I keep coming back to this one image of Grace Jones at the Roseland Ballroom in New York in 1978. Jones, with her signature shaved head, is completely naked and her skin is oiled and shiny. She’s in a cage labelled “Do Not Feed the Animal” that looks a little too small. She’s crouched down on her hands and knees on a hardwood floor in front of a gold stage curtain. Men stare up at her from the front row of seats. A disembodied hand reaches into the frame and pushes a microphone towards her head. Another hand comes out from behind the curtain and holds up the end curve of a long, black tail that looks like its coming out of her backside. The final touch is a carcass of raw meat, strewn around her on the stage floor.
As a celebrity Grace’s entire public life has been tracked in photographs. Many of them, like the one I describe above, were taken by her white former lover, the photographer and artistic director Jean-Paul Goude, ironically renowned for his creative festishization of Black women. I’m fascinated by the image. Grace’s strength and beauty seem undercut by the cage and carcass and tail, by the staged “performance.” The composition—a caged, naked, Black woman being stared at by an audience of men—lavishly reproduces the violent ways in which we are routinely made vulnerable in a system of white supremacy, but Grace appears unaffected. Of course, she never claimed to be a representative of all Black women, and by being herself in a Black woman’s body, she always left visibly shook all of those who could not but read her within those narrow categorizations.
“The work [Jean-Paul and I] did together, people were calling it racist,” she says in one interview, years after the photo was taken. “It wasn't racist at all. It was him basically putting me on a pedestal, really.”[i] Though Grace is racially and sexually objectified in the Ballroom photograph, such a straight-forward reading falls apart in light of her comments. This says to me that Grace is fully aware of herself and doesn’t give a fuck about any single one of the labels people have tried to ascribe to her to make her legible. She disavows them all, and this irreverence, her presence alone, makes people itch and ache with discomfort.
At Adrian Piper’s MoMA retrospective last spring, I came across another weighty image. In a photo-text collage called Decide Who You Are #22: Field Work from 1992 was a large photograph of Little Rock Nine’s Elizabeth Eckford on the first day of legally-mandated, racially-integrated classes. Wearing dark shades, the 15-year-old girl walks forward as a group of white girls jeer at her violently. In another context, the poet and scholar Fred Moten also draws attention to this iconic image, and talks about Eckford’s undeniable cool. By way of George Clinton, he connects blackness and cool, invoking the different ways in which “we [Black people] have to keep our cool.”[ii] On that day in 1957, Eckford hadn’t received the news that other members of her group would not be going in that morning. As white racists spat at her and soldiers for the National Guard held their orders to keep her out, she tried to make her way into the school. Moten takes stock of the image and focuses on what Eckford might have been thinking as she attempted to pass the gauntlet of hatred. In her sunglasses, through her cool–or perhaps thanks to her cool—Moten says he recognizes a commitment to the intramural. She was connected to something greater than herself in that first step toward integration. “Her aloneness in that moment belies the communal force of the work that we do,”[iii] Moten says. In her solitary movement into a space from which society had barred her and all those who looked like her, she was not a single being, but rather a part of a whole.
I think of Grace’s irreverence and also of Adrian Piper, who at one time wrote a letter refusing that any single subject category be amended to her designation as artist—not Black, not woman, not anything. Can our constant efforts to evade racial individuation, to pass the gauntlet, be reconciled with our belonging to a larger group? In the arts, representation does not always do the work we want it to. I’m thinking about institutions whose structures have implicit, self-preserving perogatives, but are compelled to perform “inclusion” nonetheless. Marginalized folks long related to such organizations of power from an outsider position. Recently we have increasingly been called upon to “contribute,” “collaborate,” and “represent.” However, if the the advisory boards and the very top staff positions do not also change in a way that matches and structurally doubles down on this move to “inclusion,” if the audiences do not change, then there is something very suspect, and impotent, about this move to representation. For an institution to embrace a Black artist does not necessarily mean they are embracing blackness. And this is fine, as long as the limits of representation-as-inclusion are clear. To understand those limits, and the possibilities they allow—think Jean-Michel Basquiat or Naomi Campbell, Whitney or Kanye—is to understand what blackness in the arts could look like if it was not weighted down by a certain expectation of representation for a whole. For us, representation, like blackness itself, is an impossible bind.
I feel the image of Grace on her knees and the image of Eckford in her sunglasses can be reconciled, though the preciseness of that overlap eludes me. Once through that gauntlet—into pop fame in a white-dominated industry, into a historically white-only school—in what ways does one remain connected with that larger group? It’s likely Grace didn’t care; and that Elizabeth was so young she acted out of sheer morality and bravery. Their interruptions continue to resonate with me. Blackness as performance is put into relief when it is surrounded by whiteness—like the Zora Neale Huston line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” [iv] Amongst ourselves—Grace in her Jamaican hometown, or Eckford studying with the eight other students of the Little Rock Nine—our blackness is not what it becomes when we, the very same people, are in white spaces. There, racialization has a double effect—a heightened affect—of recuperating, in its projection and expectation, the expansive, infinitely variegated nature of our existence through the colour of our skin, as if through the eye of a needle.
The rhythm of Moten’s writing often mirrors the relationality he addresses while writing blackness. The relationship between blackness and power is a dance because, he points out, “power, the non-full subject, is the direct but phantasmatic object of our desire, and the real but indirect object of our objection.”[v] Blackness is composed by the very thing that defines it, and that it defies. While those enveloped in white supremacy are dulled into a comforting cognitive dissonance, others have no choice but to remain hyper aware. The nervous, anxious state of this awareness, Moten describes, results from the position of wanting to participate in and simultaneously destroy, the structure that creates us, and also through which we are able to see ourselves. To live with the ongoing reality (threat) of racialization is to know the immanence of racism and violence. How we heed this immanence is our own choice. On the one hand, with Elizabeth, I see how the thing that excludes me is also a part of what defines me and how I define myself. On the other hand, with Grace, I see how one can be oneself outside of those categories and exist—but I fear that this would be to disavow race. If blackness is an impossible bind and ongoing practice, one that is continuously thwarted by the limitations of representation as we know it, then when, and how, will we be able to just be ourselves? When, as Whitney Houston asked, “Can I be me?
[i] Grace Jones quoted in Sandra Song, “Welcome to Planet Grace Jones,” Paper Magazine 05 October 2015, http://www.papermag.com/welcome-to-planet-grace-jones-1427654126.html
[ii] Fred Moten, “Manic Depression: A Poetics of Hesitant Sociology,” a public lecture presented Tuesday, April 4th, 2017, at the University of Toronto.
[iv] Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," first published in The World Tomorrow, May 1928.
[v] Moten, “Manic Depression.”
Thank you Zoe, Becca, Grace and Nat for thinking through this text with me.
Yaniya Lee’s interdisciplinary research questions critical-reading practices and reconsiders Canadian art histories. Lee was previously on the editorial advisory committees for Fuse and C Magazine. From 2012-2015 she hosted the Art Talks MTL podcast, a series of long-form interviews with art-workers in Montreal. She is a founding collective member of MICE Magazine, a member the We Curate, We Critique collective and a member of the EMILIA-AMALIA working group, the latter of which was artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the summer of 2017. Later that year she participated in the Banff Research in Culture:Year 2067 residency and organized a series of public conversations with Black Canadian artists alongside Cauleen Smith, Jerome Havre and Camille Turner’s “Triangle Trade” exhibition at Toronto’s Gallery TPW. Lee currently works as associate editor at Canadian Art magazine.