b.O.s. 2.4 / Spooks Who Sat By the Door / Joshua Chambers-Letson

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)

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(for Miriam Petty)

We’ve both been academics for a minute, M, and you said to me recently that you can’t remember a time where you weren’t the only person on a panel with dark skin. If you weren’t the only black person on the panel at all. I said something about that sinking feeling you get when you show up and you’re the only one who isn’t white, or the only person who is black: the destabilizing worry that their reasons for inviting you may have less to do with what you think or produce, and more to do with a box that someone needed to check. In such cases, you can doubt the work and doubt yourself. You might get angry thinking of all the other black people who could have been invited, and weren’t, or ashamed as you think about the ones who knew well enough to stay away.

R.S.V.P. sculptures activated by the artist and Maren Hassinger in Performance Piece – Nylon Mesh and Maren Hassinger, 1977. Courtesy of Senga Nengudi and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.

I think of them then—Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger—performing on the steps of the Long Beach Museum in the early 1980’s. To my knowledge, there’s no photographic record of this piece, which is preserved instead through a story told by Nengudi. I heard her recount it in person on a panel and it is also documented in an email the artist sent to art historian Amelia Jones:

Maren Hassinger was asked to be in a Women’s Building show I think it was called the “Home” Show that was at the Long Beach Museum. This I think was in the early 80s. She was the only Black female to be asked to be in the show.

Though she was included in the show we did a protest performance on the steps of the entry to the exhibit. It was called the “Spooks Who Sat by the Door.” We wore white sheets over our selves like ghost[s] and we held up products with Black stereotypes such as Aunt Jemima [pancake mix] and Uncle Ben rice and stood there in silence. They didn’t get it. Once again we were invisible.1

The title seems a gesture towards Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door, and the performance invokes and embodies the novel’s thematics of reconnaissance, infiltration, and the revolutionary powers of blackness. Their incorporation of products featuring Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben similarly recall the work of their elder contemporary, Betye Saar, who appropriated figures of racist kitsch and characters from the minstrel tradition to affect (as in the title of her 1972 mixed-media assemblage) The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. If the objects in their hands could speak, they might tell of the historical and ongoing commodification of black bodies, labor, kinship, and culture, or list the ways black people are commonly granted entry into white spaces as the help, entertainment, or as something to be consumed, then discarded and forgotten.2 But neither Jemima nor Ben are being emancipated here. They are held up by Nengudi and Hassinger who are sitting by the (exhibit) door and seem to go nowhere, saying nothing. Saying everything. And for the moment, they’re not necessarily talking about emancipation, but instead survival.

Hassinger and Nengudi have long employed the worldmaking powers of performance to make place for the placeless, a practice in which the labor of friendship is tangled up with the work of survival. For José Muñoz, performance is imbued with a worldmaking power, which labors in the service of minoritarian survival.3 And as Kellie Jones argues, “within an African American context, concepts of performance have always been tied up with the means of survival.”4 Responding to legacies of dispossession and displacement (at the level of both geography and the body), black performance can thus navigate what Katherine McKittrick describes as “the dilemma of black placelessness” by making worlds in which the placeless can thrive and survive.5

Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978, Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Courtesy of Senga Nengudi and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.

Hassinger was a trained dancer and her sculptures often evoke the movement of swirling bodies and limbs in extension. Nengudi majored in art after being convinced that she had the wrong kind of body to pursue a dance major.6 She began producing three-dimensional sculptures that danced in their own right: kinetic constructions made of used pantyhose and sand, moving and changing shape when activated by human participants that included Nengudi herself and Hassinger. The materials in these and other works speak of gender, but they also evoke dark skin on a body that is stretching and transforming, as if gesturing to a black woman’s body as it grows and changes as a result of time or labor. These performing objects staged a condition of black feminist possibility that Jones describes when she observes that, “Nengudi’s emphasis on the material’s elasticity and flexibility seemed to articulate promise and possibility rather than defeat.”7 Such possibility became the grounds for black worldmaking, as in Nengudi’s 1978 Ceremony for Freeway Fets as a circle of friends that included Hassinger, David Hammonds, and Barbara McCulloch devised a ritual beneath Los Angeles’s 110 Freeway in affirmation of community and black space.

As it was that day on the steps of the museum, friendship was a critical grounds for their practice. Uri McMillan argues that friendship, like performance, is central to an understanding of Nengudi and Hassinger’s bodies of work.8 For McMillan, friendship and performance are the means through which the work runs fugitive from the white art historical tradition’s belated attempts to trap, contain, or commodify their practice within the archive’s hold. Performance and intramural practices of black friendship can thus be mobilized towards what McMillan describes as the “shared moments of conviviality and care” through which black people produce the materials necessary for collective survival within inhospitable conditions of exclusion, foreclosure, and instrumentalization.9

R.S.V.P. sculptures activated by the artist and Maren Hassinger in Performance Piece – Nylon Mesh and Maren Hassinger, 1977. Courtesy of Senga Nengudi and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.

Nengudi and Hassinger are closer to the generation of our mothers than to our own. But here we are, M, still looking for a home, still sitting by the door nearly four decades later as we describe to each other what it still feels like to be a problem. Like Hassinger and Nengudi, we are not alone, but together in friendship that is rich with the generative powers of blackness, conviviality, placemaking, and care. Still here together, we dream and perform new doors into being, on the other side of which wait an ocean of black faces—those of the departed, those of the still living, and those who are still yet to live.

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This is one of four essays from the second transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 2.1 / Sierra Leone Landscape / Leora Maltz-Leca
b.O.s. 2.2 / Full Circle / Priscilla Layne
b.O.s. 2.3 / Lena Horne’s Side-Eye / Racquel Gates

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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.


  1. Amelia Jones. “Lost Bodies: Early 1970s Los Angeles Performance Art in Art History,” in Live Art In LA: Performance in Southern California, 1970-1983, 114-184. London and New York: Routledge, 2012: 127. Senga Nengudi. Artist Talk. Los Angeles, USC Roski School of Art. January 19th, 2018.
  2. It’s worth noting that Hassinger, who was included in the show they were protesting, has relatively light skin, while Nengudi, who was excluded only to include herself by way of their guerrilla performance, has comparatively dark skin. Colorism, still, affects who is included in the white cube and who gets left outside.
  3. José Esteban Muñoz. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  4. Kellie Jones. South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in 1960s and 1970s. Durham: Duke, 2017: 190. Indeed, they commonly drew upon an African cultural imaginary to devise such ritual elements, as in Nengudi’s seminal 1978 Ceremony for Freeway Fets. Here, Nengudi and friends, including Hassinger, Barbara McCulloch, David Hammons, and an orchestra of musicians mounted an hour long, masked dance beneath the Los Angeles 110 freeway at Pico Street. Reimagining the ritual of West and Central African masquerades in the center of a black and brown urban lifeworld, the performance drew upon the communal and community forging elements of the masked dance tradition. African cultural practices and diasporic blackness were thus underlined as fundamental components of the community-forging, worldmaking act at hand.
  5. Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, 34.
  6. Ibid., 192-3.
  7. Jones, South of Pico, 203.
  8. Uri McMillan. “Sand, Nylon, and Dirt: Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger in Southern California,” in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985 / New Perspectives, 97-118. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 2018.
  9. Ibid, 114.