b.O.s. 7.2 / Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama / Rebecca Wanzo

Details, top to bottom: Jeremy Love, Bayou, 2009; Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018; Childish Gambino, “This Is America,” Directed by Hiro Murai, 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 seventh transmission (8.27.18) features Jonathan Gray on Jeremy Love’s Bayou, Rebecca Wanzo on Amy Sherald’s Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, and Thomas F. DeFrantz on Childish Gambino’s “This is America” video.

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

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Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (2018)

When Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (2018), was unveiled, some said the portrait “looks nothing like her.”1 Sherald’s trademark grayscale troubled some African Americans, and memes circulated that altered her skin to a brown tone. One African American woman expressed to me her concern about her lack of smile: “They will look at the first African American first lady and think she looks sad.”

The attachment to a narrowed sense of realism and the insistence on representing black joy is profoundly curious when we understand this as but one of many images of Obama. Michele Obama is one of the most photographed women in the world, thus the portrait is an opportunity to capture something other than mere verisimilitude.

Cultural commentary offers a way to understand something about what we desire from an image, and also set the terms for desires we had not known were possible. The concern about the absence of Obama’s smile helped me articulate what I speculated might be one of her possible desires, a desire that I had not only for her but for myself after eight years of watching her combat misogynoir with an idealized, heteronormative black womanhood.2 I imagine that it would be meaningful to look as if she didn’t care that others were looking. She does not have to smile. She can be done with expectations and demands.

Weeks later I heard Sherald somewhat affirm my reading in an artist talk about her work at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.3 Given the history of western art, “to paint black people is always political,” she stated. And yet, she wants “to create these resting spaces for people to come in and look.” Black people in particular, she argued, should be able to come into a gallery or museum and “just have a resting place.” Sherald stated that her subjects were able to “release” themselves from the gaze.” This both echoed my initial reading of the Michelle Obama portrait even as I suddenly found myself resisting the very possibility of such an experience. Can we ever be released if white people are looking? The idea seemed somewhat fantastic: could an artist whose work circulated in spaces owned and dominated by whiteness and white money not only show black people released from their gazes but extend that courtesy outward from the work to black audiences?

The possibility speaks to what Kevin Quashie has described as the undertheorized understanding of “quiet” in black culture. When we only focus on resistance, we miss the “exquisite balance of what is public and is intimate.”4 The focus on black resistance places blackness always in the realm of protest, denies black people the possibility of interiority and escaping the demand that black people occupy within the sociological imagination. Resistance, Quashie argues, “may be deeply resonant with black culture and history, but it is not significant for describing the totality of black humanity.”5  Sherald has stated that her grayscale and background represent “a liminal space as opposed to one that would provide a context of place or time.”6 The opportunity to experience atemporality and aspatiality provide a rest from the racist past and present. The absence of the smile on a black woman’s face can evoke anger or sadness instead of rest because of cultural scripts. Given the well-documented refashioning of Michelle Obama during her husband’s presidential campaign to combat the reading of her as an angry black woman, the face at rest feels like a refusal of prescriptive and regulatory gazes on black womanhood.

Thus, when I encounter the black subject in Sherald’s What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence, I see a man who is released from expectations. His handsome, chiseled features in the artist’s grayscale are framed by a black cowboy hat and American flag button-down shirt. [IMAGE 2 insert]

Amy Sherald, “What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (All American)” (2017)

The grayscale and background make this African American man somewhat outside of time and space, a privilege denied black people so often defined by the discriminatory conditions of various historical moments. Both within and somewhat outside of the solid beige color, he is an individual when black people are so often understood by typologies. The flag and cowboy hat—a clothing choice she added—make him an atypical visual representation of African American manhood. The title of Sherald’s portrait calls attention to why these questions may deny him the humanity available to those who have the privilege of being idiosyncratic. To be released from the gaze, then, might sometimes mean a release from racialized regulatory gazes that assault black bodies to different degrees on multiple fronts.

“Release” and “rest” thus feels somewhat like an aesthetics of resistance after all. But resistance seems inadequate, given Quashie’s reminder that there is an ontology of blackness that cannot and should not be defined as that. What language can define the experience and affect of black rest—which we should take to be not a luxury but a physical requirement for survival?

Perhaps Sherald offers some alternative vocabulary. At the end of her talk, a white male audience member stated—after she had already discussed how her portraits should be understood—that she needed to explain again that painting black subjects was an intervention in the history of western painting in response to Obama portrait critics.  His repeated request that she explain “HOW” was a demand for the translation of black experience for the white gaze that she just explained she wanted black people to be able to escape.

The discomfort and impatience in the standing-room-only event was somewhat palpable, but dissipated after Sherald’s answer:

“I painted the fuck out of it.”

The room exploded in laughter and applause, the intimacy in recognition of everything signified by “fuck”: refusal, swagger, mastery, comfort, pleasure, and freedom. Rest might encompass one kind of freedom that many of us can grasp, if we can recognize the promise offered by the fantastic frontier of black restfulness, and the radicalness of release.

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This is one of three essays from the seventh transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 7.1 / Bayou / Jonathan Gray
b.O.s. 7.3 / This is America / Thomas F. DeFrantz

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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.

Endnotes

  1. https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/12/politics/michelle-obama-portrait/index.html.
  2. Moya Bailey, “They aren’t talking about me,” Crunk Feminist Collective, March 14, 2010, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2010/03/14/they-arent-talking-about-me/.
  3. “Artist talk: Amy Sherald. Contemporary Art Museum,” May 10, 2018.
  4. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New York: Rutgers, 2012), 3.
  5. Quashie 26.
  6. Cara Ober, “Amy Sherald wins National Gallery Portrait Competition,” Bmore Art, March 13, 2016, http://www.bmoreart.com/2016/03/amy-sherald-wins-national-gallery-portrait-competition.html
Rebecca Wanzo
Rebecca Wanzo is associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling (2009), which explores the narrative conventions African Americans must adhere to in order to make their suffering legible to the state and other communities. Her essays have been published in journals such as American Literature, Camera Obscura, differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, The Journal of Popular Culture, Women and Performance, and numerous edited collections. Her research interests include popular culture, African American literature, critical race theory, and feminist media studies. She is currently completing The Content of Our Caricature, under contract with New York University Press, which traces the history of African American cartoonists’ engagement with racist caricature as a means of commenting on citizenship genres in the United States.