Blackface in contemporary art

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Alexander Calder animates a Josephine Baker puppet of his own construction. The puppet caricature is sexualized by the inclusion of extra wiggling metal pieces representing her breasts and torso.

Blackface in contemporary art covers issues from stage make-up used to make non-black performers appear black[1] (the traditional meaning of blackface), to non-black creators using black personas.[2][3] Blackface is generally considered an anachronistically racist performance practice[citation needed],[4] despite or because of which it has been widely used in contemporary art. In recent years some black artists have engaged in the practice as a form of deconstruction and critique.[5][6]

Physical blackface

  • Alexander Calder described his 1927 mobile "Josephine Baker (III)", made after the late African-American performer Josephine Baker, as "tantalizing", wriggling its metal pieces that represented her breasts and torso during the filming of a Pathé newsreel, 1929.[7] [8] [9]
  • In 1967-68 artist Bruce Nauman made two videos (among many performance-based videos) in which he presents the idea of the contemporary artist as a somewhat business-like but degraded clown/actor. In Art Make-Up (1967–68) Nauman videotapes himself applying successive layers of white, pink, green and black makeup to his entire face, arms, and torso. In Flesh to White to Black to Flesh (1968) he videotapes himself applying white make-up to his face and body, then black make-up, then wiping the make-up away to re-expose his skin.[10][11]
  • Artist Cindy Sherman used blackface performance in 1976. These rarely seen performances came to light in 2015, when Margo Jefferson wrote "the blacks are all exactly the same color, the color of traditional blackface makeup. They all have nearly the same features, too, while Ms. Sherman is able to give the white characters she impersonates a real range of skin tones and facial features. This didn't look like irony to me. It looked like a stale visual myth that was still in good working order."[12][13][14][15]
  • In experimental theater collective The Wooster Group's "Route 1 and 9" (1981), several actors including Willem Dafoe[16] don blackface. The performance stirred controversy and resulted in some rescinded funding from the New York State Council on the Arts.[17] In 1995, the group again used blackface in their version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.[18][19] A 2009 Chicago performance of The Emperor Jones was protested by Third World Press.[20]
  • Kendell Geers, a white Afrikaner from Johannesburg, dons a Nelson Mandela "mask" in Portrait of the artist as a young man (1993). His 2007 work Fuckface is a photograph of Geers's face painted black and white with the word 'fuck' in bold letters, reading forward and backward.[21][22]
  • Vanessa Beecroft has used white models painted black on several occasions. In the 2007 work VB61, and again in the Le Membre Fantôme in 2015. On collaborating with Kanye West, Beecroft has stated "I am protected by Kanye's talent. I become Black. I am no longer Vanessa Beecroft and I am free to do whatever I want because Kanye allows it."[23][24][25]
  • In 2010 The Public Theatre/Public LAB in New York premiered a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins titled Neighbors in which the stage design presented two interior spaces divided by a shared wall. On one side the play is portrayed by actors, on the other side it is portrayed by actors wearing blackface. Neighbors was presented later that year by the Matrix Theatre Company, and in 2011 by Mixed Blood Theater, Minneapolis, and Company One theater in Boston.[5][26]
  • Eleanor Antin has a recurring character "Eleanora Antinova", an "African-American ballerina" that she frequently performed in blackface. Antin says on Antinova "I've had as previous personas a king, a nurse and a movie star. But the ballerina is ideal, because as an artist she's an outsider, like women and blacks in our society. And a black ballerina is a condition contrary to fact, even today. Which makes her a very glamorous and rich image." and "Some blacks and white liberals get uptight when they hear about it, but after seeing a performance they're on my side. Besides, Antinova is a survivor, a very positive and heroic image."[27][28] In a 2012 re-staging, Antin was replaced by Danièle Watts, a Black performer.[28]
  • Olaf Breuning's 2009 series Black Images (color studies) feature female figures with bodies and faces painted black.[29] A 2001 photograph titled Primitives features four white men with smeared brown body and face makeup wearing grass skirts and holding sticks.[30] The 2000 video work "King" features "a parade of figures in blackface".[31] and the cover of Breuning's 2001 monograph "Ugly" features a photograph of a blonde white woman smeared with dark brown makeup.[32]
  • Lili Reynaud-Dewar's 2009 Black Mariah "engaged a quartet of costumed female performers, some of whom were in blackface." Her 2010 work Cléda's Chairs features two white girls in blackface covering antique chairs with black polish. In 2011 Reynaud-Dewar completed a suite of artworks under the title Some Objects Blackened and a Body Too, in which she applied kohl to such things as a folded white dress shirt, plaster casts of clenched fists, and a painted wooden pedestal. The suite includes a four-minute video titled What a pity you're an architect, Monsieur. You'd make a sensational Partner (After Josephine Baker) in which Reynaud-Dewar dances around her studio among the blackened objects in fully naked blackface. The title of the work is alleged to be what African-American dancer Josephine Baker said as a rebuff to the sexual advances of French designer Le Corbusier.[33][34]
  • Eddie Peake used dancers in head-to-toe black makeup for the 2013 performance Endymion.[35][36]
  • Performance artist Martha Wilson, who has impersonated other First Ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Second Lady Tipper Gore, impersonated Michelle Obama (with half her face in blackface) in a forum on performance art organized by Clifford Owens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014.[37][38][39] Wilson also created the portrait "Martha Meets Michelle Halfway," in which she is pictured with half her face and one arm in blackface makeup.[38]
  • Jordan Wolfson appears in blackface in his 2012 video Raspberry Poser.[40][41]
  • In 2012, Dean Moss programmed three non-black performers into the Parallels series, a Danspace Project program devoted to non-traditional black dance claiming "None of them are African-American... but all of them are black." Using the framework of blackness as metaphor, Ann Liv Young performed "in a fuchsia dress, an Afro wig and blackface." She announced "I am doing something here tonight that could be offensive, right? Cause look, you can wipe this off." She swiped her face. "I am very white underneath." "Are you gay?" she asked an audience member. "Good for you. Gay is like being black in some ways."[42][43][44][45]
  • On September 30, 2012—her birthday—American artist Adrian Piper retired from being black. For the occasion Piper ceremoniously donned blackface, photographed herself, and declared the resulting performance and image and artwork titled Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment (2012).[6]
  • In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art New York announced that it had discovered a long lost film in its Biograph Company archive. Titled Lime Kiln Field Day, the film was the brainchild of Biograph and New York producers Klaw and Erlanger. The film features an integrated cast starring Bert Williams as well as Sam Lucas, Abbie Mitchell, J. Leubrie Hill, and members of Williams' Darktown Follies stage company. A fully restored version of the film was screened at MoMA in 2016. In the film, Bert Williams appears in blackface. Theater conventions at the time required one performer in a black musical to wear blackface but the rest of the cast could perform without it.[46]
  • Julie Verhoeven's 2015 solo exhibition 'Whiskers Between My Legs' at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London featured a video work of the same title where a blonde woman appears briefly in blackface. A promotional video for the same exhibition, titled "Julie Verhoeven's Golden Nuggets", was distributed via the ICA's YouTube channel and also features the artist in apparent blackface.[47][48][49]

Conceptual blackface

  • In 1979, Artists Space hosted an exhibition of black and white photographs and charcoal drawings by artist Donald Newman entitled "Nigger Drawings".[54] A coalition of artists and critics including Lucy Lippard, Carl Andre, May Stevens, Edit Deak, Faith Ringgold, and Howardena Pindell published an open letter criticizing the exhibition[55] and organized two "teach-in" demonstrations. (Only one was held. A second was unsuccessful because the gallery locked the doors.)[56] Another coalition of artists and critics including Roberta Smith, Laurie Anderson, Rosalind E. Krauss, Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp, and Stephen Koch published an open letter defending the exhibition and criticizing the protestors whom they accused of "exploiting this sensitive issue as a means of attracting attention" and "insensitivity to the complexities of both esthetics and politics."[57][58] Douglas Crimp told Seven Days "It's damaging to think about the political issues and not the work."[59] Donald Newman told The Village Voice "a lot of what fed this controversy is that my art is real. I'm not some punk who sat down and scrawled these things. There's an intelligence operating here." "All you moralists" Newman said "it takes an amoral kid like me to make things move." He also said he "never imagined that a segment of the art community would object to it.[60] Artists Space curator Helene Winer told The Washington Post "I was surprised that everyone who was offended saw it only in the absolute, slur meaning."[56] She also stated "If anyone has perpetuated the use of that term, it's Black people. They can't use it to the degree that they do and then disallow its use by Whites. I mean we do have some sort of culture exchange."[60] Despite or because of the controversy, the show did well; Charles Saatchi bought three works from the exhibition, Roberta Smith wrote a positive review in The New York Times, and Newman was being represented by Mary Boone Gallery later that year. Bruno Bischofberger exhibitied him in Switzerland and bought more of his work.[60]
  • In 1997, Aboriginal artist Eddie Burrup was revealed to be a pseudonym of the White painter Elizabeth Durack, an identity she considered her "alter ego". Work she had made pretending to be Burrup had been circulating in the Aboriginal Australian arts scene throughout the 1990s. John Mundine, an Aboriginal art curator, remarked that "it's the last thing left that you could possibly take away other than our lives or shoot us all."[61] Durack was bemused by the controversy, remarking "I'm just using a nom de plume. Why are people so interested in the fact of what I've done?" Durack continued to make art as Eddie Burrup until her death on 25 May 2000.[62][63][64] When asked how she felt about the criticism that she is exploiting Black culture, Durack responded "You can't exploit something that was given to you freely."[65]
  • In 2007, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates had an exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center titled Plate Convergence in which he manifested a marketing ploy for selling ceramic objects that Gates himself had made. The saga involved Shoji Yamaguchi, a Japanese-born potter who had emigrated to the United States after WWII and took up residence in Mississippi, where he married a local black woman and Civil Rights activist and developed a plate especially suitable for the cuisine of black people. The plate became the basis for dinner parties and ultimately a full-blown salon for discussing art and politics. Then calamity struck. In Gates' own words, "As the story went, [Yamaguchi] and his wife died in a car accident in 1991 and their son founded the Yamaguchi Institute to continue their vision of social transformation. I made ceramic plates, videotaped highly curated dinners and found a space for an exhibition of the ceramics and video. We gave a huge Japanese soul-food dinner, made by a Japanese chef and my sister, in honor of the Yamaguchis and their dinners. A young mixed-race artist enacted the role of their son and thanked everyone for coming. The whole thing duped a lot of people."[66]
  • In 2007, after several years of writing the character, Joe Scanlan held auditions and then engaged two professional female actors, Jennifer Kidwell and Abigail Ramsay, to play the role of a fictional black artist named Donelle Woolford. As part of the back story and set design for the character, Scanlan had made a body of abstract collage works reminiscent of Cubism.[67] Ramsay performed the character in situ at the ICA London as part of an exhibition titled Double Agent, curated by Claire Bishop. A later iteration of the project was a play on Richard Prince's joke paintings and included a national comedy tour titled Dick's Last Stand adapted from a stand-up routine by Richard Pryor and performed by Kidwell and Scanlan. The project was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.[68][69][70]
  • Painter Mark Beard creates work under multiple fictional artistic personalities; one of these invented personalities is African-American artist "Peter Coulter" who creates Basquiat-like political pop art.[71][72][73] The publication Bruce Sargeant and His Circle features portraits of Beard posing as his various personas, including a blackface portrait as Peter Coulter.[74]
  • In 2015, French artist Alexandre Ouairy revealed himself to be the person behind the work of the fictional Chinese artist "Tao Hongjing". For over a decade, "Tao Hongjing" created work inspired by his "oriental identity", according to his artist statement. He found success creating and selling traditional Chinese artworks like gold-plated Buddha statues, ink prints on rice paper, and Chinese characters made in neon lights, some of which sold for as much as 200,000 yuan ($30,000). Ouairy stated "The collectors were primarily foreigners and they wanted to buy Chinese work, because for them it was a good investment... I saw all that counterfeit Louis Vuitton and Prada, and I said to myself: If they make fake bags, why don't I make a fake Chinese artist?"[75][76]

See also


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