Art Papers  

more from the November/December 2012 issue:

tête-à-tête
Mickalene Thomas

in conversation with Carmen McLeod


Letter From
the Guest Editor:
Sarah Workneh




Attack of the Boogeywoman:
Visualizing Black Women's
Grotesquerie in Afrofuturism


Text / Jared Richardson


Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
–John Milton's Paradise Lost

In the 2010 music video for "Monster," a single from Kanye West's hugely successful album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010, visions of horror disfigure the female body—particularly that of the black woman. This arguably misogynistic piece takes place in a haunted mansion replete with lynched ladies in heels, dismembered lovers, and monstrous black women. Several scenes feature black female zombies who dine on the entrails of an ill-fated busboy and play double Dutch while wearing fetishized school uniforms. Another clip features a black she-wolf strutting through the foggy manor as she snarls for the camera. Physical abnormality also comes to the fore, by means of a conjoined pair of black female models who share three slender legs. All of these extravaganzas are both productive and problematic, to say the very least. Amidst these spectacles, hip-hop artists West, Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj manage to bombastically spit verses and, in some cases, participate in acts of soft-core "torture porn." Rogue objecthood and abjection constitute the rules of this brutal game of representation, a match that has manifested itself within the theater of popular culture.

Of particular interest is a scene featuring Minaj as a split personality, S&M-ing a second self, representing a split in black femininity—one that engenders fragmented psychology and monstrous corporeality. Donning impossibly high, ultra-phallic heels made from patent leather, the wicked version of Minaj sports gold vampire fangs for added 'hood horror, signifying a confluence of hip-hop's materialism, supernatural defense or violence, and pleasure. Her fangs also call to mind the sexual fluidity often associated with vampires, creatures that are indiscriminate toward the gender of their prey. Meanwhile, Minaj's chaste persona sits strapped to a chair as she wears a white tulle dress, pink wig, and stiletto Mary Janes. Her evil alter ego gives the fettered ego a lap dance and roves around the room like an animal, growling at an unseen threat; her skimpy G-string and splayed position exaggerate her curvy frame. Complicity, violation, and humanity remain unclear. Minaj's sadomasochism evokes the erotically violent struggle of a bifurcated black femininity that cannot find a cohesive identity within the confines of everyday language. Befittingly, Minaj's lyricism, much like scholar Julia Kristeva's concept of the abject, disrupts grammatical structures; she poetically wields language and wrecks it at the same time, puncturing the veins of coherent meaning.1 These frightful representations of Minaj and video vixens elicit a hypersexualized and grotesque black female body, which finds a home in the work of several black women artists and crawls the grounds of Afrofuturism. Within this genre, pathologized performances and inventive iconography render the visualization of black identity as problematically productive and productively problematic.


Wangechi Mutu, Cervical Hypertrophy, 2005, glitter, collage, ink on found medical illustration paper, 18 x 12 inches (courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects)

Afrofuturism offers a racialized science fiction that reimagines black temporality vis-à-vis technology, galactic elsewheres, disjunctive time, and speculative narratives stemming from either utopic or antithetical visions. While theorists have largely contested the genre's beginnings, cultural critic Mark Dery first coined the term "Afrofuturism" in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future."2 From writers Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler to performers Sun Ra and Erykah Badu, stories of supernatural embodiment, time travel, and escapism constitute new possibilities for black existence. This conjectural framework covers a variety of disciplines (e.g. literature, critical theory, and music, among others) and has recently offered an ever-increasing focus on visual art. Yet what is Afrofuturism's connection to the grotesque? What kind of power does the grotesque offer to black women in relation to their monstrous representation?

In negotiating the representation of the black female as grotesque, spectacles in popular culture, such as West's video, strike an uncanny similarity to images produced by black women artists. As an art historian, I grapple with such questions and phenomena by examining the respective works of Wangechi Mutu and Shoshanna Weinberger as they relate to black women's grotesqueries in Afrofuturism. Much like Minaj's performance, Mutu and Weinberger simultaneously enjoy and critique aberrations of the "ideal" beauty. In their efforts to speculate a fantastic black female body, Mutu and Weinberger take the terrors of a racist history and amplify them to a mutant proportion, suggesting an alternate psychology to our current place and time. Such bodily magnitude disregards our understanding of biological evolution and conflates racial fear with sensual fascination. Ethnic and, occasionally, beastly miscegenation come to the fore in Mutu's photographic collages of black women's bodies. In the gouache creations of Weinberger, Hottentots toddle around as essentialized hunks of breasts and buttocks. The oeuvre of these two artists envision alterity as it relates to hybrid corporeality, race, and gender—issues that take on radically new lives within Afrofuturism.


Shoshanna Weinberger, Lady Tongue, 2012, gouache on paper, 20 x 14 inches
(photo: Paul Crisanti, PhotoGetGo)

Mutu's and Weinberger's artworks frequently feature two elements that hail from the grotesque: the combinatory and the caricature. These two modalities constitute many of the visualizations of black women's monstrosity and conjure notions of the alien as it relates to space, time, and intersectional corporeality. Scholar Frances S. Connelly argues that the combinatory avoids fixity and encourages hybridity as it encapsulates creatures such as cyborgs and centaurs.3 Accordingly, Mutu's jostled use of collage proliferates multiple ontologies for the black female body. In terms of caricatures, both artists deal with the cartoonish exaggeration of racial phenotypes in order to interrogate their absurdity and earn the viewer's squeamish attraction. Philosopher Umberto Eco fittingly identifies the modern caricature as a "polemical device against a real person or a recognizable social category, and it exaggerates an aspect of the body (usually the face) to deride or denounce a moral blemish through a physical one."4 In their separate ways, Mutu and Weinberger parse the disfigurements of black women's bodies and pervert its grammar to tell a new science fiction of social critique.

Unsurprisingly, the art of Mutu and Weinberger hearkens back to the imagery of another firewoman: Kara Walker. In Walker's vignettes of life-size silhouettes, caricatures of black femininity—such as the Jezebel and the faithful mammy—morph into giantesses and bayou-born chimeras that neglect their labor and run amok on the plantation. Walker is a historian of fantasy; she relies on the uncertainties of the archive and the horrors of slave narratives to construct otherworldly scenes of psychosexualities. In doing so, Walker transports the viewer to a gruesome antebellum South that has hardly been depicted with such imaginative bluntness. The Negresses of Walker's world often emerge as proverbial Southern satyrs and fecund monsters that straddle the white picket fences located within the binaries of subject/object, protagonist/antagonist, and master/slave. Incidentally, Connelly identifies the confusion of boundaries as another quality of the grotesque.5


Shoshanna Weinberger, Buffed Under Ozone Rain, 2012, gouache on paper,
21.5 x 18.25 inches (photo: Paul Crisanti, PhotoGetGo)

The early collages of Mutu present the black female body as a combinatory grotesquerie. Functioning as an offal bin of visual and discursive narratives, Mutu's visualization of monstrosity takes modernism's fixation with the Other and catapults it into a pornographic future of biological and racial mutation. The faces of Mutu's women encompass a hodgepodge of uterine imagery, clippings from fashion magazines, and exaggerated racial phenotypes. In Cervical Hypertrophy, 2005, Mutu plays the role of a mad scientist as she constructs a profane yet beautiful being from disparate sources. The creature's visage emerges from the center of a gynecological diagram sourced from the Victorian era. This found diagram depicts vaginal maws; their isolation from the rest of the female body evokes the alien. Cut-outs of glamorous eyes gives the creature a matter-of-fact expression. Inflated reds lips purse themselves outward underneath a clipping of a fox's head. The disruptive surface of this monster's face brings to mind Dr. Frankenstein's creation. Similar to the ogre in Mary Shelley's novel, Mutu's paper progeny live fragmented; they simultaneously bear the visual artifacts of pseudo-science and erotica. For as Walker states, "The black subject in the present tense is the container for specific pathologies from the past and it is continuously growing and feeding off those maladies."6

Using Sarah Baartman as a source of metonym, Weinberger fashions her silhouetted women as both excessive and minimal in their blacked-out, caricatured forms. Exhibited as an oddity both in London and in Paris, Baartman—who bore the nickname of "Hottentot Venus"—endured heinous objectification and emblematized the culture of anthropological display prevalent in the nineteenth century.7 Her large buttocks and genitalia simultaneously delighted and disgusted Europeans. Deviating from Western ideals of beauty, Baartman's body functioned as an insignia of the grotesque for white audiences. Weinberger states, "I find Baartman's life both captivating and horrific; living as a specimen perpetuating the myth of "otherness" that can still be found today fascinates me as a woman and an artist."8 Buffed Under Ozone Rain, 2012, for instance, features a voluptuous black silhouette standing in front a beige background. Multiple rotund breasts unite to make the torso of this headless being. The surplus bosoms can amplify her maternal abilities, carnal appeal, and abnormality. Her lack of a head promotes dehumanization and emphasizes an absurd corpulence. As they support her sizable buttocks, which allude to Baartman's backside, her portly thighs taper into what could either be high heels or hooves. In Lady Tongue, 2012, the life form falls short of all extremities; it subsists as an amorphous bundle of flesh. The lactations of this creature defy gravity as they drip upward into space. Gold chains fetter the life form whose breasts constitute the only recognizable protuberances.


Kara Walker, World's Exposition, 1997, cut paper on wall, 144 x 192 inches
(artwork © Kara Walker / image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)

Weinberger's artworks depict how the black female body troubles representation within the Western imaginary. The recurrent absence of faces and limbs in her images underscores the dehumanization of black women and illustrates the fetishization of select body parts and organs. The caricatured corpulence of Weinberger's women suggests that black female corporeality appears as extravagant and irrational. Yet the difficulty in representing black women's bodies highlights the cultural contingency of beauty, which can be a powerful element.

Within the Afrofuture, the representation of black women's grotesquerie affronts issues of propriety by negotiating between several extremes: hypervisiblity versus unsightliness and essentialism versus fluidity. Minaj, Walker, Mutu, and Weinberger have visualized monstrosity each in their own unique ways. All of their representations wed the discriminatory discourses of bygone eras to the ever-mounting tensions of a present-day society that simultaneously values liminal identity and relies on essentialisms. The work of these four black women visionaries presents scenes of self-making that challenge and offend bourgeois aesthetics—namely those of the black middle class. With that said, Thomas Mann said it best when he described the grotesque as a "genuine antibourgeois style."9 Indeed, maws and paws have been substituted for politeness within these fantasies.

The coexistence of post-racial dialogue with persistent acts of racism constitutes the climate for a field of speculative fiction that explores the uncertain future of black identity, and its ever-challenged accessibility to humanity. In fact, the desire for a post-race discourse underscores fear in its attempt to forget ethnicity, dismissing it as a once-material nightmare. Such a dichotomy, nevertheless, provides an ideal opportunity for the boogeywomen to attack our cozy notions of race and representation.


Notes
1. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S Roudiez , Alice Jardine , trans. Thomas Gora, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 136; Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1, 13.
2. Mark Dery writes, "Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism." Mark Dery, "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose," in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, edited by Mark Dery (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 174-222.
3. Frances S. Connelly, ed., "Introduction," in Modern Art and the Grotesque (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 6.
4. Umberto Eco, On Ugliness (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2011), p. 152.
5. Connelly, pp. 2-5.
6. Quoted in the Walker Art Center's 2007 overview of the exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, accessed April 7, 2010, http://calendar.walkerart.org/canopy.wac?id=2734
7. For more information on Baartman, please see Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009).
8. John Hood, "Nite Talk: Shoshanna Weinberger to Show All at Carol Jazzar," NBC 6 South Florida, April 25, 2012, accessed September 13, 2012, www.nbcmiami.com/blogs/niteside/NiteTalk-Shoshanna-Weinberger-to-Show-All-at-Carol-Jazzar-Regardless-148908565.html
9. Quoted in John Stauffer's The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 35.



Jared Richardson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University. He specializes in Modern and Contemporary Art with an emphasis on Afrofuturism and visual culture. 

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