Clockwise from top left: Pascale Marthine Tayou, Landscape Sierra Leone [detail], 2010. Marc Brandenburg, Full Circle [detail], 2001. Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P., with Maren Hassinger, 1977.Katharine Hepburn and Lena Horne, April 1949.
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 second transmission (6.17.18) features Leora Maltz-Leca on Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Sierra Leone Landscape, Priscilla Layne on Marc Brandenburg’s Full Circle, Racquel Gates on Lena Horne’s Side-Eye, and Joshua Chambers-Letson on Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger’s Spooks Who Sat by the Door.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
If we have long been conditioned to think of the stretched cream canvas as a skin—an (unacknowledged) field of whiteness that forms the ground of modern painting—how might we construe a plane of wood encrusted in brown chocolate, then dappled with coffee (fig. 1)? Is this a skin or a coat? An inside or an outside? An austere monochrome or a sparkly treat? And more to the point, might this chocolate-coffee painting prompt us to think inside-out about blackness (or brownness) as both abstractions of theory and specificities of experience: as slippery metaphors and unyielding truths?
From Marcel Duchamp to Dieter Roth and Janine Antoni, numerous artists have used chocolate as subject and material, deploying it as liquid paint or sculptural solid, and associating it with grinding, licking, and even defecating.1 It has been smeared and gnawed. As this list suggests, in all these endeavors, the hungry body is never far away, interior urges fighting to the surface. But how does the signification of chocolate shift when lustful fantasies of consumption are displaced by the repressed pragmatics of production, when the urges of the white body yield to an acknowledgment of the laboring black bodies on which such voraciousness dialectically depends? Cameroonian-Belgian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou cues such raced histories of labor, even as he toys with the essentialism of the association between blackness and Africa; between chocolate and race.
I first encountered Tayou’s chocolate and coffee works on a visit to his Ghent studio in 2011 when I noticed a group of his Poupées Pascale—the West African figurative sculptures which he recasts in Venetian crystal—coated with coffee grinds and chocolate, his material transfiguration of the wooden sculptures into crystal now reversed, thereby returning the figures from transparency back to opacity (fig. 2). The materiality of these works was potent: tactile, olfactory, scabrous. And concealing the (expensive and luminous) crystal beneath the matte brown epidermis felt both seemingly casual and daringly explicit. In this instance, chocolate and coffee, like the baubles and beads that bedeck the Poupées, read as a material of West African colonial and neocolonial trade, a connection cemented by the occasional dangling price tag, or the insertion of “trade” beads atop the sculptures.
The uneven dynamics of global trade underpin Sierra Leone Landscape (2010) too, but here Tayou exchanges sculpture for painting to channel his meditations through the potted history of abstract painting. Jewel colored dabs of chalk fleck the surface of his coffee-streaked, chocolate painting, camping the modernist legacy of lofty, dematerialized abstraction.2 Indeed Tayou answers this tradition, and its aspirations of universalism and transcendence, with a willful materiality that is both anti-abstract (it calls itself out as a landscape) and anti-universal (it’s a pointed invocation of a country and its particular histories). Through its primary materials—coffee and chocolate—Sierra Leone Landscape evokes a local terrain of neocolonial production and consumption. In particular, it elicits the notorious working conditions long documented on regional cacao plantations, which depend on child labor (illegally procured through child trafficking) and coerced and indentured forms of labor indistinguishable from slavery.3 To wit: in 1906, almost a hundred years after the 1807 Abolition of the Trade, Henry Wood Nevinson confirmed rumors of such practices in his searing expose, “A Modern Slavery.”4 Tragically, another century later, the situation continues unabated with recent Interpol raids rescuing dozens of children from slavery on cacao plantations, and former chocolate slaves suing their captors in ongoing lawsuits.5 The EU and US governments have mustered an insipid response to the human rights violations that fuel its billion dollar chocolate industry.6
Even more than chocolate, Sierra Leone’s gold and “blood” diamonds cast the country’s resource rich terrain as a paradigmatic landscape of colonial and neocolonial exploitation. Despite—or in fact, because of—these mineral deposits, Sierra Leone has one of the highest income gaps in the world. Tayou has long addressed his work to the gross inequities of income that still pattern the African postcolonies, marshalling his own materials (chocolate, cotton) to foreground the processes of extraction, consumption and accumulation that are the paradigmatic operations of capital, and the bitter legacy of colonialism. Hence Sierra Leone Landscape premiered alongside clouds of cotton, installations of “diamonds,” and a snaking oil pipeline, all of which insist on the politics of material choices and on the “dirty” processes of extraction and refinement that the capitalist labor chain cleanses from our final products.7
If the materiality of Sierra Leone Landscape summons the gross human rights abuses of the global trade in chocolate (and West African children), so too the form of the work redoubles the association between chocolate and contemporary slavery. Tayou retains the stern modernist frame of abstract painting only to collapse it into a crumbly biscuit surround: indeed his African “landscape” painting recalls the seemingly innocuous confection made by the centuries old French company, Lu: Le Petit Écolier (fig. 3). Lu was founded in 1846 in Nantes, the epicenter of France’s slave trade, and after the abolition of the trade, the city scrambled to create new industries, including a signal confectionary rooted in its maritime past. Biscuits—whose name derives from the French bis cuit, referring to the way that they were twice cooked—were the staple fare of sailors, for centuries sustaining them on long voyages. Reinvented, they moved inside, to become the parlor fare of the colonial mercantile class, their pure butter heart and wholesome chocolate schoolboy marshalled to blanket their origin in maritime Nantes, and the ongoing chocolate slave trade. Like the white milkiness of Swiss alpine cows and cowgirls, Lu’s “innocent” schoolboy represents the whiting out of chocolate—a “refinement” of the raw material and its raw past.
Sierra Leone Landscape, through the materiality of chocolate and the form of the biscuit, recalls raced histories of labor long erased, abstracted, transcended . . . . In this way, the blackness of chocolate is an affirmation of black bodies and black labor suffocated into invisibility. It’s a refusal of modernist abstractions for the specificity of local landscapes, and it’s an indictment of the violent white refinement in our sugary treats. Such refinement has for centuries posed as the guardian of elite Euro-American culture, an ideal sculpted in opposition to vulgar politics and dirty money. Recognizing this alerts us to how a defense of base materiality and crude, sticky matter illuminates the brutality etched deep in genteel forms, sweet treats, and myths of transcendence.
This is one of four essays from the second 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.
- I have in mind Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder (No. 1) (1913), Dieter Roth’s numerous chocolate works of the late 1960s, and Janine Antoni’s Gnaw (1992).
- One paradigmatically pompous painting, often cited as the origin and apex of modernist abstraction, is Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1913). For some artists, the very process of “abstracting” is implicated in the violence of universalizing assumptions, and the blithe extension of a European logic to the world.
- For Tayou, labor and productivity are longtime concerns, as evinced in his monumental installation at the 2009 Venice Biennial, Human Beings @ Work.
- Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery and Colonial Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012): 25-55.
- Activists and human rights organizations document thousands of children between the ages of 7 and 15 trafficked from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to cacao plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. Periodic Interpol raids rescue fifty to sixty children at a time. Local bus drivers on these routes intervene too to rescue children and send them back home. https://www.interpol.int/Crime-areas/Trafficking-in-human-beings/Operations/Forced-child-labour. The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs Report documents child labor on cacao and coffee plantations in Sierra Leone and Guinea, Ghana and Cameroon, with cocoa grown in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria produced with child labor and forced labor. For the report, see: https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/documents/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/TVPRA_Report2016.pdf
- In spite of the signing of the Harkin-Engel protocol in 2001, the powerful Euro-American chocolate lobby has quashed more muscular policies, enforcement of the protocol, and legislation and labeling (such as “slave free chocolate”) that would create a zero tolerance approach to child trafficking and slavery necessary to end these illegal practices. For more information, see http://www.slavefreechocolate.org/ and Miki Mistrati’s 2010 documentary, Dark Side of Chocolate http://www.slavefreechocolate.org/dark-side-of-chocolate/
- Sierra Leone Landscape was first exhibited in Boomerang, the artist’s 2015 retrospective at the Serpentine Galleries, London.