We Got It! Part II: The Treachery of Images

Quinn Hughes, Staff Writer

A note from the author

This article contains vivid imagery regarding depictions of Blackness and anti-black violence. I choose images in this article as a method of thinking with, and thinking through the symbolic representations of Blackness that have saturated our contemporary grammar regarding Blackness. In this article, I depart from my more technical methods of analysis in favor of thinking with the feelings and intimate experiences that are a product of the larger structures of violence that determine how people are able to interact with one another. In order to do this with the utmost care and respect for the experiences this violence produces, I have an obligation to depart into its particulars. Reader discretion is advised. I use ontology (the essence, or study of being) as a tool to unpack and examine the essence of Blackness in the modern world.

The stench, the darkness, the water, the screams, the moans, the Blackness, all present in the hold, find themselves seeping in and out of the lived experiences of Black people. These feelings, sounds and sensations seem to become more evident in the work of thinking through, and thinking with, the ongoing terrors of Blackness and its infinite and ongoing abjection. Despite these terrors, Blackness emerges as the beauty and magic made evident from within the hold. The process of holding the terror and beauty together has become the project of Black thought, Black love and Black care. However, the praxis of this holding is one that demands a world breaking, world making capacity to be vested into it. These labors of narrating, refusing, imagining and theorizing are the methods used by Black people as not only surviving the treachery of the world, but to imagine the end of it.

The image Self Portrait painted in 1984 by one of the most renowned painters of the 21st century, Jean Michel Basquiat, is not a simple image to read. According to the artist’s website, “The painting media is acrylic and oil stick on paper mounted on canvas. The painting measures 38 7/8 × 28 in.”  In the painting a, tall, Black, figure with feet planted on the left side of the canvas, reaches across the canvas with its long arms, spear in hand. White paint, dirtied with grey, black and brown, surrounds the figure — from its feet to its head. Stretching from the figure’s head to the top right of the canvas, Black paint is smeared and blended with the white that ends just under its shoulder. Mixed in with the figure and the organic, solid colors are thin lines, blue, grey, Black, red, creating a series of shapes and lines that fill the empty space of the canvas. The website continues: “ a closer look at the painting shows a man who seems to be confused and depressed. However, the main idea behind the self-portrait painting was to show the viewer the importance of using the mind properly.”

Blackness can be thought of as the essence of a being who longs to be present with all of its love, care, laughter, terror, beauty and horror, but is tethered to a body that can not hold it. Refuses to hold it. Longs to hold it. Blackness is a name that has come to describe the precise perfection in a refusal of perfection at the level of the body. These refusals at the level of the body rupture Blackness in its ontological capacity for it is the subject that necessitates a body  that is able to read and be read, while holding all of itself. The body that refuses reading becomes a flaw at the level of the subject, predetermining the ontological capacity of Blackness.

The project of thinking through Blackness is the project of thinking through a series of images — the images of the flesh sprawled across the sweltering concrete, swaying beneath the poplar tree, or lying in a casket that is too small. When encapsulating Blackness, the image must not only function as historical element of the archive, but also as vehicle, transporting the fleshy material that refuses spatio-temporal statization. The screams, sobbs, laughter and moans oozing beyond the image, become the elements of Blackness that emerge past historiography and beyond the single depiction, representing their own narratives, ones of refusal, imagining and world making, a fugitive break beyond the pavement, the forest or the chapel. 

The image becomes tasked with all that is too much for it to bear. What is to be done with all that has been written or heard outside of the frame? The principal element of the image is its ability to capture, and hold, but Blackness, in its refusal of holding ruptures the foundational premise of the medium. The excess of Blackness, spilling beyond the image, develops and renders an infinite degree of new images and new imaginings in all of its refusals. Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and theorist and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,in her readings of the Rodney King videos, begs the question “can you be Black and look at this?” Which, in my opinion, is another way of asking, can you be Black and look away? Which is to say, you be Black and look past?

Thinking with and through black ontology is a project of thinking through and with terror. The ability of giving names to violence is one that requires an ability to read and understand the body. However, this degree of legibility is foreclosed from blackness. The slave is foreclosed from being and excluded from the plane of the ontological, as it is the object who is refused the ability to identify in relationship to gender, sexuality, age, or family structure. The middle passage becomes an ontological abyss rupturing the plane of being for both the human and the object. Blackness, in the zone of non bieng, refuses the statization of the subject that the image demands.

Trapped within the look is the project of entrapment, concealment and reading that relies on the perfect image which, in turn, relies on the perfect subject. However, Blackness, with all of its perfect imperfections, is always already in opposition to the subject, the image and the look. The burden of Black imagery is a three-way street, in which the essence of the subject, the image and the gaze are all forced to become one and the same. Can you be Black and accept the image of the broken and mutilated body melting on the side of the street? Can you be Black and deny it? Can you be Black and not see the riot, celebration, refusal, and ceremony that escapes the frame? Blackness is a word given to a unique position of mourning. However, instead of mourning of death, Blackness prefers a mourning of life, and the death that saturates it. The mourning, is what occupies the assemblage of the subject, the image and the viewer. How to care for all that the image refuses, but must bear within it.

On the predicament of image of Emmett Till, Fred Moten, a professor of performance a New York University, writes, “the looker is in danger of slipping, not away, but into something less comfortable than horror—aesthetic judgment, denial, laughter, some out and unprecedented reflection, movement, murder, song. So that there is an inappropriable ecstatics that goes along with this aesthetics—one is taken out, as in screams, fainting, tongues, dreams.” Black Mo’nin’

It was in 1929 that French surrealist painter René Magritte wrote the phrase: “This is not a pipe” below his painting of a short wooden carving that, some may say, resembles a pipe. It is in the refusal of the image to be determined as a pipe that forces the viewer to reckon with the fact that the pipe, the image, and the viewer as a series of failures and misrepresentations of the next. This process continues until the image that is processed by the viewer, and the original pipe are unrecognisable. It is this function of interpretation that symbolic order scrawled: “this is not a body” beneath the feet of Laquan McDonald. Or “This is not a home” on the floorboards of Harriet Jacobs grandmother’s cabin. Or “This is not a toy” on the side of the gun held by Tamir Rice, and  “This is not a marsh” around the underbrush of the great dismal swamp.

Self Portrait, the stories it is telling, the story of its artist and the story of its interpretation offer a window into the unique positionality of Blackness in relationship to its representations and subjective positionalities. First is the title, the self of the self portrait is already a conundrum, for the self implies a position of stasis that is inaccessible to Basquiat because of his Blackness. Furthermore, the self that is represented through the image is a refusal of selfhood, instead rushing towards the abstraction, and fluidity of Black subjectivity. Even the nature of the painting itself is fundamentally resisting the composition of the medium. 

How can we think through the narratives, screams and cries that comprise the unthinkable. How can we tell the narratives of those whose bodies refuse them? How can we listen to all that spill out of, and in excess, the image. The politics of Self Portrait offers us a unique ability to gain access into the specific subject position of Blackness. The portrait, and all of its refusals, grants us with a specific lens by which we can read Black subjectivity. The painting exists as a physical representation of the resistance to the desire of wholeness and completion. Rather than looking for all that cannot be given, the painting exists and occupies the space that is between the philic and phobic, the desired and resented. The painting is burdened with representing the self that refuses representation. Within this paradox, the image that becomes represented falls into both an aesthetic and theoretical beauty, one that loves and celebrates Blackness, in all of its refusals.