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Material Matters: Black Radical Aesthetics and the Limits of Visibility

Particularly in relation to African American historical images, we need to find ways of incorporating them into “social and political memory, instead of using [them] as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of such memory.”
—Angela Y. Davis (including a quotation by John Berger), “Afro Image: Politics, Fashion, Nostalgia” (1994)

If, in the words of the latest rallying cry, “black lives matter,” then we must recalibrate our modes of reading, thinking, and acting in order to pay heed to the political ontology of race and to the mattering of blackness itself.
—Huey Copeland, “Tending-toward-Blackness” (2016)

Contemporary black radical aesthetic practices that emphasize materials that surface, texture, and visualize blackness ineluctably trouble, if not unravel, the panoptic qualities of the visual itself. It is without a doubt that images play a hyperactive role in our understanding of black life, but what of the material matters of black resistance? In my use of the phrase, black radical aesthetic practices endeavor to recompose the relationship between the body and visibility, often by sidestepping representational mandates towards “accuracy.” Instead, these practices turn to the potentiality of abstract or conceptual approaches in materializing black corporeality. Much attention has been paid to the vexed relationship between representation and black cultural forms in light of white supremacist practices that have produced and policed images of black people along the spectrum of spectacular and quotidian violence. By emphasizing abstract and conceptual artistic practices, my definition of black radical aesthetics builds upon the notion of blackness as anoriginary abstraction—a category created in the service of devastating material, corporeal, and psychological violences that trafficked through the Middle Passage and whose afterlives are still active today. Abstract and conceptual practices do not abandon the social, cultural, and material meanings that blackness invokes. As Adrienne Edwards has lucidly noted, these practices turn to what blackness “does in the world without conflating it—and those who understand blackness from within a system that deems them black, that is black people—with a singular historical narrative or monolithic subjectivity.”

In this spirit, the black radical aesthetic practices detailed here fully activate many of the aims of the black freedom struggle through conceptual and material choices that disturb visibility as a measure of black presence. Instead, these approaches impede sight. They trouble its stability and open up modes of touch that reroute our expectations. This essay focuses on select works by David Hammons and Sadie Barnette that ask us to consider what constitutes the matter of black life, and in so doing reclaim the place of material and the body as archives of black radical history.

Hammons opens up the complex dynamics between what Frantz Fanon called the “racialized epidermal schema” that composes blackness, and the representational traps of the two-dimensional surface. In Hammons’s case, skin becomes the cause and effect of his 1970s Body Prints. These works turn to the materiality of surface to comment upon quotidian exposures to violence in everyday black life. For Barnette, her father’s FBI file becomes the source material through which she materializes the complex politics of inheritance between black liberation struggles of the long 1960s and their impacts upon her own sense of self. Barnette mines the FBI file as a personal archive, and in so doing manipulates the documents therein towards a radical aesthetic materialization. While both artists produce works in distinct historical contexts, to mobilize their practices together opens up the conditions of possibility for us to rethink, if not re-inhabit, black radical history’s present.

Read the full article here.