A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
A Black woman, Biddy Mason, sits at a table. Soft, caramel light slips through a window throwing shadows across the wall, darkening the corner of a map. A cabinet with reflecting glass jars forms the backdrop. I know this scene. The light is reminiscent of Dutch artists such as Johannes Vermeer, in whose quiet rooms women and men are absorbed in reflection. And then there are the portraits, where white men, or sometimes white women, might stand or sit as subjects in their own right. In books, museums, syllabi, art has been gathered up and collated into narratives that stretch back to antiquity, unfolding worlds, shaping values, mediating histories. As with any set of institutions and their practices, art history has its own pantheon, one in which Black lives have rarely been on view.1
Elizabeth Colomba offers up a reconstituted past where Black women shape the narrative rather than become the objects that are used to reflect, refract, and reinforce hierarchies of racial difference. While consciously drawing on the familiarity of canonical painting, Colomba‘s artmaking always begins with extensive archival research of the social and political world that her subjects might inhabit. She thinks of her practice as both history-in-making and care-full speculation, a practice drawn from and orientated to the beauty that Black women create.2
Portraits are often composed to project their sitter out into the world, but in this portrait we are invited inside the sitter’s space. The pearly brightness filtering through the window is derived from an oil paint that replicates the same white color used by Vermeer. It suggests a light source somewhere behind the canvas and alludes to the rich studies of light painted by an artist like Caravaggio. Soft and luminescent, the light bring us into the space, guiding us across the canvas. With warm tones, the light falls across the shelf, the map, the desk, and Biddy Mason herself. Mason was a formerly enslaved woman, a nurse, and a midwife. Her healing skills are indicated through the items around her: the remedies, tonics, and scales of an apothecary. Forcibly moved from her birthplace in Georgia to Mississippi, then Utah, and finally Southern California, Mason was one of the wealthiest Black women in the United States when she died in 1891. This journey west is charted by the map hanging on the wall. While the light accentuates the organization of the painting and narrates Mason’s story, it also draws our attention to the solidity of the space: its sturdy desk and shelf, the supporting walls, and Biddy Mason at the painting’s center. Framed by the tools of her trade and allusions to her migration, Mason is seated at a desk with her face resting against the palm of her right hand while she looks back at the viewer with studied concentration. In this enfolding, we are also drawn into a shared moment, encouraged to enter her world.
Colomba’s studies of light and color reflect her deep interest in the multi-layered approach to painting. Using the Old Master technique, she builds her canvases up layer by layer. A key aspect in this process is the use of a dead layer of neutral color, also called grisaille, which intensifies a painting’s depth. Over this Colomba then adds and modulates darker, deeper colors. The dead layer in traditional Old Master paintings was often a base that could amplify the luminescence of white skin as a literal foundation for the construction of whiteness. For Colomba, it is the ground from which to work through the ranges and subtlety of black skin. We see this in the subtle shading across Mason’s face that deepens her intensity while adding a sculptural quality to her position.
Dressed in black, Mason’s position emulates her pose in what is the only known photograph of her taken in 1871. In the photograph she is encased in sleek Juliet sleeves that puff full around her shoulders then narrow over her arms. Her bodice buttons up to a collar clasped with an amber stone. The sheen of her clothes creates a sculpted effect that reinforce her power and dignity. Given the agential use of photography by Black communities to depict experiences of freedom and to construct new forms of spectatorship, the painting’s allusion to this medium reinforces Mason’s social position as a community leader.3 Her position is also referenced by the medicinal items and the means of their production through which she provided pain relief, remedies, and support. As a healer, and later a philanthropist, she planted, nurtured, built, and raised up Black communities.
As with many of her other portraits, this is an interior scene, a domestic setting. Domesticity is a familiar backdrop for art historians, with its own gendered implications. The private interiors of a Vermeer, associated with women’s labor, might suggest a suspension of time or offer a moment away from the distractedness of the commercial sphere.4 Stillness and domesticity in Colomba’s detailed paintings do not signal withdrawal, but offer a way to hold space with and for her sitters. They are forms of worldbuilding. In her paintings, women stand majestically against backdrops of gold or as with Biddy Mason, reflect quietly in shadowed recesses. We see how they have constructed loopholes of retreat, and how they inhabit worlds of wonder, safety, and beauty.5
Mary in the Hall, oil on canvas, 30×40 in. Phillis, oil on canvas, 24×30 in.
Colomba reformats the conventions of art history’s visual formation to create a language of representation that emanates from Black women’s experiences.6 Like the apothecary she has painted, Colomba offers us good medicine. Interrupting the narratives of art history, she recasts representation itself into a potential space of respite, a space of repair.
This is one of four essays from the twentieth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- This painting of Biddy Mason is currently housed in a private collection. It was included in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called Black American Portraits (11.7.21-4.17.22). For more see https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/biddy-mason-in-images-a-monumental-life-in-monumental-forms/
For more on Elizabeth Colomba see Denise Murrell, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (New Haven : New York: Yale University Press, 2018); Suzanne Scafe and Leith Dunn, African-Caribbean Women Interrogating Diaspora/Post-Diaspora (Routledge, 2022); Anna Arabindan-Kesson, “Portraits in Black: Styling, Space, and Self in the Work of Barkley L Hendricks and Elizabeth Colomba,” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 2016, no. 38–39 (November 1, 2016): 70–79, https://doi.org/10.1215/10757163-3641700; Elizabeth Colomba, The Moon Is My Only Luxury (Long Gallery Harlem, 2016).
- I am thinking here of Saidiya Hartman’s discussion of “close narrating” and the ways that paintings like those by Elizabeth Colomba might also offer us a form of speculative archive. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), xiii.
- Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York: NYU Press, 2015); Deborah Willis, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002); Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Duke University Press, 2012).
- Ruth Bernard Yeazell,. Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel. Princeton University Press, 2008. Anne Thurston. “Vermeer and the Art of Stillness.” The Furrow 68, no. 9 (2017): 475–78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44738604.
- I am thinking here of the chapter entitled “Loophole of Retreat” in which Harriet Jacobs describes the crawl space above her grandmother’s house in which she hides for seven years to escape the violent Dr Flint. Harriet A Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl(Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1861), pp 173-183; See also Tina M. Campt, “The Loophole of Retreat—An Invitation,” E-Flux 105 (December 2019), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/105/302556/the-loophole-of-retreat-an-invitation/.
- For more on Catlett see Melanie Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (University of Washington Press, 2005); Rebecca VanDiver, “The Torture of Mothers: Elizabeth Catlett’s Prints as a Call for Reproductive Justice,” Art Journal 80, no. 2 (April 3, 2021): 14–29, https://doi.org/10.1080/00043249.2021.1872295.