Details, left to right: Miles Davis in the 30th Street Studios, 1962; Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner, The New Brunswick 5, (Wanted series), 2017; still from American Gods, season 1, episode 2, directed by David Slade.
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 eighth transmission (9.10.18) features Walton Muyumba on Miles Davis’s “Blues for Pablo,” Kimberly Juanita Brown on Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner’s Wanted, and Michael Boyce Gillespie on “Mr. Nancy’s story” in American Gods.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
Positioned side by side, text and image are joined to tell us something about the limitations of the archive and the curvature of subjectivity. An eighteenth-century fugitive slave advertisement reads in part: “Run-Away from the subscribers, between the hours of seven and eight o’clock yesterday evening, a NEGRO WENCH named BETT.” We are told that “Bett” is “about eighteen years old,” and that she “speaks English, French and German.” The text is upside-down, highlighting the interplay of power and the permutations of failed logic that mark the history of enslavement. The ad goes on to say that Bett is “big with child,” and due to give birth in a few days. These are the sparse details provided the reader, but they are a way to enter a world made by slavery and unmade by its slippery contours. Beside the eighteenth-century fugitive slave advertisement we see a visual representation of Bett, rendered contemporary and signifying on this historical past.
The work is part of a recent series, Wanted (2015), in which Afro-Canadian photographer and video artist Camille Turner with textile artist Camal Pirbhai highlight the presence of black visuality that has sustained black Canadians and built present-day Canada. A collaboration, Pirbhai and Turner visualize the futurity of black Canadian subjectivity in defiance of the past. Using runaway slave advertisements from Canadian slaveholders during the eighteenth century, Wanted uses the sartorial descriptors from the notices to imagine a future beyond the yoke of enslavement.
Wanted juxtaposes the original advertisement with the description of the last-known clothing worn by the enslaved escapee. These details are reproduced by Pirbhai in a contemporary setting with subjects who are temporally beyond slavery but sartorially tethered to its memory.1 Turner and Pirbhai’s portraits ask us to imagine Canada’s black embodiment as a product of slavery’s residue, and part of the literal fabric of the nation’s past, present, and future. Steeped in what Tina Campt refers to as the visual “grammar of black futurity,” these portraits resist stasis in favor of a fluid economy of exchange: subject to viewer, that imagines the difficult work of freedom-making in the contemporary moment.2
Turner and Pirbhai create the glimmery subterfuge of embodied knowledge that permeates through Canada’s mythic narrative of freedom.3 Twenty-first century Bett is a striking black woman, with a dark complexion and long legs. She leans forward from the seat on what appears to be a chaise lounge. Though wearing sunglasses, her eyes can be seen returning the viewer’s gaze. Sporting a “blue Kersey jacket” and with a tiered tulle yellow and rose-colored petticoat, her stance is one of determination. She appears at once at ease and prepared to move at a moment’s notice. A gold ring, bangles, and large face watch adorn her hands, visually conveying the divergent (dollars, guineas, gold coins) iterations of monetary awards attending most fugitive slave advertisements.
Engaging in a purposeful alignment with fashion photography, the portraits in Wanted present the gloss of magazine layouts in large-format images that are all the more spectacular for their archival resonance. Duplicating the specificity of the advertisement’s “last seen wearing” detail on a glossy print also gives us a sense of sartorial subterfuge. What does an item of clothing, strategically worn, tell us about desire? Fashion photography offers a mood, an aura, and a sensation. Wanted does this as well, while also dictating the terms of black embodiment so that the beauty of the subject is made visible.
The final photograph of the series is the only one with more than a single “future” imagined. The notice mentions five runaways: Isaac, Ben, Flora, Nancy, and four-year-old Lidge. Turner’s image offers us the vision of a tomorrow that is ever moving, ever shifting. The passengers in the vehicle are moving in a direction that has no punctuation and no specific end point. They seem unable to be contained by the frame of the photograph. We know them by their sartorial descriptors — “short blue coat, round hat, and white trousers, Devonshire kersey jacket, lined with scotch plaid corduroy breeches and round hat, white cotton jacket and petticoat”—but this is not the end of their story.
The distance between evasion and capture that punctuates fugitive slave advertisements tells us something about what is and is not possible in the realm of the visual. As such, Wanted offers us documents that illustrate the extended durée of enslavement while also playing with the limitations of the archive. The series allows slavery’s meaning—the refracted vision of unfreedom that always engulfs its refusal in the futurity of progress. As Saidiya Hartman writes, “The agency or theft or the simple exercise of any claims to the self, however restricted, challenged the figuration of the black captive as devoid of will.”4 It is will that presents itself in the images for the series. Wanted operates as a refraction of the violent mechanisms of slavery that cannot be seen without effort, without desire. The visual dissonance encoded here, that the formerly enslaved have “wants” as well, is one way artists represent the vibrant humanity of their subjects. In Wanted there is the possibility of self-possession, of corporeal harmony. In this quest for harmony we might safely call these disparate fugitive subjects by name: Isaac, Ben, Flora, Nancy, Lidge, and Bett.
This is one of three essays from the eighth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
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.
- In M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2011 book-length poem Zong! the past is audible in the present and its trace is visual. Taking as its focal point the 1781 Zong Massacre, where the captain of a slave ship bound for Jamaica ordered crew members to throw 132 sick people overboard to their deaths, Philip’s book defies convention in that it stitches the legal with the lyrical, sonic with the haptic texture of an elegy. In her hands the story of the Zong is one of visual dissonance; it is a clash of souls, capital, and weather. Philip imbues possibility with the presence of the past articulated in the verb “to be.” In its refusal of punctuation and its situational enjambment, Zong! enables the cumulative process of survival to dismantle itself only to reassemble somewhere else. In this way, Philip’s rendering is in conversation with Wanted, as these fugitive subjects endow the viewer with the ability to see into the future through the framework of the past. NourbeSe M. Philip, Zong! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.
- Tina Campt, Listening to Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016: 13.
- “The colonial archive of fugitive slave advertisements,” Charmaine Nelson writes, “calls us to understand the retention of self-care practices within a world of psychic, physical, and social abuse and material deprivation that was transatlantic slavery.” Charmaine Nelson, Introduction, “Re-Imagining the Enslaved: Eighteenth-Century Freedom Seekers as Twenty-First Century Sitters.” Art Gallery of Ontario, 2017.
- Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.