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 photograph of a body looms before us. Cut just at the torso we are only able to view the bust of the figure, positioned in a quasi-traditional, three-quarter view. There is no indication of interior space, just a yawning expanse of grayish white surrounding the contrasting Black head, neck, and shoulders. They wear a light-colored shirt with sleeves exposing the upper arm. Where one would expect stasis, this image instead evokes movement as the head moves quickly in front of the camera back-and-forth, back-and-forth, as if (in a Western context, at least) shaking their head no. The centrifugal force created by this gesture of refusal pushes the hair of this figure outward. The individual locks organize into a series of lines, thicker where they attach to the head and thinning as our eye moves along their lengths, almost themselves absorbed into the white ground of the larger composition. Attached to archival paper via a gel-transfer process, Blur reveals the scratches, creases, and tears of its movement from one surface to another. We can detect the material evidence of this transfer and the points at which the image itself (and perhaps even this figure) either resisted or accepted the new surface.
Most of the works by Toronto-based artist Sandra Brewster draw on personal experience, focusing specifically on the presence and experience of Black people in Canada. Many interpretations of Brewster’s visual practice highlight its connections to an African diaspora, the movement of people, like those in Brewster’s own family, from one place to another.
Brewster herself has discussed the gel-transfer process that she uses as a material analogue to diaspora; it “being similar to what happens when a person migrates from one place to another.” 1 The process requires coating a printed image in acrylic gel, allowing the medium to cure, and then soaking the print with water to transfer the image onto another surface, which in Brewster’s case is the wall of a gallery or a piece of archival paper. The transfer of each photographic image from one surface to another permanently alters the image. The scratches and tears that remain on the new surface testify to their movement. For a recent installation at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, for example, Brewster installed photographic collages of the landscapes of Guyana (the place of her parents’ birth) and Canada (where she was born) onto the gallery walls of the light-flooded Fleck Clarestory. As viewers move through the hallway they are themselves placed in interstitial, and somewhat ambiguous, space between the walls, and between worlds. Brewster’s process and the manipulation of the image in these ways highlight the difficulties inherent in locating (or “fixing”) a Black subject.
In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness, Paul Gilroy constructs identity for contemporary Black Britons as neither African nor British but instead as somewhere between. Gilroy focuses our attention on the Atlantic—the space between continents, cultures, and nations—as a site of movement and change rather than of origin and continuity. These ideas allow us to understand the complexity of contemporary identity in the diaspora, one based not in the recovery of an original (read: African) identity, but in recognition of how identities are produced. More than thirty years on, we see Brewster’s reckoning with this fact through
on the visual register. That is, how might we express the lived experience of blackness via representation? Like others in the diaspora, the artist’s ongoing relationship with “home” is one informed by the recollections of others as much as by direct experience. The knowledge that comes to us in this way is by design incomplete, always fragmentary.
In Blur, the images are partial and the faces are erased. They resist our fixing, failing to cohere into an image. And this is the point. “[Blurring],” Brewster notes, “is like a resistance, isn’t it? Black people have a way of holding back, keeping something to ourselves. There is power in that, in being able to conceal parts of who we are.” 2 Brewster’s work asks us to consider not only the production of identity in diasporic context, but also what might be lost in the process, intentionally or otherwise. She draws us toward the spaces between representation and experience, between surface and image. Blur 18 attends to the instability of this identity, “always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.” This photograph calls us into the spaces between knowing and seeing, between figure and ground, between motion and stasis, between the photograph and its printed image, between the visible and the illegible.
Measuring just over three feet—both horizontally and vertically—Blur 18 is only one of two works from the series that Brewster enlarged for her 2020 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The image in that installation functions as a type of monumental portrait. But it fails to represent an individual or a type. We see not a body, but instead, a form dislocated from a specific gendered or racial identity. As we look up, we are perhaps unsettled by the inability to recognize this person so as to assign an identity, which is, after all, the implicit purpose of portraiture and (at least historically) the explicit purpose of photographing Black bodies. No longer subject to the anthropological gaze, frozen in the frame, this body is in motion. It moves before the lens of the camera, and across the surfaces of its positive exposure. Brewster refuses on the grounds of genre and medium. She holds us back.
This is one of four essays from the twenty-first 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.