"Racism ... is not merely intolerance toward blacks, or the "superstructural justification " of black labor, or the collective projection of white psycho-sexual neuroses. All of these elements rise out of the social nexus of Western capitalist society and culture. Thus it seems likely that the simple transfer of state authority from one group of barbarous whites to another group of well-meaning whites would not change the basic dynamics of a system that is almost four centuries old." -- Manning Marable
"Fuck you Ice Cube!!!!!!!! "-- chorus from Ice Cube's, "The Niggah You Love to Hate!"
Where, Oh Where,
Are the Black Male Performance Artists?
by Homer Jackson
Homer Jackson is a Philadelphia-area printmaker turned interdisciplinary artist. This article is an extract from a paper presented at the College Arts Association Annual Conference February 1994.
At first, looking at the performance art landscape in America. I scratched my head struggling with this question of the absence of Black males in the field. I hadn't really thought about it before and particularly not in those terms. My colleagues male, female, black, white and Latino, all complain about the lack of access and so on, occasionally. We do talk about the overall state of emergency for all black artists. But never have I thought of Black men as an "endangered species" in the performance art world. But even I must ask where are the black men?
That question echoes the current cry in many black communities across the nation, in nearly every field, service or occupation. Black men appear to be everywhere, but the right place. Yet with a little thought it became quite apparent that within my own community and nationally very few black men are in the performance game. Why are there so few black men in the field? Well, we surely can't overlook the economic, social and educational situations currently facing many black men in America. Yet those problems haven't stopped us from being dominant forces in sports and other popular arts.
Considering our historic contributions to American performance technologies, the reasons for our absence from the world of performance art are numerous and this situation should be quite embarrassing, if somebody really gave a damn. Those reasons lie in 1) the very nature of American alternative spaces, 2) in the utter cowardice and lack of vision at many art institutions of color including theaters, galleries and museums. 3) in the lack of sensitive white curators, matched with a scarcity of black curators and finally 4) in the ongoing feud between folk-based art forms and high art forms in American culture.
My interest in performance art probable began while I sat in the dark of the uptown theater in Philadelphia as a youngster watching beads of sweat from James Brown's face shower down into the screaming crowd in the front row seats. Or maybe when I saw Bob, whom out of respect I called Uncle Bob, do a left hand finger roll off the glass after faking out all of us, his opponents, with a 360 mid air spin. ... Maybe it was while looking into the face of a neighbor, Mr. Willie, on his arrival to his home, minutes after his wife Miss Billie in a jealous, drunken rage threw all of his silk and wool suits out of the second floor window into the August rain.
Frankly, I don't know when I became interested in performance. But I vividly remember laughing with friends in the university library about Adrian Piper's early performances and saying that I could out freak that ole tired shit, by doing an authentic collard green cooking demonstration and having my classmates drink the pot liquor. For the most part Performance art / Conceptual art was some distant voice, it was just some ole clever white shit, that didn't even care if I listened or comprehended it at all. Clever is a very important term here ... you see I'm from Philadelphia. A town that has a deep, rich tradition in producing clever art from clever white men. In fact, I spent a great many hours at the Philadelphia Museum of Art studying the clever works of the granddaddy of clever Marcel Duchamp. From looking at and reading about Duchamp's work. as well as by observing dozens of other viewers as they moved around the room, I learned a little bit about the Emperor and his wonderful vines. The wonderful news was that the emperor was a sorcerer and the only weaving that he did was in weaving incredible spells. I won't say that I hated Duchamp's work. He was a hero. I wanted to grow up just like him. I too wanted to sit around playing chess. I too wanted to chill and be chillin'.
But the fact is that I was destined to be one of those unfortunates who would probably have to utilize one of his ready-mades on a daily basis. My father was custodian, a honey-dipper. When I saw many of the ready-mades, I didn't think they were so clever. I even wrote about the issues of class and perhaps even race in those works in a paper for graduate school. My teacher told me that she had to think about my thesis. The semester closed before we ever talked about it. My relationship with Duchamp came to close.... that is until I got 'Etanne Donnes" flashbacks watching Twin Peaks.
While in both undergraduate and graduate school. I assisted artists-in-residence at my job at the Fabric Workshop Inc. Some of those artists were involved in performance, conceptual art or installation. I should add that this was pre-multiculturalism, so artists of color were like gasoline drawers, rare and dangerous. I found most of the stuff many of these artists were doing as so whack and uninteresting that I just chalked it up to the Emperor and his special brand of magic. During this period of time, I repeatedly threatened to do all kinds of performances. Yet never did any. It was not until I saw a performance by friend and quasi-mentor, Baltimore multidisciplinary artist Joyce Scott in her Thunder Thighs Revue incarnation did I realize the need to actually do it. Joyce's work opened the door for me. It was clever. It made references to contemporary art issues. But most importantly her work had soul. She had a need to communicate with people in a way that her visual art could not provide. And her audiences participated with her. Joyce's work rose above the purgatory of cleverness that I had seen so often and arrived at an emotional level. It was funny, it was painful....it was real.
That was really the start for me. Armed with my background as a printmaker. I began to look at ways of presenting ideas from my short stories and poetry. I began looking at the raw materials and resources that I had available to me. At the time I was working at a radio station, a friend worked as a video technician, another colleague was a movement artist interested in movement theater and still another friend had actually begun to do performance half way across the country in graduate school. I tied these things together and created Affirmative Actions a Variety Show. A work combining movement, video, audio, live performance and audience participation that tells tales of black joblessness and underemployment.
Since then I have developed a number of works including, Blues and the Naked Truth: Tales of Sex, Lust, Love and Sex; Empty Arms, a black piece that I developed with poet Essex Hemphill. That critiques the film classic "An Imitation of Life"; Yacub: Mad Scientist or Genius, a work about the 20,000-year-old creator of the white man; and Many Mansions a contemporary funeral for American racial hypocrisy.
My work seeks to discuss issues that are important to me and to bring that information, those ideas to an audience in a way that compels them to participate in the discussion as well. Another aspect of my work is that I've attempted to provide an additional social context in which to engage the audience. Each work takes place in another metaphorical space, that brings with it preconceived behavioral notions. Affirmative Actions: a Variety Show takes place at a civil service exam; Blues and the Naked Truth: Tales of Sex, Lust, Love & Sex takes place at a night club on the chitlin' circuit; Empty Arms takes place in the dark of a movie theater. Yacub: Mad Scientist or Genius takes place in a classroom at a university; and Many Mansions is simply a funeral. I believe that we know how to behave in specific places and in fact our behavior is part of the process of participating. This is what I seek. The interaction of performer on stage or wherever and the audience / participants. To recreate social rituals as opposed to simply creating theater.
....But enough about me.
Recently I witnessed a situation that brought to mind the previous quotes. My wife works for a large public institution as a graphic designer. I came to visit her one day and saw a logo design in a number of subtle variations that had been thrown in the trash. I picked up one of them and asked whose design it was. I found the design attractive, but was troubled by what it may be saying, or not saying and just implying. The design which had been created by a white female co-worker was for a lecture series that the institution was preparing. Inside information let me know that the series had major funding, was to be considered important, high profile. The design consisted of the type in bold futura letters; "Rebuilding the Future": Lecture series and then the name of the institution. The accompanying image consisted of an illustration of a Greek column. This instantly had troubled me.
Because I knew that this institution traditionally has black large turnouts for black events, (Philly is a pretty much black city. We are close to 50% of the population. We, like NY, have just witnessed the end of a black mayor's era and changing of power as well as policies.) What troubled me about that design is that I could gather who this series was really intended for, what kinds of people were going to be the lecturers and most important, what this whole thing was all about.
I asked my wife, why did her coworker select a Greek column. Why not a pagoda? Why not an African mask? Why not a Mayan Temple? Those images that represent intelligence, beauty, importance, powerful or even Godliness are always taken from European thought. It would not matter if images of ugliness, violence, passion, and ....etc. were not appropriated from other cultures. For me the use of this image is part of subtle aspects of white supremacy that permeate this society and specifically in the arts. We as artists are partially responsible for this kind of thing. I don't think that her intention was racist. I believe that a black artist or Asian artist could have done the same thing. As O'Neill says " the machinery demands the perpetuation of itself quite apart from the intention or desire of the persons who operate and who are operated by it."
I asked my wife's coworker why she chose the column and she replied that the institution's building is constructed with a Greco-Roman column architectural motif, common in pre-60's American government buildings. She then added that the idea of rebuilding the future made her think that to build a future one must use the past as a base. I asked why did she stop at Greece. Why not go back to the Egyptian columns. She agreed and said that she hadn't thought of that. I told her my feelings about how the design's make-up speaks to the viewers expectation of what the lecture series will be. She then proceeded to tell me of the selected speakers. No blacks ... no Latins ... no Asians ... then she asked if I thought the design was too intellectual. We were interrupted so I couldn't reply.
|Published in In Motion Magazine June, 1997|
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