L to R: Detail from “Alligator Man” episode of Atlanta; detail from Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine album cover (2017); Sheila Bridges, Tarnish (2017); Janet Jackson (1987); detail from Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon (2018).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This fourth transmission (7.16.18) features Glenda R. Carpio on Atlanta‘s “Alligator Man” episode, Charles “Chip” Linscott on Zeal and Ardor’s “Blood in the River,” Macushla Robinson on Sheila Bridges’ Tarnish, Textures Material Culture Lab on Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans, and Keith M. Harris on Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
Kia LaBeija is a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary multimedia artist and performer.1 I was familiar with LaBeija’s photography, her dance and performance videos, and her work with Visual AIDS.2 I knew she was an accomplished voguer, prominent in the New York ballroom scene, and currently Mother of the House of LaBeija. I also knew she was an HIV+-queer woman of color, had lost her mother to AIDS and had grown up HIV+. Given happenstance, I had even found myself at her Artforum cover celebration and birthday party last March.3 This was the first night that I had been in the company of others, outside of work, the first time I had been social since November, since my mother, my cousin, and my eldest brother had passed. I was sad, morose, and longing for the company of others. The invitation had come from a friend who had checked in frequently and been patient with my grieving. He thought the no frills, small gathering would at least get me out of my apartment, into the company of others. Faded, I did not recall that it was a birthday party, nor for whom the party was . . . so faded, I went. Though I did not stay for cake, I spoke to LaBeija very briefly about her series, 24, and about her forthcoming solo exhibition, Fear is only a fraction of love. The self-portraits in 24 narrativize, represent, mourn, celebrate, and present LaBeija, a twenty-four-year-old woman born with HIV, a child who lost her mother to AIDS at the age of fourteen, a celebration of defiance and coming to terms. I already knew I wanted to write about Grandmother Willow (2014). After we had spoken, after thinking about it when I got home, the image of LaBeija, gossamer and fairy-like, underneath and framed by the drooping branches and leaves of a willow tree, the black and white contrast, made me cry. I decided I would wait for the opening of the solo show, see if I found another self-portrait, another image that would move and challenge me and my emotions, perhaps enable lighter emotions, at least for a while.
A few weeks after that March night was the opening of her solo exhibition at Royale Projects, Los Angeles. Making myself go, I had invited two other friends to join me, to meet me at the gallery. I arrived late. As it was, neither friend would arrive at all. Not realizing this until much later, however, I went ahead into the show. I thought about going home, after all I had already seen reprints. I stood at the foot of the ramp leading to the gallery entrance not wanting to see anyone I knew, not wanting even to greet strangers, not wanting potentially to cry, which everything made me do at that time . . . contemplating not wanting to . . . I went up the ramp. There in the wide entrance I stand transfixed—
Closer I come to see her. Eyes closed. Head tilted back. Floating full red lips. A lean left. Shoulders arched, sharpening forward. Distended folding arms, crossing her body. An elegant expanse of open extended hands. One down. One up: the moon perched
on her fingertips.
Step back a slight distance. Here I see she has given us a self-portrait. A luminous towering galaxy dancing through the universe. A painterly performance still-ed motion poised in a photograph. A nude vogue
striking a planetary pose—
LaBeija takes the self-portrait, the nude and reconceptualizes it. The nudes here, her nudes, reflect to the viewer neither narcissistic interiority nor transparent ideal form. The opacity of her nude figure as emergent galactic, clothed in the blue-green night-ground of the image does not conceal. Instead it confronts perception, forcing the viewer nearer to discern, nearer to decipher the conveyance of the nude re-imagined, of nudity as re-invention, reclamation, resistance, and recalcitrance. LaBeija features the moon because she is courageous, unafraid, with stars and night for skin, a powerful, shimmering glamour: Kia featuring the moon blocks the sun.
This is one of five essays from the fourth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 4.1 / “Alligator Man” / Glenda R. Carpio
b.O.s. 4.2 / “Blood in the River” / Charles P. (“Chip”) Linscott
b.O.s. 4.3 / Tarnish / Macushla Robinson
b.O.s. 4.4 / Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans / TEXTURES Material Culture Lab
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- This writing is inspired and informed by Edwin Ramoran’s gallery talk. Edwin Ramoran, “Legacy Runs Deep for Kia LaBeija” (Gallery Talk, Royale Projects, Los Angeles April 8, 2018).
- Visual AIDS is a contemporary arts organization and collective founded in 1988. Visual AIDS is committed to presenting visual art projects, exhibitions, public forums, and publications in order to raise AIDS awareness and create and promote dialogue around HIV issues. Furthermore, Visual AIDS assists artist living with HIV/AIDS and pledges to preserve, honor, and promote the artwork of artists with HIV/AIDS. Kia LaBeija is a longstanding Visual AIDS member. See https://www.visualaids.org/about and https://www.visualaids.org/blog for mission, members, artwork, publications, etc.
- Artforum (January 2018). LaBeija is featured on the cover. It has been noted that LaBeija is not “typical” Artforum cover material as she had not had a solo exhibition (at the time of the cover), is not represented by a high-profile gallery, is without the backing of a major collector or curator, and she is not white (and one of only four African American women featured on the cover since its 1962 founding). Victoria L. Valentine, “New Artforum Editor Describes Kia LaBeija as ‘An Artist I Immediately Needed to Know’,” Culture Type, January 8, 2018. http://www.culturetype.com/2018/01/08/.