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)
Marc Brandenburg is an Afro-German artist born in Berlin, Germany in 1965. The son of a white German mother and an African American father, Brandenburg spent his childhood on military bases in the U.S., before returning to Berlin in 1977, after his parents divorced.1 As a teenager in Berlin, he participated in the punk scene where he got his start experimenting with art. Brandenburg’s artwork ranges from drawings to sculpture, incorporating mixed media, fabrics, and temporary tattoos. The above photographs are from Full Circle, a combination of performance, reading, installation, sculpture and drawing, on which Brandenburg collaborated with author Darius James in 2001.
Full Circle was inspired by Brandenburg’s encounter with James’s self-described “urban parable” Negrophobia (1992) about a white American girl named Bubbles who suffers from “Negrophobia.” The text consists of a series of vignettes with Bubbles encountering various otherworldly figures embodying blackness, from a white-gloved figure named “Talking Dreads” to an army of steel lawn jockeys. Brandenburg and James wished to bring a chapter of Negrophobia to life; specifically, a speech given by Walt Disney as a fictionalized fascist leader. The speech is an inversion of MLK’s “I Have A Dream”; instead of a vision of equality, he envisions “That one day the content of this nation would be judged by its lack of characters of color.”2
In addition to animating the speech, Full Circle combines two threads that run through Negrophobia. First, there is the trope of blacks who are deceptively simple and subservient on the outside but are actually dangerous and rebellious. The second trope is the dichotomy of love and hate embedded in blackface performance.3 In the performance, Brandenburg presents us with a black man, James, who has adopted the minstrel’s guise in order to subvert it. Overflowing with ironic performativity, James’s exaggeratedly large gloves, artificial lips of fabric, and the black stocking that eliminates his facial characteristics resist naturalizing racist representations.
As Nicholas Sammond argues in Birth of an Industry, the minstrel cartoon was historically both a caricature of blackness and a lovable figure.4 Arguably, the minstrel cartoon has served as an object onto which whites can project their fears of blackness, and yet it is also a figure they have been able to love, such as the character of Mickey Mouse. Thus, when Brandenburg fuses a fascist, racist Disney with his minstrel character, in James, he reflects an American history of both whites’ love of black culture in a particular, non-threatening form and the use of popular culture to distract and control the masses.
The performance took place twice, on Easter, before a predominantly white audience. According to Brandenburg, he and James “wanted it to be a blitz performance; a performance that would take as long as it would take to recite the text from Negrophobia. Which was about 5 minutes.”5 In order to make a lasting impression on their audience, James delivered the text “in a rather menacing and aggressive way. Shouting and yelling into the audience.”6
Although Negrophobia engages in the American history of blackface, Full Circle also invokes a history of blackface in Germany, which stems from the nineteenth century.7 More recently, in 2009, white German journalist Günter Wallraff wore blackface in the film Deutschland: Schwarz auf Weiss (2009); a tone-deaf attempt to expose anti-black racism in Germany. Two years later, white German comedian Martin Sonneborn appeared in blackface as a German Obama in a campaign poster for the satirical party Die Partei. That same year, in a staging of Dea Loher’s play Unschuld at the Deutsches Theater, two white actors wore blackface in the roles of African refugees, which white German director Michael Thalheimer claimed was an attempt to undermine essentialist understandings of race. In response to black Germans’ protest of blackface, white Germans often claim ignorance of the historical context of the practice or that German instances of blackface cannot be connected to the American tradition.8
In Full Circle, German history is also reflected in James’s tall, knee-high leather boots which evoke the uniform of the German SS, the elite troops who served as Hitler’s bodyguards. Compared to the SA, who are often portrayed as the less sophisticated, brutish strong arm of the Nazi Party, the SS are often depicted as the architects of mass murder who are not in close proximity to killing. In “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag remarks how the SS are associated with physical superiority, strength, and discipline, which is what enables their use for sexual fantasies of power play. This is why the SS uniform and symbols (the death skull, the runes and double S lightning bolts) are fetishized and eagerly collected.9 Brandenburg’s conflation of blackface and SS imagery also recalls the racial history of S&M in which black leather allowed white people to either fantasize about becoming black or having a sexual encounter with a black person.10 By combining minstrelsy with fetishizing fascism, Brandenburg’s Full Circle allows for numerous layers of meaning and interpretation that reveal the twisted logic behind blackface and assert a connection between American and German racism.
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.
- Jürgen Heinrichs, “Mixed Media, Mixed Identities: The Universal Aesthetics of Marc Brandenburg,” in From Black to Schwarz: Cultural Crossovers between African America and Germany, edited by Maria I. Diedrich and Jürgen Heinrichs (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2010), 313.
- Darius James, Negrophobia (New York: Citadel Press, 1992), 100.
- For an historical discussion of this second trope, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
- Nicholas Hammond, Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
- Marc Brandenburg, personal communication, June 10, 2018.
- Jonathan Wipplinger, “The Racial Ruse: On Blackness and Blackface Comedy in fin-de-siècle Germany.” The German Quarterly, 84.4 (2011): 457.
- Katrin Sieg, “Race, Guilt and Innocence: Facing Blackfacing in Contemporary German Theater,” German Studies Review, 38.1 (2015): 117-134.
- Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” New York Times, February 6, 1975.
- Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994).