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The multiplicity of multiplicities – Post-Black Art and its intricacies

Nana Adusei-Poku | Journal: Issues | Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.2] | Nov 2012

“Cultural strategies that can make a difference, that’s what I’m interested in – those that can make a difference and can shift the dispositions of power.”[1]

Blackness was and is en vogue[2] in the beginning of the 21st century, not only in popular culture[3] but also in the arts. This article aims to explore the difficulties and intricacies of the idea of post-black[4] art and its curatorial legacy, which was introduced as a curatorial concept in 2001. Additionally, it examines the option of opening up the debate into a wider discourse of identity politics, their various meanings, limitations and promises for the contemporary. The article is framed by a series of questions that are fundamental to understanding the complexity of the idea of post-black.[5] I will foreground the discussion with the general considerations ‘What is post-black art?’ and ‘What is meant by ‘black’ in post-black art?’ Next I will examine the circumstances that have lead to the introduction of post-black art. Connected to this question is the query “why now?”, because post-black as a concept has not only provoked a discussion of identity formation in art-practice but also in the US national debate about Blackness[6] – the arrival of this debate in Europe is marked by the current issue of darkmatter.

What is post-black art and the state of the curatorial framing for Black artists?[7]

Due to a general misconception of the term, it is necessary to foreground that by ‘post-black’ I do not mean ‘post-race’. For example, I do not wish to claim that such a condition as post-race can exist, because it requires the erasure of difference as a concept that structures and orders our societies. It is equally important to recognise that post-race isn’t institutionally performed and certainly not in the realm of fine arts. I would argue instead that the term has to be modified to ‘post-racism’. Post-racism is a necessary distinction as it expresses a desire to life in this world without being affected by the consequences of racism. The utopic assumption that we have entered a post-race era shows how contested and politically charged the discussions about Blackness and race are. Some individuals feel offended, others don’t care, many are already bored, most don’t really know what to think about it and some claim that we are already post post-black.

As I argue in this paper, Post-black has many meanings, but these meanings are always located within the concept of blackness and its assumed identities and its assumed difference. Subsequently these meanings might be argued to be always located within race. But post-black also describes another kind of blackness, a different performed difference within a “multiplicity of multiplicities”,[8] a difference that is still subtly grounded in the idea of race but uses it at the same time. But hasn’t the way of creating a different difference[9] always been part of the discussion about blackness since the beginning of Black intellectual thought and creative practice in the diasporas and on the continent?[10] This is a question to which I will return after a more in-depth consideration of post-black art.

The difficulty of writing about post-black art is its heterogeneity or in other words that it does not offer a particularly coherent aesthetic style. The art that is described as post-black with artists like Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, Rashid Johnson, Mickalene Thomas, Leslie Hewitt or Kori Newkirk to name but a few, is much too diverse to establish a congruent style as for instance, the Minimalism Movement of the 1960s. The second limitation to writing about post-black art is that whereas most art movements are defined retroactively from a temporal distance, post-black tries to describe a contemporary phenomenon. As I will go on to explore, post-black art is conceptualised as deriving from an identity that produces the artistic practices of a certain generation of artists, which is the reason why the discourse (also in this article) slips between the discussion of identity and artistic as well as curatorial practices.

The notion of post-black art has been a term of critical debate[11] since 2001, due to a curatorial concept by the painter Glenn Ligon, and Thelma Golden then newly-appointed director of the Studio Museum Harlem New York and former Whitney Museum curator. What seems to have been forgotten in that debate and what Valerie Cassel Oliver reminds us in her article “Through the Conceptual Lens: The Rise, The Fall, and Resurrection of Blackness”[12] is that the art theorist Robert Farris Thompson already noted in 1991 that:

A retelling of Modernism to show how it predicts the triumphs of the current sequences would reveal that ‘the Other’ is your neighbour–that black and Modernist cultures were inseparable long ago. Why use the word,  ‘post-Modern’ when it may also mean  ‘postblack’.[13]

Thompson points towards the intertwined nature of the development of modernism in the West and the inspiration it borrowed from African and diasporic art. However, he also opens a space for thought at a time – i.e. the post-modern era – in which diversity, multiculturalism and a multiplicity of perspectives are more salient in politics and intellectual thought. This idea had its (unfortunately not yet canonical) impact on the perception of modern art.

Paul C. Taylor also refers to postmodernism but in a different vein, when he describes post-black in a tradition of “rhetorical gestures” which he calls post-erize, meaning the impulse to mark the end of a certain historical era. By contrast, a reflection on post-modernism “squanders [post-black] a fascinating opportunity to put the posterizing impulse in the service of a comprehensive understanding of contemporary racial conditions”.[14] This observation applies to Cathy Byrd’s analysis of post-black art when she writes:

Years of protests and hard-won legal battles in the social, political and economic arenas, along with decades of black-centred art, have freed the latest generation of black artmakers to say whatever they want with their work. Just as Post-Modernism builds on Modernism, ‘post-black’ relies on a rich history of intensely ‘black’ art.[15]

Despite the fact that Taylor’s and Thompson’s attempts differ, the connection to post-modernism is a constant point of reference in articles on post-black art. Arguable, this is an indication that the aftermath of post-modernism has left a theoretical vacuum to describe the contemporary.[16] Although there have been attempts to frame the contemporary under one term-umbrella like altermodern as proposed by Nicolas Bourriaud in 2008, which leads me to a small but necessary excursion. Altermodern emphasises like the poet and philosopher Edouard Glissant the notion of “creolisation” and “the experience of wandering — in time, space and mediums”.[17] Yet it does not carry the potential to be widely applied, as the terminology affirms a classical narrative of modernity despite the fact that Bourriaud points out that modernity is a critically debated term. The concept also doesn’t recognise academic texts that point out that there are  “altermodernities” from its outset like Houston Baker (1989) and later Michael Hanchard (1999) or James Smethurst (2011). The second reason for discussing Bourriaud’s approach is because of the statement that identity politics are overtaken by the process of creolisation, and represent a “global state of culture” using the same “toolbox” and have consequently the same access to knowledge – a proclamation which blinds out political and economic dimensions and differences. His critique on identity is thus a one-dimensional version of i.e. Stuart Hall’s critique of identity that emphasised hegemonic power structures as well as political positions and ideological supremacies.

Having visited Dak’art – the Dakar Biennial 2012, this dimension of inequality became very vivid as only two of the exhibited 25 artists at the main show are represented through galleries, and many galleries are forced to sell stereotypical handcraft in order to survive as many tourists and collectors particularly look for “authentic African” handcraft. Although neoliberal approaches that emphasise and instrumentalise diversity and difference, the subtle politics of equality in altermodern are disturbing. I agree with Bourriaud that the dialectical idea of the global and the local is overdue, but if you look at publications like Brent Edward Hayes “The practice of diaspora”, who eloquently traced diasporic aesthetic interconnectivities, it becomes apparent that Bourriaud’s proposition is neither new nor helpful. He does not discuss who has access to certain positions, galleries or even countries, and reproduces diasporic knowledge without really crediting it.

I propose not only that our pitiful postmodern condition[18] – as Kobena has framed it – needs modification within societies that are shaped by neo-liberalism, but also that Thompson’s attempt to argue that the present as well as the past have to be thought of as culturally dependent, has not been as successful as one may wish. Museums with an anthropological focus, such as the Quai Branly in Paris or the planned Humboldt Forum in Berlin, stand as good examples for the incoherent narrative of modernity which is constantly re-narrated in the West.

An example that should be highlighted in this curatorial discussion is the exhibition called AfroModern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic curated by Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschlüter at the Tate Liverpool 2010. They re-considered Thompson’s approach in connection to the post-colonial theorist Paul Gilroy. Through the subtitle and the selected pieces, the show draws on Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993). Gilory discusses the connections of enlightenment philosophy, economic and intellectual shifts that resulted from African enslavement in conjunction with the beginning of modernism. He also suggests a theoretical framework to understand Blackness and Diaspora as a heterogenic culture produced by western discourse since enlightenment on the basis of humanistic thought, which can be described as a “rhizomorphic, fractal structure” shaped as an “intercultural, transnational formation”.[19] The Black Atlantic thus becomes a counter-culture of modernity and points – as in Thompson’s attempt – towards the aesthetic relations, exchanges and hybridity which are traced in the Tate Liverpool show through pieces by Constantin Brancusi, Ellen Gallagher, Aaron Douglas, Renee Cox or Isaac Julien. Despite its promising attempt, the show was not as successfully perceived in the art world and its curator Tanya Barson was assumed to have wanted too much from the exhibition, as she explained in an interview in 2009. Notwithstanding this (self-) critique, many more shows with this concept of rewriting (art-)history are necessary in order to raise awareness of intercultural connectivities and hybridity. Only a curatorial practice that highlights aesthetic articulations rather than ethnic origin or cultural background might resist creating exclusive exhibition spaces and transport artistic positions in a way that reflect our contemporary realities.

It can be stressed that postblack, as proposed by Thompson, would allow an art-historical reading that looks at art from a less identity-policy driven standpoint, and rather opens up the debate to a rewriting of cultural histories; those that don’t divide Western cultures, history and development from the rest of the world.  It also delivers a notion of art as a set of practices,[20]  which focus more on the aesthetic developments rather than focusing on the subject position which is “behind” a piece and investigates its materiality.[21][22]

In contrast, the term post-black that emerged from the curatorial Trilogy Freestyle, Frequency and Flow by Golden, who was unaware of Thompson’s pre-framing of the term,[23] can be considered a resurrection of the idea of Black art and Blackness in general.[24] Deriving from conversations with the artist Glenn Ligon, Golden described “ …‘post-black’, at first, as a description of artists who were adamant about not being labelled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness”.[25] The most discussed and critically perceived expression by Golden in a short interview is her framing of contemporary African American Art:

There’s no single way to think about it. I’m interested in its diversity and in bringing multiculturalism to the mainstream. I’ve become interested in younger black artists who are steeped in the postmodernist discourse about blackness but don’t necessarily put it first. (Painter) Glenn Ligon and I started calling it post-black. Post-black is the new black.[26]

The last sentence Post-black is the new black elevates several questions: wasn’t the old black – in Golden’s phrase determined as the “post-modernist” black – already an eclectic mix of different notions of blackness as found in the works by the painter Glenn Ligon? Have post-modern artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat or Stan Douglas now only to be considered post-modern, or hasn’t their attempt already created something, which could be called post-black? What is the genealogy of black? And what is at stake by resurrecting Blackness after it had vanished with the idea of multiculturalism within public and political debates? Some of these questions have to be read rhetorically, because although post-black art was introduced in 2001, many Black artists whose work might also be embedded in a black arts tradition are underserved by the  limitation of generation. So what is so different now?

Tracing Blackness

Valerie Cassel Oliver’s aforementioned article in 2003, which is part of the catalogue to the exhibition “Black Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art since 1970,” presented a genealogy of the intersectional cultural and political discourse of Blackness in the US. She describes coming out of the 1960s’ struggles, from negro to Negro, followed by a self-identification and political empowerment strategy, to the use of the term Black or people of colour by the end of the 70s, then arriving at the 1980s and 90s with hyphened identities, namely Afro-American and later African-American. All of this history, she says, has to be considered as the background for the idea of post-black. Each of these self-identifications and processes of naming political, cultural and structural strategie represent markers for African-American history and struggle. These strategies in Oliver’s analysis are all framed by an investment and contemplation on W.E.B DuBois ideas of Double Consciousness from his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois describes the state of mind of Black human beings who have a double perspective on the racial discourse. In other words, to be included as well as excluded from the concept of modernity at the same time is described as follows:

…the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[27]

Referring back to this canonical text, Oliver leads the reader through some milestones of African-American history and points out that during the 1980s and 90s, Blackness – a self-empowering term in the 1970s – vanished in the wake of political concepts of diversity, multiculturalism and thus postmodernity. Although I argue that the idea and the experience to be Black never vanished, the public and political debates marginalised this specific experience. For Oliver, to arrive at the point of Post-Blackness stands within a chronology of events and cultural productions which are connected to popular culture or, more specifically, Hip-Hop Culture and its protagonists, such as Public Enemy and their album Fear of a Black Planet or KRS-1, in which African-American youth express their disconcern with the socio-structural situation of Black individuals in the United States in a poetic way which resembled the Black Power Movement from the 1960s-70s. Cassel Oliver argues that the young, Black fine art students were affected by these ideas and cultural productions, and thus incorporated and further developed the contemplations on identity in their pieces. Although, not really a new phenomenon if we consider the historical relationship between music and fine arts through examples like Romare Bearden and John Coltrane, Roy deCavara and his Harlem Ballroom Photographs, Jean Michel Basquiat and his cover for Rammelzee vs. K. Rob as well as Shabbaz Palaces and his “shout-outs” for Toyin Odutola, Julie Merethu and Mickalene Thomas in 2011.

The influence and inclusion of music, nevertheless, is an integral part of Black artistic production. And example of this inclusion of popular culture can be seen in Glenn Ligon’s show to Disembark (1993),[28] in which he included next to his paintings nine untitled wooden crates, some of which covered a tape recorder playing music by KRS-1 but also by Billie Holiday and Bob Marley.[29] Paul D. Miller (of Public Enemy) who was part of Cassel Oliver’s exhibition used sampling, cutting and montage techniques deriving from DJ and Hip-Hop culture to remap visual representation of Black bodies in his piece Re-birth of the Nation 2006.[30] A recent example demonstrates the embeddedness of the discourse in music as a form of cultural expression, at the same time as it is ‘disobedient’ towards racialised discourses. The current Studio Museum Harlem’s resident artist Kamau Amu Patton’s work transforms sound into painting (as seen in the exhibition: Evidence of Accumulation at the Studio Museum Harlem 2011), in an aesthetic journey that is strongly invested in philosophical questions by Wittgenstein and Rudolph Arnheim, for example.

Oliver’s concluding remark that  “…there has been without a doubt a resurrection of blackness – a resurrection that precludes the normal adages or mortality because blackness does not exist as a bodily object, but a sensibility”[31] reframes Black and, therefore, post-black into the sphere of experience, as well as reintroducing DuBois’ idea of sensibility. This, in Oliver’s argument, produces a different form of aesthetics within the frameset of conceptual art.

Arguably, Post-black aesthetic uses the historical legacy of epistemic oppression – namely a denial of Fanon’s proposed sociogeny – and translates it through the use of materials and images that are easily accessible in order to highlight their simultaneous construction, which hints at a notion of nihilism.[32] Cornel West has highlighted that this nihilism is the result of a series of systematic symbolic and institutional violence against black human beings, and which goes along with the strategic exclusion from the capitalist system of the United States.[33]

Post-Black artists use the categories of race and Blackness but deconstruct them, which moves the question of race somehow out of the centre of the reading – this practice of deconstruction is characterized by a visual disobedience. The term disobedience is inspired by Walter Mignolo’s concept of epistemic disobedience against the way in which western concepts of modernity produce practices and orders of racialization, gender, and/or sexualities and thus demands for alternative subjectivities and sets of practice.

The artist Kori Newkirk, who expresses his practice as follows:

We’re all making work that can be difficult sometimes, with an incredible investigation into materials and a strong basis in conceptual art. I would say we’re all making work that does not hit people over the head with the race conversation anymore. It’s a juicy conceptualism – a ghetto- fabulous conceptualism – based on reality and the intricacies of daily life.[34]

This argument correlates with the art-historian Darby English’s approach when he says that:

It is no less convincing than ever to speak of Black artists as if they share an enterprise. The work of black artists for whom questions of culture are subject but visualising or representing race/identity is not an end obligates us to displace race from its central location in our interpretations of this work. More it recommends a turn toward the subjective demands that artists place on the multiple categories they occupy, and that we grant this multiplicity right of place in our methodologies.[35]

The work of Mickalene Thomas exemplifies this disobedience and deconstruction, for example, her appropriation of Eduard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, in which she replaced the male protagonists of the painting with Black Women, whilst also challenging hetero-normative perception. The contrasting gaze of the nude women, which caused scandal in the art world during Manet’s time because it imposed the female subject as a challenge to the spectator’s gaze, is replaced by three Black women who are equally empowered to perform their femininity. Thomas’s variation challenges the spectator’s gaze directly, which is embedded in the sculptural code of the photograph, their position to each other and their posing with intertwined legs. Through the entanglement of the legs and offering of flowers the image shifts the basic interpretation of the work not only onto a homo-erotic level, it also addresses the power of the erotic as a feminist instrument as described by the philosopher Audre Lorde.[36] Thomas uses a visual vocabulary from popular culture, namely 1970s aesthetics reminiscent of the richness of color associated with the female protagonists from Blaxploitation films such as Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Foxi Brown (1974). This is not to say that Thomas’ work is limited to simple deconstruction and appropriation. She also uses in another version of this piece a collage technique deriving from the Black Arts Movement’s Spiral Group artist Romare Bearden. There is also the reference included in this image, which are the patterns and colors that Thomas uses to recall the photography by Seydou Keita. It establishes a cogent aesthetic relationship between the diaspora and the African continent. Through these visual quotations, Thomas produces a form of hetero-temporality.

MICKALENE THOMAS. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010. c-print, Edition of 5. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York.

Hetero-temporality is the second characteristic that emerges from works by post-black artists, in other words, playing with the notion of history, art-history and cultural memories and re-inscribing different temporalities as well as emotional temporalities in their pieces. The most outstanding artist in this field may be Leslie Hewitt, who investigates notions of technology and perception with intellectual tactfulness. Coming from a generation of contemporary photographers like Sara VanDerBeek or Daniel Gordon, Lewitt slows the spectator down with a presentation of “Still Lifes”. The images push the spectator away from the Barthesian “Punctum” in order to have an intellectual engagement with the piece, by establishing a visual reference and logic through a wooden plate and sculptural staging in the room, creating an intense (Deleuzian) affective experience.

Black is

After Golden’s talk Post-Black Art Now on March 11th at the Tate Britain in 2009, an audience member inquired whether she thought that Black in post-black is necessary by asking if she sees a possibility for black to disappear in the future. Her answer: a stringent “no” and nothing followed. Interestingly, the question was posed by a Black British man (and artist) and that there appeared to be a moment of silence, indicating that there was a mutual silent agreement on why it cannot disappear.

By insisting on black, Golden clarified that within the concept of post-black art, there still exists a political dimension where identity politics are pitched against racism with the desire to overcome a certain socio-structural fixity for Black individuals. Post-black raises questions of power and positionalities as race and racism have different articulations and regulations for Black subjects depending on context and space. So, without making the category of race relative, the visual and aesthetic practice that is attached to this desire for equality has to be approached in terms of the context of its artistic articulation.

The US context is exemplified in Newkirk’s quote when he refers to the “intricacies of daily life” but also in the figure of “ghetto fabulous”.  He does not say intricacies of daily racism, which points out that life is more complex – racism in his statement is just one part of it, but the specificity of the “ghetto” in the US context points towards socio-structural exclusions like urban housing projects from the 1970s-80s and the notion of cultural and economic isolation. The notion that life is more than only racism can be found in the Afro-German contemporary graphic artist Marc Brandenburg’ work, who has a strong investment in the gay-techno scene in popular culture and the Berlin of the 90s, though rather distances himself from identity politics.[37] However, he subtly discusses race, sexuality and gender from a Black perspective, which must be read in its context and strategies for exclusion. The inclusion of Brandenburg’s work into my discussion here  shows not only the complexities involved in extending the idea of post-black art, but also that Blackness and race in their definition are context-specific, though Black I would argue remains in the realm of DuBois’ sensibility throughout the diasporas, placing the work of art into a framework of situated knowledge.[38]

What is apparent is that post-black as discussed by Oliver and Golden is conceptualised within a temporal analogy or even a chronocentrism that reverts to the past as well as points towards the future. Neither Oliver nor Golden discuss the simultaneous existence of different framings of Black identities nor the possibility for a real inclusion of a wider contemplation in connection within the Black Diaspora outside the North American context. By looking at this locally limited discourse, it becomes clear that postblack, as proposed by Thompson, highlights the historic as well as contemporary interconnectivity of cultural production within a global frameset.[39] Despite this critique, it must be noted that the idea of post-black art was successful on an economic scale as most of the artists from the first show that introduced post-black (Freestyle) as well as the second show (Frequency) are now represented through established galleries, which is partly due to the fact that the post-black label or brand opened up a market and specific attention for young black contemporary artists. But the question remains whether post-black labelling alongside economic success changes the discursive framing of the artist’s work as well as its analysis.

It should be clear that we are not even close to the idea of post-racism, but the dialectic structure of looking towards the future and imagining a utopia simultaneously contrasted with the problems of a fixedness through representation in the visual realm creates tension, within which this investigation of the idea of post-black art has to be placed. Coco Fusco expresses the difficulty and dichotomy of representation and racism when she writes;

A serious discussion of the meaning of our desire to see race in visual representation is impeded by the difficulties we have in distinguishing between racialisation as visual process, and racism as an ethical and political dilemma.[40]

Moreover, it is not only the dialectical structure of imagining a utopic visual aesthetic future that shapes theories of post-black art. Rather, there exists a triple focus that in addition to the future tense, includes reconnecting to the past of artistic practices and the present in which contemporary practices of representations and desires are understood. Furthermore, due to the management and representation of artists and their work by commercial or public galleries, is it questionable whether the art’s visibility allows this new generation to take part in a more democratic and equal artistic practice. This last question remains open, as something that must to be observed in the coming years.

Post-Black now?

Having explored post-black art as a curatorial concept, we can return to the questions posed in the beginning. Why Post-Black now? Post-black art is a cluster of terms that do not explain themselves easily, and the set of questions I have posed serves as a reminder of Stuart Hall’s query that he posed nearly twenty years ago in his seminal article “What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture?”.[41] Hall argues that his question marks a specific temporal moment, which he explores by a further asking: What sort of moment is this in which to pose the question of Black popular culture?[42] Hall bases his contemplation on Cornel West’s analysis of contemporary culture based on the article “New Cultural Politics of Difference”(1990), which sketches a complex genealogy of world politics, their subject positions, and notions of power by naming the parameters that signify the moment in which Hall and West speak. Included in this moment – the beginning of the 1990s – is the decentring of Europe as cultural and intellectual centre and the rise of the USA as a world power after World War II with its redefinition of high-culture into a form of mainstream, mass and popular culture. The cultural moment also encapsulates the process of decolonisation, in which C. West includes the diasporas and their intellectual and cultural enterprise of decolonisation. These parameters form the space in which Black individuals have to find strategies in order to be part of knowledge production. Although West sets out four strategies, he begins by saying: “The new cultural politics of difference advises critics and artists of colour to put aside this mode of mental bondage, thereby freeing themselves both to interrogate the ways in which they are bound by certain conventions and to learn from and build on these very norms and models”.[43]

Similar to Newkirk’s perspective, West’s fourth strategy holds that most of the artists that are named post-black come from a conceptual art tradition. According to West:

The most desirable option for people of colour who promote the new cultural politics of difference is to be a Critical Organic Catalyst. In such ways a person who stays attuned to the best of the mainstream has to offer- its paradigms, viewpoints, and methods – yet maintains a grounding in affirming and enabling subcultures of criticism.[44]

This strategy can be seen as directly expressed through the extensive use of the methods and tradition of conceptual art, which offers the possibility to break out from aesthetic imperialism. This break entails a deconstructivist questioning of art practices like the traditional use of material, framing of genre, political intricacies, but it is also allowed to question the space and place of art as well as its value and modes of production.[45][46]

I will now try to make a connection to the specificity of the contemporary and point out that the critique and claim, which Hall and West made, should be reconsidered and modified. The ideological and economic shifts in global power dynamics since 2001, beginning with 9/11 and continuing with the ‘War on Terror’, have reinforced splits in political, religious and ideological regimes. In 2008 the largest financial crisis since the great depression of the 1930s coincided with a shift in the representation of power with Barack Obama’s election and inauguration as the first Black American president in history. This election opened up the debate about the notion and position of race and meaning of blackness in the present, which is accompanied by a great disillusion of Black individuals within the US. At the end of the aforementioned talk by Thelma Golden at the Tate Britain, the audience was confronted with an image of Barack Obama’s inauguration and the comment: “And look what America is looking like, now!” I mention these events and circumstances as well as the comment by Golden as they shape our contemporary times and in order to grasp the moment of post-black art. Unfortunately, Golden did not elaborate on what she meant by this visual and verbal comment, but it becomes apparent that there seems to be a connection with the shift of racialised power structures and her approach to post-black art.  This shift forces identity politics into crisis as Obama’s election reshuffled arguments about the possibilities and meaning of power from a racialised perspective. It is therefore no surprise that the public discussion about post-black appears to be intertwined with the US president’s identity-politics, as in for example Michael Eric Dyson in his foreword to Touré’s recently published book Who is afraid of Post-Blackness.

When it comes to defending Barack against the charge that he’s not Black enough. I tell folk, ‘Well, I’ve known him for over fifteen years, and what I’ve noticed is that he’s proud of his race, but that doesn’t capture the range of his identity. He’s rooted in, but not restricted by, his Blackness.’[47]

What is striking in this example is that there is still a questioning of ones Blackness, which derives from an idea of essence as well as right performance. Obama on the other hand responds to this framing with the words following Dyson’s narrative “That brother knows how to run a phrase”.[48] His use of Brother re-establishes Obama’s Blackness into the realm of Black politics of solidarity and community.

The dualism of Black and White identities that were previously reserved for historic discussions of exclusion and oppression (namely white supremacy) must now be seen more visibly than before as intertwined with considerations of class, race and sexual politics. In addition, the proclaimed ‘War on Terror’ – a term which dates back to former US- president George.W. Bush re-articulated in its worst expression and institutional practice[49] of racism against Black human beings into a form of Islamophobic racism against (assumed) Muslims.[50]

The global financial crisis further pushed many individuals into precarious living conditions or made the living conditions of minorities even worse in the West, which was followed by a rethinking of the west’s status as a global power. The crisis also highlighted international dependencies and underlying financial power networks, of which most western citizens were unaware. The idea of neoliberalism and its diversity politics may have had strength during the era of politicians such as Clinton, Schröder and Blair, but their diversity politics and economic promises were shattered in 2008 and exposed as widening the gap of financial wealth. As I have implied earlier is the discourse on post-black art  embedded in a neoliberal class discourse, where the individuals that lead the discussion represent the Black American Middle Class and those who are in power are able to talk about it.[51] The realm of the arts was and is still a space that carries the stigma of Adornian high-culture, a consideration that thus far remains absent from the debate about Post-black art.

These are some of the parameters that have to be considered to frame this moment in which post-black art comes into focus, in addition to particular events and socio-economic or political shifts that also find their expression in and through art. From a curatorial perspective, Golden pointed with a vision towards this direction in 2001 when she (re-) introduced the idea of post-black art at the Studio Museum. Other shows also tried to grasp what the mentioned shifts of power mean. For example, approximately eight years later, in 2009, Hamza Walker[52] curated the show  “Black is, Black Ain’t”, inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Both exhibitions have to be contextualised within an African-American frameset of cultural production as they are operating within the framework of Blackness as outlined by an African-American discourse on identity, community and struggle against white supremacist culture.

Ironically, a discussion of contemporary African-art has also taken place concurrently alongside the reintroduction of concepts of postblack art. Such discussions emerge through group-shows like Afrika Remix, which started off at the Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf and travelled through Paris (Centre Pompidou) and London (Hayward Gallery) in 2004 or the show The Short Century :Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945 – 1994, which was exhibited in Berlin (Martin Gropius Bau) and Munich (Villa Stuck) in 2001. The irony here arises because African artists are not discussed in the context of Blackness, despite the fact that it would be potentially enriching and timely. After shows like the Documenta 13 and Paris Triennial’s Intense Proximity a new way of focusing partly on historical connections between anthropology, colonial history within a frame of object/subject relations, African and Diasporic artists are included in order to contribute to the set of  curatorial questions posed. A recent development –  apart from Documenta 11 – was long overdue.

The quintessential connection of African contemporary artists who have also been framed by the curator Okwui Enwezor, as Afropolitans[53] and diasporic artists was acknowledged by the last show of Golden’s trilogy Flow. Finally, contemporary African and diasporic artists like Julie Merethu, Chris Ofili or Grace Indiritu’s works were exhibited at the Studio Museum in 2008. I mention these four exhibitions because they illustrate that there is not really a heterogeneous discussion of Blackness, and rather a produced split in the discussion of Black artists into either diasporic or African (with the exception of Documenta 13 and Paris Triennal), which has be to be linked with a certain need within the US culture to discuss, negotiate and define identity. The focus lies on Black, African and white identities in this new global set of conditions that have been outlined, and makes this discussion a very localised phenomenon. That these artistic practices are connected and interdependent as Thompson has pointed out in 1993 is not considered. Subsequently, the locality of this discourse has to be reconnected to the outlined specificity of US national crisis that elevated a need for redefinition. But it also allowed for US politics on the surface to embrace the other from within in order to create a sense of national unity.

I would like to conclude with Hall’s remark about how popular culture has to be approached, since it important to reconsider his attempt heuristically, and apply it to post-black art and curating. Hall says,

Always these forms [of cultural production by Black individuals] are the product of partial synchronization, of engagement across cultural boundaries, of the confluence of more than one cultural tradition, of the negotiations of dominant and subordinate positions, of the subterranean strategies of recoding and transcoding, of critical signification, of signifying. Always these forms are impure, to some degree hybridized from a vernacular base. Thus, they must always be heard, not simply as the recovery of a lost dialogue bearing clues for the production of new music’s (because there is never any going back to the old in a simple way), but as what they are – adaptations, molded to the mixed, contradictory, hybrid spaces of popular culture.[54]

Post-black art represents this hybrid space. However, it remains unresolved if this hybrid space is a political one, or if it reinscribes neoliberal ideas of individuality that make the potential of a different difference within a multiplicity of multiplicities, a scattered phenomenon without impact.


1. Stuart Hall, “What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture?” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies.ed. David Morley und Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge,1993), 465-476, 468 [↑]

2.  “en vogue” particularly refers to Vogue Italia’s chief editor Sara Sozzani and her main photographer Steven Meisel, who decided due to Obama’s run for presidency to edit an “All Black Issue” in June 2008 featuring only Black female models and dedicated to a limited portrait of Black Culture. Also see: Adusei-Poku, Nana.  White Issues. Italian ›Vogue‹’s ›All Black‹ Issue and the Visual Imaginary. In Perspektive – Medium – Macht. Zur kulturellen Codierung neuzeitlicher Geschlechterdispositionen, ed. Düber and Schnicke (Königshausen & Neumann, 2010) [↑]

3.  Dan Talley in Cathy Byrd “Is there a ‘post-black’ art? Investigating the legacy of the ‘Freestyle’ show.” Art Papers 26.6 (2002):34-39.37 [↑]

4.  Two different spellings throughout this text – when I use post-black it refers to Thelma Golden’s conceptualisation and when I use postblack I refer to Robert Farris Thompson concept. When I use Black with a capital B – it refers to the political dimension rather then pointing to skin-colour. I am also emphasising that hyphened identities like African American or Afro German, may be useful in their specific context but the it is the term Black that works like an umbrella for a Diasporic experience, because whether you are mixed race or not it is your Blackness that racialised discourses make you feel. I am referring here to a statement by the actor Morgan Freeman, who stated while talking about Obama. “The first thing you learn is that the white half doesn’t matter to anyone but you. Don’t think you’re white, because no one out there will ever let you forget you’re black. It ain’t gonna work.” [↑]

5. They are also the result of various discussions with scholars and artists including Paul Gilroy, Angela McRobbie, Gabriele Dietze, Huey Copeland, Tavia Nyong’o and Isaac Julien, who have given invaluable input and thoughts for my project. [↑]

6.  Also see: Ytasha Womack, Post Black: how a new generation is redefining African American identity (Chicago Review Press, 2010); Touré. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? (New York: Free Press, 2011); Debra J. Dickerson, The end of Blackness : returning the souls of Black folk to their rightful owners,(New York: Pantheon Books, 2004).  [↑]

7.  This discussion is thus not exclusively focused on artforms and the various expressions [↑]

8.  Henry Louis Gates Jr., Touré, 5 [↑]

9.  The “multiplicity of multiplicity” means a multitude of identity formations and could also be replaced by hybridity. I am describing with a different difference on the other side a conceptualisation of Black individuals, that is not embedded in the binary structure of us and the others as described by Said and Hall it rather points towards a self-determent difference, which has to be modified in order to describe the contemporary.  [↑]

10.  Compare: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, African art as philosophy : Senghor, Bergson and the idea of negritude, Africa list (Seagull Books) (London: Seagull Books, 2011)  [↑]

11.  That is, Cathy Byrd “Is there a ‘post-black’ art? Investigating the legacy of the ‘Freestyle’ show.” Art Papers 26.6 (2002):34-39; Paul C. Taylor, “Post-Black, Old Black”. African American Review 41.4 (2007.): 625-640.  [↑]

12. Valerie Cassel Oliver, Through the Conceptual Lens: The Rise, The Fall, and Resurrection of Blackness, in Double consciousness: Black conceptual art since 1970, ed. Terry Adkins, Franklin Sirmans, and Contemporary Arts Museum (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 2005) [↑]

13.  Robert Farris Thompson, “Afro Modernism”, Artforum International. (1991) 91  [↑]

14. Taylor, 626  [↑]

15. Byrd, 39 [↑]

16.  It is additionally important to note the theoretical discussion about the connection between modernism and “primitivism” which offers not only the interpretation that Africa Art has influenced European Modernism, but that it has also led to an equally important Black Modernism. For further readings see: James Edward Smethurst, The African American roots of modernism: from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2011); Houston Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989).  [↑]

17.  Bartholomew Ryan, Altermodern: A Conversation with Nicolas Bourriaud

http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/conversations/2009-03-17/altermodern-a-conversation-with-nicolas-bourriaud/ (10.05.12)  [↑]

18.  Kobena Mercer, Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary, in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005) 237–67. 67 [↑]

19. Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993) ix. For a critique on Gilroy’s approach and the expansion of his concept into an idea of practice rather than a drawing past-events see Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003)  [↑]

20. Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003) [↑]

21. This more practical approach can be seen in Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness(Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007), also see:  Kobena Mercer, Exiles, diasporas & strangers(Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008) [↑]

22.  Marc Bradford’s piece Enter and Exit the New Negro that I discuss in an article of the same title is a good example for the way in which post-black aesthetics provokes discussions through the use of material in order to challenge identity conceptions. For further reading see: Adusei-Poku, Nana “Enter and Exit the New Negro”, in Special Issue Feministische Studien “The Queerness of Things Not Queer: Entgrenzungen, Materialitäten, Interventionen” (2/2012)  [↑]

23.  Huey Copeland, “Post/Black/Atlantic: A Conversation with Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon,” in Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic, ed. Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschlüter (Liverpool, 2010)  [↑]

24.  Oliver,25 [↑]

25.  Thelma Golden, “Post…”, in Freestyle: The Studio Museum in Harlem ed. by Christine Y Kim and Franklin Sirmans. (New York, NY: The Studio Museum, 2001)14 [↑]

26.  Seattle Post, (March 2003). [↑]

27. WEB Dubois, The souls of black folk, (New York, St. Martin’s,(1903)1997) 5 [↑]

28. Also see: Kimberly Rae Connor, “To Disembark: The Slave Narrative Tradition”, African American Review 30.1 (1996. ): 35-57; Hirshhorn Archives: Brochure: Directions, Glenn Ligon: To Disembark http://hirshhorn.si.edu/educate/list.asp?key=55&page=5&numResults=9 (Nov1993)  [↑]

29. Darby English, Glenn Ligon: Committed to Difficulty. In Glenn Ligon: Some Changes,ed. Plant (Art gallery) Power, (Arts Museum Contemporary, und Warhol Museum Andy, 2005) 57 [↑]

30.  Although the artist Sanford Biggers work is inspired by a range of music traditions that go further back than Hip-Hop because he represents another example of the use of mixed media with a strong investment in African American Musical Tradition as seen in his mid-career retrospective called Sweet Funk—An Introspective at the Brooklyn Museum New York (September 23, 2011–January 8, 2012). He equally uses a kind of assemblage of historical artefacts and montage technique in order to deliver a historical narrative of the enslavement of Africans up to an homage of Adrian Piper’s legendary Funk Lesson Performance (1982-84) (Piper 1996) on which the title of the exhibition is based. For further information see: Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk—An Introspective September 23, 2011–January 8, 2012 http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/sanford_biggers/  [↑]

31.  Oliver, 26  [↑]

32.  I am using the concept of nihilism, as discussed by Cornel West when he writes “Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophical doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority: it is far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness”. See Cornel West, Race Matters, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, p.14.  [↑]

33.  West 2001, 16 [↑]

34.  I have to highlight that Newkirk distances himself from the use of the word Ghetto in this statement, as he explained to me in a conversation in August 2010, because it stereotypes African American Culture(s). Kori Newkirk in Jori Finkel, A Reluctant Fraternity, Thinking Post-Black New York Times, June 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/10/arts/design/10fink.html?_r=1 (July 2012)  [↑]

35.  English, 12  [↑]

36.  Audre Lorde, 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (NewYork: Crossing Press, 1984) [↑]

37. Ulf Poschardt, „Hoffentlich überlebt Obama seine Amtszeit“. http://www.welt.de/kultur/article2702254/Hoffentlich-ueberlebt-Obama-seine-Amtszeit.html (Nov 2008) [↑]

38.  Donna Harraway, Chapter 9 – Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London, UK: Free Association Press, 1990)183-202 [↑]

39. It is important to note that I am exaggerating at this point- scholars like Huey Copeland and Darby English or Kobena Mercer work on a reframing of Thompson proposal which clarifies that I am pointing towards a rather mainstream discourse as in publications like PostBlack: Who a new generation is redefining African American Identity by Ytasha L. Womack 2010 or the unquestioned use of PostBlack by Monica L. Miller in Slaves to Fashion from 2009. [↑]

40. Coco Fusco, Racial Time, Racial Marks, Racial Metaphors. In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis (New York: International Center of Photography in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2003) 13-51. 23 [↑]

41. Hall, 1993  [↑]

42. Hall ,1993  [↑]

43.  Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference“. October 53 (1990): 93-109  [↑]

44. West, 96 [↑]

45. West, ibid [↑]

46. Osborne, Peter. 2002. Conceptual art. Phaïdon, June 24. [↑]

47. Dyson in Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, (New York: Free Press, . 2011)xi  [↑]

48. Dyson in Touré, xii [↑]

49. The German “Rasterfahndung” procedure which somehow operates on the suspicion that everybody is guilty until proven innocent, due to a Muslim name or heritage from a country with Muslim beliefs (whether it is a secular or non-secular country) withdrawn from the national data-base. Moreover, border police practices at national airports, filters individuals with a Muslim name and consider them as high-risk passengers on airports. In addition, the political as well as cultural debates on the failure of multiculturalism and the national implementations of “integration” programmes for particularly families with the heritage from countries of beliefs Muslim have to be seen in the light of the past events. [↑]

50. I am deliberately using racism against Muslims instead of Islamophobia as the latter term suggests and implements that it is a physical/mental/thus biological disease from which one can be cured. I rather stress the fact that racism has many (per-)mutations, which don’t necessarily depend on phenotype. [↑]

51. This statement is apparent when we look at Tourè’s publication again, because those who are asked about their identity, are all from the middle class or are public figures who have made it. Touré interviewed 105 Black individuals working in various cultural and political fields and his book represents the result of these interviews.  [↑]

52.  Huey Copeland, “The blackness of blackness“: Huey Copeland on ‚Black is, Black Ain’t‘ at the Renaissance Society“. Artforum (2008):151-154 [↑]

53. Okwui Enwezor, Contemporary African Artists Since 1980, (Bologne: Damiani, 2009) [↑]

54. Hall, 471 [↑]

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