If Kerry James Marshall is justly celebrated as a pioneering figure in Black Portraiture, it is because he utilises the flatness of Pop Art to examine the objectification of the black body, its seeming invisibility and threat. Like Toni Morrison, Marshall chooses to play in the dark. Her objective? ‘To free up the language’ whereby ‘racially informed and determined chains’ are predictably employed in a manner sinister and lazy. Black Portraiture is never innocent. It is what one does with the codes for blackness, that ensures the significance and value of an artist or dealership.
Eclectica is a South African based gallery, run by Shamiela Tyer, with a creative stable that spans the Arab World and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its remit comprises abstraction and figuration, its objective – to affirm the rich complexity of African aesthetics which, even today, remains poorly understood, prejudicially framed, exploited by an art economy that, after Morrison, remains extractive, sinister and lazy.
On this occasion, Eclectica presents African portraiture , by renowned artist from the African continent , for whom Marshall is a powerful influence, as is the photographer Zanele Muholi. This because both – paradoxically – amplify the depthlessness of blackness and its flat objectification. The camera, we now know, failed to honour black pigmentation. Technology, never neutral, proved as irrepressibly dismissive of, or resistant to, the complexity of black skin. Through a densification of the colour black, with little regard to the subtleties of tonal variation, Marshall and Muholi chose to foreground this exaggerated voiding. This decision – nothing short of revolutionary – amplified the socio-political and cultural complexity of seeing. In the artist paintings this complexity resurfaces. By foregoing mimesis – the putative transparency and objectivity of the ‘Real’ – in favour of the fantastical – ‘Black Magic’ – Were signals the ongoing decision to play in the dark.
Chiaroscuro – the Renaissance poetics of light and dark, brilliantly executed by Caravaggio – is replaced by a deliberate painterly flatness – a graphic dissimulation of the iconicity, and thus the rudimentarily auratic nature of black life – a life subsumed by mystique, fascination and dread, denied psychological depth, whose currency, tragically, controversially, remains in its intangibility-yet-objectification.
This paradox is key to the current marketisation of the black body. The artist understands this well. The colours used are bold, the presentation of black bodies is immediate, full-frontal, devoid of the psychology typically assigned to portraiture – what a being might embody, the secrets harboured. This is because the artist chooses to cut out blackness instead of sinking it into a greater historical sump. The trigger for this decision? Pop Art.
The question persists: Are the artist paintings merely decorative, seduced by iconicity and bold colour? On the contrary. Such a reading fails to grasp a state of play designed to undo a ‘language’ defined by ‘racially informed and determined chains’. For the artist – after Homi Bhabha and Toni Morrison – mimicry is a form of subversion. The strategy is not deliberate. Rather, like Marshall and Muholi, the artist embraces objectification in the instant that he cancels it out. The directness of his subjects’ gaze is confounded by the palpability-yet-inexistence of black flesh – their invisibility. Now you see me, now you don’t.