days as I tried to manage it by keeping busy, helping my family prepare for her services over the weekend.  I combed through pictures and listened to her collection of soundtrack and comedy albums.
During those days the whirl of memories fluttered around me.  My grandmother was the matriarch of our family- her home was the epicenter of family gatherings of children, grandchildren, great grand children, siblings nephews and friends where we enjoyed meals, told stories, cracked jokes, ate peppermint and butterscotch candies, collected seashells, played bid whist and fought over who would take home the final slices of her famous apple pie.
Visiting home and spending time with my family, many of which I am not able to see regularly, we took comfort in assembling the pieces of my grandmother’s beautifully complex life.  While it is unfortunate that loss unites us in tragedy, I am grateful for such a loving and supportive family and I will cherish the time that we were able to spend together.
While on the plane heading home yesterday the Southwest flight attendant launched his impromptu comedy set, heaping praise on the Oakland Raiders for their win, but he quickly ended on a somber note related to 9/11:
“Remember, ‘Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.’  I know at least one of you needed to hear that right now.”  
It was at that moment that I had to send my grief packing.  The memories of my grandmother will live on in my heart, not the pain from her loss.
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In the meantime, Alzheimer’s is a menacing disease that I have no intention of ignoring.  Because I could not visit my grandma as much as I wanted to, I spent countless hours in feeble attempts to understand more about the disease.  The Alzheimer’s Association was a tremendous help to me, providing resources, kind words of support and much needed information for caretakers and loved ones.
Last week we created a memorial page for my grandmother, Velvia Lyle through the Alzheimer’s Association.
Please consider making a donation to help the association provide the support, care and research needed to minimize the effects of this disease.  I want to thank all of my friends and family for their love, support, cards, kinds words, smiles, laughs and hugs.
Velvia C. Lyle Memorial Fund
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When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: Youthful Indiscretions Don’t Always Remain in the Past

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Installation View: “Imitation of Life” at the Broad. Photo credit: Ben Gibbs via The Broad
The theme for this week: “Youthful Indiscretions”.  Our memories of the mistakes of our youth are sharply influenced by how we recount them over time. This week, a 32 year old swimmer at the Olympics got the benefit of an extension of his youth.  Ryan Lochte was labeled a “kid” who was just having fun after he maligned a country by using their vulnerabilities against them to fabricate a lie to cover up vandalism and otherwise abhorrent behavior.  While he apologized in social media for his actions, it rang hollow for most of us.  I don’t think he has grasped the extent of the damage his lies have caused Brazil and people of color. They exposed truisms about how privledge and bias work in our society.  Sadly, Ryan Lochte gets the benefit of doubt by being perceived as a 32 year old kid, while a 12 year Tamir Rice gets gunned down for playing with a toy.

In recent weeks three notable women in the art world have given us a glimpse into their limited field of vision. Creative director Vanessa Beecroft posits that despite her European lineage, if she  “believes” she is an African American male (her alter ego), that it does in fact, makes her one.

Then there’s Marina Abramović who likened Aborignial Australians to dinosaurs using pre-colonial anthropologic descriptions to substantiate her observations. I could almost hear the proverbial shovel hitting hard clay as she kept digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole.  The artist was quick to point out that these innocent observations were plucked from a 1979 diary and do not reflect her current understanding of Aborigines.  She was 32 at the time.

Cindy Sherman’s current retrospective at the Broad showcases her work as a photographic chameleon who transforms herself into characters in print.  These images reflect society’s views on the portrayal of women in media and film over time and I have long admired her ability to fabricate vividly intricate stories through her photography.  Recently, a series of photographs have come under fire in a Huffington Post article that resurrects a 2015 hashtag #cindygate created by Mhysa @E_SCRAATCH.
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Cindy Sherman’s Bus Riders Series, 1976. Photo credit: Huffington Post via Mhysa @E_SCRAATCH
Sherman’s 1976 “Bus Riders Series” depicts numerous men and women she encountered on city bus rides.  This early body of work included shots of Sherman sporting blackface against a simple white background with the artist acting out exaggerated caricatures of black women.  These fetishized flat notions of blackness are in stark contrast to the deeply intricate narratives Sherman carefully crafts in her subsequent work.  According to wall text at the Broad this work serves as a portal into her artistic process.  I think it is a window into the artist’s bias.

Every one of these examples revolve around how bias shapes perception.  If anything, this is a stark reminder that we do not navigate this world free from bias or perception.  What’s frustrating is the art world’s reluctance to look deeper into the social constructs that develop these perceptions in the first place.  Additionally, these recent examples by three art world luminaries also expose our over-reliance on using the innocence of youth as an excuse to dismiss and ignore the actions of the past. I recognize that we should look at the early work of artists just out of grad school as exploratory and should be taken with a grain of salt, but if we simply forgive and forget, do we ever learn?

Scholar artists like Deborah Willis use their work to explore these questions of perception, identity and image.  I love the contemplative moment captured in a beauty salon that is a recognition of beauty that also challenges the viewer with the question, “what is it about me that frightens you?”.  The image shot by Willis of artist Carrie Mae Weems looking at herself in the mirror brings us into this personal examination.
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Debra Willis’ beautiful portrait of Carrie Mae Weems.  Photo credit: New York Times
When you look at Weems’ series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, we see an exploration into the use of photography a tool to shape our perceptions of the black body; these perceptions continue to plague us to this day.
As black women we examine ourselves through the eyes of others, and constantly toggle between our own awareness and others’ perceptions of us. This is a process that white artists have the luxury of avoiding-it is one that I wish Sherman had explored when she was asked to comment on it for the Broad’s retrospective. The series was hidden for years until Sherman resurrected the work in a year 2000 reprint.  In describing the work she dismisses it as youthful naiveté.
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The Broad and their guest curator also missed an opportunity to shed a critical light on how this series fits into the balance of Sherman’s photographic work.  A springboard into this dialog can be found in the show’s title.
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Susan Kohler and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life, 1959.  Photo credit:  A World of Film
“Imitation of Life”, a 1959 remake that was originally produced in the ’30’s is about a light skinned black girl who spends her youth denigrating and denying her identity as she passes for white.  This entire movie deals with the child’s struggles when she sees herself in the mirror and ultimately buys into the larger society’s perceptions of European ideals.  Her desperation to cling to the white gaze is a painful theme througout the film.  The indiscretions of her youth carry forward into her adulthood and are only brought to light through tragedy.

This is why curators are vitally important. In this instance I think it is essential for the Broad to place this particular work in its proper social context for the viewer.  The dialog should acknowledge the juxtaposition between the artist’s ignorance of blackface then and their understanding of it now. It is also important to recognize the painful legacy of the past and the indirect ways this imagery has permeated our culture throughout the years.  By doing so we can illuminate a path forward to properly establish canon.

The Let Down: Netflix’s Ambitious Take on the Birth of Hip Hop Falls Flat

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Photo Credit: Washington Post

The 2015 Netflix trailer for the Get Down gave us glimpse of 1970’s New York and the birth of hip hop with the fire and drama you would expect from a Baz Luhrmann production.  When the show launched August 12, they managed to deliver on lush cinematography, stunning style and familiar hip hop samples, but well after an hour into the premier the plot failed to take off until the pilot’s final minutes.

There were many starts and stops that plagued the show’s production leaving many wondering if the Get Down would ever see the light of day. According to Variety, budgets were largely unchecked and multiple showrunners were replaced which slowed production and resulted in an absence of a cohesive narrative voice.  In an age of endless viewing options competing for viewers’ attention, Netflix must succeed in capturing fans from the beginning. Sadly, the pilot failed to hook me.
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The photographic backgrounds introduced in the early scenes of The Get Down set the table for a visual feast featuring historically accurate accounts of New York that include the arsons, political corruption, dismal public schools, deplorable housing and crime in the city. This rang true, but by the end of the show, the Get Down delivered a shallow, messy meal that somehow left me with heartburn.
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Photo Credit: New York Times
The character development asked too much of viewers, expecting them to emotionally invest in the cast too early.  I really wished their storylines unfolded organically.  Every time a main character was introduced, they explained their backstory within their first 5 lines.  The love story between the show’s budding rapper protagonist Zeke and aspiring disco singer Mylene was classic Luhrmann; overly emotional and cloying bordering on desperate.  Zeke’s impassioned pleas to get a bouncer to let him into the Studio 54-esque “Les Inferno” was as forced and unbelievable as his tears when Mylene rejected his romantic overtures.
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Poor Zeke…
Creatively I also found a few distracting cliches in the otherwise authentically styled wardrobe and makeup. While I thought the signature Warriors-style gang gear worn by Warlords was perfectly on point, their sloppily soot strewn makeup made the Warlords look like they were moonlighting as a backup fire brigade.  From a casting perspective I appreciated the diversity of the cast that paired fresh talent with veteran actors; sadly they didn’t get the script writing respect they deserve:  Jimmy Smits character is a cross between a Puerto Rican Robin Hood and Tony Montana, and Giancarlo Esposito’s character was overblown. There was a disturbing silence among the older women in the cast-the exception being the lady boss who runs nighclubs, prostitutes, numbers, the local drug cartel and a daycare (blink.blink).

I liked the numerous references to 1970’s Kung Fu flicks and blaxploitation films, but every time there was a mention of the red Puma wearing Shaolin Famous I was waiting for Sho Nuff from the Last Dragon to make a suprise cameo. The show’s over-reliance on caricatures diminished the story’s value.

The show felt most at home in the grey space between history and historical fiction, particularly during their use of music and graffiti to move the plot along. Ultimately, the subtle references felt dishonest. In the Get Down, the hunt for the coveted single vinyl copy of a remix by “The Pakoosa” binds the show’s main characters together.  The remix is of a song by fictional disco diva Misty Holloway could only be found at a lone Jamaican corner store; historically this is a nod to the 1972 crossover hit “Soul Makossa”.  As Will Hermes recounts in his book “Love Goes to Buidings of Fire”, Soul Makossa was an unknown import by Manu Dibango from Cameroon.  When David Mancuso found it in a West Indian record shop in Brooklyn in 1972 and played it at the Loft, its scarcity and popularity quickly made it one of the most sought after albums by New York DJs. Once radio stations got a hold of the track Soul Makossa was one of the many songs that laid the foundation of disco.  Soul Makossa is also one of the most sampled breaks in hip hop history.  Old school hip hop heads and audiophiles likely know all this,
but this history is lost on the poor Get Down fans who were dismayed to find out that Misty Holloway doesn’t actually exist… In this instance poetic license was used to hide some scriptwriting shortcuts.
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Putting questions of historical fiction aside, I was willing to sit back and enjoy the ride, especially when I finally got to the infamous party the show was named after (after an hour into the episode).  In fact, all of my observations could have been overlooked if the balance of the show was as captivating  as the energetic and authentic final two scenes.  After the long trudge through the 90 minute premier, I questioned whether I still wanted to take the musical journey into the birth of hip hop with the Fantastic Four + 1.

Camilo Jose Vergara’s “Old New York”

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Photo: Camilo Jose Vergara’s, “Old New York”, 1970-1973

Camilo Jose Vergara’s work takes a historical photographic look at the dramatic evolution and dissolution of New York’s neighborhoods over decades.

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Politcal Poster by Emory Douglas. Photo: Camilo Jose Vergara

I really love his early early 1970’s work.  For me, the most captivating series is “Old New York”, a body of photos that exposed the neglected, desolated, apocalyptic cultural landscape existing in the South Bronx.

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In these pictures you can clearly see destructive legacy left behind by the development of the Cross Bronx Expressway in the 1950’s.  The construction of the Cross Bronx essentially bifurcated the city in two.  As white, middle class residents migrated north, thousands of poor black, brown and immigrant residents were displaced in the South Bronx.  By the 1970’s after decades of abandonment and blight, the area was further destroyed by slumlords in search of insurance money who burned buildings they owned. The flames were systematically and symbolically fanned by a city government that depleted the area of critically essential fire fighting resources.  At one point the city “averaged 12,000 fires a year-more than 30 a day.” (Source, Will Hermes, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire)

For more on Camilo Jose Vergara:

http://www.camilojosevergara.com/Old-New-York/1970-1973/1

Recommended Reading:

“Love Goes to Buildings on Fire:  Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever”, Will Hermes