liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies
6, no. 1, Spring 2022 (Duke University Press, beginning Spring 2021)
About liquid blackness
- liquid blackness is an open-access journal, which means that all content is freely available without charge to readers or their institutions.
- Our Editorial and Advisory Boards
The liquid blackness journal seeks to carve out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black Studies to come together in productive ways, with a double goal: to fully attend to the aesthetic work of blackness and to the political work of form. In this way, the journal strives to develop innovative approaches and analytic tools to address points of convergence between the exigencies of black life and the many slippery ways in which blackness is encountered in contemporary sonic and visual culture.
liquid blackness aims to establish a point of exchange at the intersection of multiple fields. The history of this intentionally undisciplined space is best understood through a series of questions pivoting around (1) the relationship between aesthetics and the ontology of blackness and (2) the generative potential of blackness as an aesthetic. If blackness is, as we argue after Fred Moten, an unregulated generative force, then the liquid blackness journal seeks to offer a dedicated space where it can be consistently unleashed. As we extend and confront lines of inquiry from a number of research fields, our approach is equally concerned with theoretical content, analytical methods, and scholarly praxis.
The Editorial Board has planned the first three themed (and foundational) issues, on the following concepts:
- “liquidity” – Vol 5 no. 1 – Spring 2021
- “blackness” – Vol 5 no. 2 – Fall 2021
- “aesthetics” – Vol 6 no. 1 – Spring 2022
After two foundational issues devoted to “liquidity” and “blackness,” we now turn to our third concept, “aesthetics,” to explore its radical potential for Black Studies. We are inspired by Fred Moten’s posing of black aesthetic sociality as a problem for ontology, and appositional to epistemology and phenomenology. Moten’s insistence on the irreducible vitality of black sociality has been both inspirational and aspirational to the theoretical foundation, the ethics, and the praxis that sustain this journal. His aesthetic thinking and practice—we hesitate to call it a “theory”—unravels in a multitude of ways throughout his long career as poet, theorist, philosopher, art critic, and through his engagement with an extraordinarily rich, varied, and unruly archive.
Inspired by this capacious model of practice and the ways Moten’s work radically upends traditional distinctions between ontology, phenomenology, epistemology, and aesthetics, we offer below some concepts that have appeared in his recent trilogy “consent not to be a single being” to invite contributions that engage with, and might enrich, the theoretical, methodological, and artistic archives mobilized in Moten’s work, or, conversely express skepticism and offer criticism.
We take this opportunity to explore the expansive possibilities of “aesthetic thinking” broadly conceived, and investigate who can do theory (scholars, artists, activists…), how theory can be done (in image, writing, archiving, curating, social activism…), and what a Black aesthetic object is (“high”/“low” art, sound and image, practice and praxis, the work of individual artists and ensembles…).
- black study
- being sent
- chromatic saturation
- black aurality
- poetics of passage
- knowledge of freedom
- form and informality
modes/tools of aesthetic thinking
- thingliness and no-thingness
- black cinematic apparatus and phonographic mise-en-scene
- production, reproduction, and value
- dematerialization, rematerialization, animateriality
- the paraontological
- black ops/Afro-optimism
Essays of no more than 4,000 – 5,000 words with accompanying images, and/or video or sound clip, should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by October 1.
Author Guidelines & Submission Information
- liquid blackness follows the formatting and reference guidelines stipulated by The Chicago Manual of Style
- We welcome submissions of visual and textual art, video, and other artistic work accompanied by an artist statement
- All submissions, solicited and unsolicited, will be peer-reviewed
liquid blackness is excited to present our newest research page Facing the Band: Elissa Blount Moorhead and the (Ana)Architectures of Community Ties. The project will be followed by an artist talk coming to Georgia State University this Fall.
Artist, curator, and producer Elissa Blount-Moorhead’s work explores the “poetics of quotidian Black life, the regularity, ubiquity, and simplicity… to emphasize the gestural dialectics of quiet domesticity and community building.” Blount-Moorhead has collaborated with Bradford Young and is a member of TNEG, the studio behind Jay-Z 4:44 music video, along with Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed.
Blount-Moorhead was also a critical artist for liquid blackness’ recent panel “The Political Reach of Form: Music Video as Black Art” at GSU’s African American Studies Department’s conference, Beyond the Culture: Black Popular Culture and Social Justice.
The full video of our conversation with artist and filmmaker Jenn Nkiru in occasion of the liquid blackness event Jenn Nkiru’s Panafrican Imagination: Black Studies as Aesthetic Practice is now available from our Vimeo page. The liquid blackness research group hosted Nkiru in April 2019 for an artist talk and masterclass to discuss her artistic inspirations and goals, her aesthetic choices, and the vital role that sound and black music plays in her filmmaking process. During the talk, liquid blackness performed a close analysis of a selected sequence from her film REBIRTH IS NECESSARY. Her work was also previously discussed at an event held at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in March 2019 titled (A) Black Lineage of the Music Art Video, in the context of other artists from the Black Diaspora who similarly straddle the line between commercial and artistic spaces, such as Arthur Jafa, Bradford Young, and Kahlil Joseph. These same artists are also the subject of a forthcoming In Focus section in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (JCMS vol. 59, no. 2), titled, “Modes of Black Liquidity: Music Video as Black Art” edited by Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer with contributions from liquid blackness members Charles P. “Chip” Linscott, Michele Prettyman, James Tobias, and Jenny Gunn. Drawn from the collective research of the liquid blackness group, Gunn’s essay focuses specifically on Nkiru’s intergenerational pedagogical practice.
Jenn Nkiru is introduced by Dr. Michele Prettyman and is in conversation with Dr. Jenny Gunn, Dr. Alessandra Raengo, and Jazmine Hudson.
liquid blackness mourns the passing of actor, Nathaniel Taylor (March 31, 1938-February 27, 2019). Although best known for the role of Rollo on the popular television series, Sanford and Son, Taylor was also an important film actor within the L.A. Rebellion group, starring as Jita Hadi in Larry Clark’s As Above, So Below (1973) and as Warmack in Clark’s Passing Through (1977). A member of PASLA (Performance Arts Society of Los Angeles), Clark’s and Taylor’s collaboration in Passing Through was just as intense and mutually inspiring as the filmmaker’s collaboration with musician Horace Tapscott who provided part of the score and appeared in the film.
Passing Through was the focus of the 2015 liquid blackness experimental research project, “The Arts and Politics of the Jazz Ensemble,” a screening, artist talk, and symposium dedicated to the film. The research project culminated in the publication of liquid blackness journal vol. 2 no. 5, Passing Through Film (September 2015).
At the symposium, filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson shared his short film dedicated to Taylor, Auditioning for Nathaniel (2016), which follows his “Rita Larson’s Boy” (2012). In the earlier film, ten actors auditioned for Taylor’s role of Rollo, offering what, in a conversation with Everson printed in the liquid blackness journal vol. 1 no. 2, Michael Gillespie described as a poignant repetition of performances of blackness in the pursuit of Taylor’s distinct 1970s cool.
Everson was finally able to locate Taylor through liquid blackness and Larry Clark.
Thanks to the distinct privilege of closely studying Passing Through, the liquid blackness group has come to appreciate the remarkable sensitivity, range, and power of Taylor’s acting and the depth of his characterizations especially when performing for a script that, among many other things, explored complex political implications in issues of creativity and masculinity. Passing Through was screened at Thelma Golden’s Black Male exhibition (Whitney, 1994).
- all images screen grabs from Passing Through (1977), courtesy of director, Larry Clark
The full video of our conversation with artist and filmmaker, Arthur Jafa is now available from our Vimeo page. The liquid blackness research group hosted Jafa in the spring of 2016 for an artist talk and screening of his film, Dreams are Colder than Death (2013), a meditation on the ontology of blackness and its relationship to life, death, and the concept of the human in the context of the “afterlife of slavery.” The film screened on April 2, 2016 at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, as part of an event titled “Civic Encounters around Black Media and Black Life” for the Annual Conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
Held on April 4, 2016, “Arthur Jafa in Conversation” touches on his multidisciplinary work as a cinematographer, director, and installation artist to explore some of the conceptual and practical strategies he has developed to pursue a black aesthetics, while maintaining a practice that moves between the museum and the movie theater.
Watch the embedded video below or access it directly from our Vimeo page.
British-Nigerian filmmaker, Jenn Nkiru’s short film, Rebirth is Necessary (2017) is currently closing the Afro-Atlantic Histories series at MASP (the Museu de Arte de São Paulo) in Brazil. As described on MASP’s website, the Afro-Atlantic Histories series “is motivated by the desire and need to draw parallels, frictions and dialogues around the visual cultures of Afro-Atlantic territories – their experiences, creations, worshiping and philosophy.” With Rebirth is Necessary, “Nkiru updates the Afrofuturist message: the black person is the past, present and future, and for this reason, resistance is also a form of rebirth.” Works by John Akomfrah, Kahlil Joseph and many others esteemed filmmakers of the African diaspora were also featured in the series which opened in June.
liquid blackness looks forward to welcoming Nkiru to Atlanta later this spring where she will present an artist talk and screening of her work, the topic of the current liquid blackness research project.
liquid blackness is proud to announce the release an artist talk by Kahlil Joseph followed by a discussion between Joseph, Dr. Lauren Cramer, and Dr. Alessandra Raengo. The event was held as part of the Holding Blackness In Suspension event on October 6-7, 2016.
You can click to watch the embedded video below, or you can watch it on the liquid blackness Vimeo page.
liquid blackness founder, Alessandra Raengo recently traveled to London to give the keynote address at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair Forum, presenting on the “Scope and Practice of liquid blackness.” The full audio of the talk is available here. Explicating the history of the liquid blackness research group and liquid blackness as a reading strategy, Raengo discussed Joseph’s Black Mary. Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper is currently on view at The Store X, 180 The Strand in London and Raengo reviewed the exhibition for liquid blackness.
Sounding out a Stumble: Melancholic Loops in Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper*, by Alessandra Raengo
*dedicated to Ekow Eshun, who created the opportunity for me to see Fly Paper again
Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper now on view at 180 The Strand in London, is aesthetically inspired by the soundful photography of Roy DeCarava, as the title clearly indicates, and the equal care he devoted to musicians and everyday people in Harlem. Structurally, however, it bears the traces of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983, including the latter’s references to La Jetée, 1962), with which it shares questions about memory and forgetting, happiness and blackness. Yet, differently from Marker’s films, Fly Paper—the female voiceover tells us—is “the story of a man who lost forgetting” and thus assumes a quintessentially melancholic position. Not only can’t this man let go of the lost object, but, apparently, he has lost the ability to lose. While it’s unclear who the subject of the film is, it is clear enough that the film itself is determined to carry the lost object(s) along, regardless of the cost.
The film is projected on a loop, as all installation art is, but it does not feature any credits and when the title appears, it comes across as an afterthought leaving the viewer unclear as to whether it signals the beginning, the end, or any other point in the film. Everything we see, seems to occur in medias res, and yet always also as the echo of something that has already taken place or the anticipation of something someone has already imagined. Perhaps it is part of the “delirium” and the “rift” the voiceover indicates memory has to learn to cope with.
Fly Paper weaves together original footage shot for the project with very personal materials: primarily home footage of Kahlil’s father who lived in Harlem at the end of his life and eventually died of brain cancer; footage of Kahlil’s brother, the late Noah Davis, the founder of the underground museum in LA, whose surviving wife, Karen Davis, is the daughter of Ben Vereen, the older dancer featured in the film, who was the star of Bob Fosse musicals. The film moves like a fever dream between different formats: 35mm color film, highly controlled low-contrast black and white footage, and hand-held video, interspersed by variously processed images. Across these transitions, it locates threads of personal memory within the work of what Fred Moten might describe as the “ensemble,” i.e., a form of black sociality that eschews individuation and takes place in a constant productive dynamic between the “solo” and the “group”: artists congregating and socializing as well as various jam sessions taking place in Harlem lofts, including one with Lauryn Hill and Alice Smith that ultimately constitutes the occasion for the primary narrative line in Black Mary. Indeed, although the two films were commissioned by the Vinyl Factory and the Tate in London for the show Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (2017), respectively. Joseph has said they belong to the same narrative universe: “outtakes,” locations, and characters from one appear in the other and the two films complement each other in important ways. Both follow the same logic of subtraction that has characterized Joseph’s work since Wildcat (2013), the black and white rodeo film he shot to a score by Flying Lotus elaborated from Alice Coltrane’s music (who is Flying Lotus’s aunt), which began with documentary footage about a black rodeo in Grayson, Oklahoma ran by a married couple. When Joseph arrived to shoot the film with his crew, the wife—Aunt Janet—had passed away and the town was having the first rodeo ever without her. Joseph collected a series of interviews with a variety of people but then resolved to remove them all from the film and have a young girl in a white dress embody instead the very present spirit of Aunt Janet still hovering over the events. Similarly, in both Fly Paper and Black Mary one has the sense that there is a tremendously rich backstory that Joseph has decided not to share. Yet, what he does share is the result of an extraordinary poetic discipline and sensibility, as well as perhaps a desire to follow the vagrancy of the mind as it is equally engaged in the effort to remember and to forget.
Thus, while it would be tempting to attribute this mental errantry to one of the main “characters” in the film, it is not possible to imagine any one of them as the center of consciousness of the film. Instead, in keeping with its melancholic structure, recognizable and not recognizable figures appear and disappear in the film, without narrative justification and through what seems like a complex pattern of rhymes or doubles, and literal and figurative shadows: Ben Vereen is perhaps the shadow of Joseph’s late father but is in turn shadowed by a younger dancer—Storyboard P—who has been featured prominently in recent works by both Joseph and Arthur Jafa. The two dancers wear similar outfits with very small differences: black pants, white button shirts, a black vest and a Panama hat. Storyboard’s vest however, has black and white pencils attached to it and a black veil pinned to his back which creates the effect of yet another flowing shadow that trails him everywhere he goes. Football player Barry Sanders can also be seen as a shadow for Joseph’s father who was very fond of the athlete at the end of his life and admired his ballet-like moves in the field and his dignified decision to retire at the height of his career. Lauryn Hill and Alice Smith shadow one another not only by jamming in the same location and with the same group of musicians–-although we only catch glimpses of this fact in Fly Paper –but the fuller version of Smith’s session, which occupies the main narrative line in Black Mary, can itself be seen as the shadow of the Hill session that occasioned it, while being also the shadow of the recording session with which it is intercut in the latter film.
The literal shadows, or “dark corners,” in Fly Paper, instead, belong to Joseph’s intense engagement with DeCarava’s photography, and his desire to pay homage to the photographer’s same ground: some of the shots repeat original photographs almost verbatim –a row of tenement houses, dimly lit hallways, human figures as silhouettes in empty Harlem lofts bathed in light coming from oversized windows. When Vereen and Storyboard P engage in an extraordinarily melancholic dance duet mid-way through the film, both of their faces remain in the shadow, in keeping with DeCarava’s style; that is also the case later, when the montage of a percussions-heavy jam session in an empty Harlem loft combines extreme close-ups of the musician’s hands emerging from a deep darkness, feet, and accelerated footage that chases their elongated shadows projected onto a far-away wall: their faces remain obscured the entire time, while the details of their hands, close-ups of their tapping feet, or of the chords of their instruments directly references a plethora of DeCarava’s images.
The film’s shadows embrace also what Teju Cole has described as a desire, shared by contemporary visual artists such as Bradford Young, to be “playing in the dark,” that is, to be committed to an ethics of relation that he has compared to Edouard Glissant’s idea of “opacity” whereby when “we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.” Yet, as in DeCarava, the dark area of the image is often where the image is most vibrant, most soundful. In this sense, Joseph has followed DeCarava’s suggestion that, in Richard Ings’s words, “photography might take the shape of improvisatory music,” and he further amplified the shadow’s ability to channel the unregulated vibrational force of black musicality, to render, as DeCarava put it, “the sound I saw.”
If the beginning of the film is indeed signaled by the appearance of the title, then we can also regard Fly Paper as a melancholic meditation on the “stumble.” Although it shows Vereen on a Harlem sidewalk about to take a step while his voiceover says “A walk on the block…,” what follows is not his walk; nothing ensues from his statement and there is no “narrative” progression. Instead, that his action is not complete evokes the presence of an impending loss or an uncertain movement on an unsteady ground. Perhaps it is a way to foreshadow what might be construed as the most “literal” stumble in the film, suggested by the footage that shows Joseph’s father taking some tentative steps in a hospital room. A later close-up of his head post-brain surgery, with painfully visible stitches, as he is watching Barry Sanders on TV, should be seen within this framework, as the voiceover reflects: “for the first time he felt the presence of that which he did not understand.” But, more broadly, the stumble is perhaps what Andre Lepecki in his close reading of the Fanonian passage that first records the stumble as a reaction to the shattering caused by the hailing of the French child, as well as in his analysis of William PopeL’s crawls, as a deliberate renunciation of the delusion of sovereignty attached to verticality, has described as the difficult negotiation of the “choreopolitical” force of racism. In Fly Paper there are too many dance numbers that do not even attempt to attain a vertical posture and unfold instead with bent knees, semi-crouched backs, against the beat and in poetic defiance of self-sufficiency or self-reliance. Perhaps it is because “every moving body on the racist ground is always already a stumbling one.” Indeed, when Vereen and Storyboard P dance around each other in a dimly lit stairway, they subtly exchange places until the younger dancer, off beat, repeatedly slams his body against the wall, falls on the floor and off the frame and then, quasi-miraculously reemerges with a contortion from the bottom of the frame. It is when we see Vereen fully dressed in a white two-piece suit lying in a bathtub looking pensive and off to the right that we might begin to register the stumble as the hesitant step that occurs under the weight of what one loves and doesn’t want to let go of; the weight of the kinships that make and unmake, the sociality that nurture the community of artists that both engender, and are featured in, the film.
If in classical film theory one measure of assessment of the film frame is its openness to a world that might or might not continue beyond it, in Fly Paper one has the sense that this Harlem community has virtually no boundaries, just like the larger city of which it is part, although it might have a much clearer sense of purpose. “He said the city has to be deciphered like a musical score,” says the voiceover. And yet, the voiceover continues (but here I clumsily paraphrase), one cannot give in to the megalomania of the big city, as we see shots of New Yorkers moving swiftly in and out of subway stations intercut with footage of classical jazz orchestras. Rather, when hearing carefully, one would detect its various parts, “as different and precise as groups of instruments.” The plea is not for formlessness but for the powerful energy that comes from various forms of ensemblic black sociality. And a moment later, the observation that “sometimes musical composition coincided with plain reality,” leads to a series of artists’ parties, casual conversations, and jam sessions. If editing is for Joseph similar to composing a musical score, as he told us when he came to Atlanta for a liquid blackness event dedicated to his work, he also thinks of the collaborative project of filmmaking as a musical ensemble whereby experienced musicians are let free to each play their own instrument according to their own sensibility. Hence the ensemble acts as a structural principle of composition for the film but also, ultimately, for the sociality of mourning, thus expressing Joseph’s commitment to the continuity of artistic lineages of creativity and community. Indeed, the entire film is intercut with shots of art objects: paintings—Barkley L. Hendricks’s Lawdy Mama, works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kevin Beasley, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, among others—or people looking and living with art. These objects too are equal part of the same community.
Towards the end of the film, we see the only video footage of Noah Davis, walking uphill towards the New York City Cloisters followed by a female friend. He is chatting animatedly and, as the film cuts to a view of the South Bronx from that trail and other shots of Harlem apartment buildings shining through a light rain on a still partially sunny day, the voiceover repeats a direct quote from the beginning of Sans Soleil: “he said for him this was the image of happiness. He said he should put it all together one day at the beginning of a film. He said if they don’t see the happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” The screen goes completely black for several seconds then the voice of Malcolm X begins to emerge. He is chastising his audience for trusting the white “devil,” for giving in to addiction and for expecting the help of the white man. His words are spun like a vinyl record and the archival footage cut accordingly. Retroactively, as Hilton Als has pointed out, we realize that “it’s as if Joseph’s [entire] visual world were a vinyl record, complete with scratches that make the needle skip, thereby changing the flow of things.”
As Malcolm X’s voice begins to fade away the last montage irrupts to the riveting sound of “Mariposa”: we revisit a lot of the same figures we have seen before, including some of the same art objects but now the film reaches its melancholic height: like a dying butterfly, it is clear it is saying goodbye. So, what is the “black” they will see in the picture? Claudia Rankine has used this same quote to open her masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric, in order to mark the invisibility of racist micro-aggressions, but here black is not only the place for the opacity of black affect. It is not even simply the place where things end, or memories are lost and lost objects become irretrievable; it is also the place where the music comes from, where the ensemble is located, in the shadow… playing and communing in the dark.
The film ends abruptly on a canted shot of Storyboard P shown sideways, as a silhouette against large windows in a top-floor Harlem loft. After a cut, his silhouette is vertical again in a long shot and closer to the window. He shapes his hand into a gun, just like the small child at the beginning of Until the Quiet Comes, and we hear a gunshot before the screen suddenly and briefly goes black.
Then the title FLY PAPER appears again and Vereen, on a Harlem sidewalk says, “A walk on the block”….
 Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
 Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. “Interludes in Madtime: Black Music, Madness, and Metaphysical Syncopation.” Social Text 35, no. 4 (2017): 1-31.
 Including, perhaps, the several art shows the late Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph’s brother and the founder of the Underground Museum in LA, who briefly appears in the film, had already planned for it.
 Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
 Until the Quiet Comes (Kahlil Joseph, 2013), Dreams are Colder than Death (Arthur Jafa, 2014), 4:44 (Arthur Jafa, Elissa Blount-Moorhead, Malik Sayeed, 2017)
 Indeed the interplay between the comparative “live” session and the studio session in Black Mary creates the most arresting feature of the film: a tension between sound production and reproduction that evokes the undecidable location of black performance; temporal loopholes that gesture both backwards and forward positing blackness as an unregulated generative force with an always receding origin… a microcosm of the melancholic temporal structure more fully realized in Fly Paper. Black Mary too, is interspersed with signs of loss: sonically, through barely audible exchanges suggesting disbelief, regret, and woundedness; an alarmed phone call; a banging at the door we also hear in Fly Paper; visually, with minimal but intense brushstrokes: for example, the flashing lights of an ambulance parked off screen illuminating the frontal view a row of NYC public telephones.
 Richard Ings, “’And you Slip into the Breaks and Look Around”: Jazz and Everyday Life in the Photographs of Roy DeCarava,” Graham Lock and David Murray, eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in American American Visual Art (Oxford University Press, 2009). Roy DeCarava, the sound i saw: improvisations on a jazz theme (London: Phaidon Press, 2001).
 Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (New York: Routledge, 2006), 105.
 In Atlanta, Joseph told us that he understands editing as a way to control rhythm and pace and immediately invoked Kendrick Lamar as one of his models. See liquid blackness event “Holding Blackness in Suspension: The Films of Kahlil Joseph” and also Tate Talks: Kahlil Joseph & Arthur Jafa in Conversation.
 Als, “The Black Excellence”
 Tyrone Palmer, ““What Feels More Than Feeling?”: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect.” Critical Ethnic Studies 3, no. 2 (2017): 31-56.
Tender R/age::Rabia Tierna
By Laurel Ahnert, Georgia State University
This past summer, the Atlanta community arts center WonderRoot hosted the pop-up exhibit Tender R/age::Rabia Tierna (Adela C. Licona, August 24-25, 2018). The exhibit derives its title from the so-called “tender age” facilities built for migrant children separated from their families at the border. The separation and imprisonment of children was a direct result of a series of Trump Administration policies implemented in the spring and summer months of 2018. A response to these events, the pop-up exhibit is “an interventionist art project that participates visually, textually, and sonically in the collective outcry against the forced separation of migrant and refugee children from their families at the US/Mexico border.”
Upon entering the small gallery space, the viewer must first pass through a narrow, darkened hallway. On the wall immediately next to the entrance are two definitions for “jail” and “cage” printed in large black lettering against a white background. With this opening, the exhibit sets itself up as a commentary on the United States’ generations-long project to police and imprison certain bodies while asserting the rights and freedoms of others. As the viewer enters the space, the abstract soundscape of muffled children’s voices and metallic bangs and screeches fills the room. These sounds fade, overtaken by birds or the chirps of loud summer insects before reemerging again, indecipherable and distant. Like a radio unable to find a clear station, the sound montage leaves the listener with no opportunities for clear recognition or interpretation.
The gallery space is populated by photographs of children posing with or without other family members. These appear alongside written reflections about families, childhood, and abandonment written in large font and hung on the walls. Combined, these elements form a disjointed collage of imagery and text throughout the space. The reflections, definitions, and quoted passages vary between first-person recollection and detached third-person commentary. Some of the passages contain snippets of wordplay, such as purposeful misspellings like “steal workers” and “steeling children,” which, in combination with the layered soundscape, emphasize miscommunication while also wedding together the history of migrant labor in the U.S. and the racist policies that have shaped it.
On the floor, portraits of smiling children stand upright in the middle of the room, yet the backs of the standees are entirely blank, stark white like the space on the floor where they are attached. In effect, the photographs transform into paper doll cutouts, and memories become playthings that embody the innocence of the times they represent. Yet upon closer inspection, these pop-up photographs are surrounded by dark black borders drawn on the floor. The innocence of childhood is visually contained. The white backdrop evokes the overexposure and hyper-surveillance facing the immigrant community emptied of their particularity when turned over and scrutinized.
Moving through the space, it becomes clear some of the written reflections refer directly to photographs within the space. The words and images appear in different places in the room, however, each effectively detached and displaced from their referents. One written statement on the wall begins, “this 1944 photo, which was taken of my family at Heart Mountain, an internment camp in Wyoming.” Across the room the viewer can find a black and white photograph that seems to match—a large Japanese family pose together in front of a cabin, smiling for the camera. Disciplined in how to pose for the camera, everyone in the photograph looks forward with the exception of one little boy in the front who bites his lip and looks downward. Below this image, there is a statement written by a Navajo woman who describes the U.S. policy to forcibly remove American Indian children from their families. She explains the children were robbed of their native languages and cultures in boarding schools. The statement speaks to lasting generational trauma caused by policies of separation that affect her family to this day.
Looking back up at the little boy in the Heart Mountain photograph, a disturbing resonance emerges. Children in the internment camps were also separated from their parents for extended periods of the day, forced to attend schools designed to assimilate of Japanese immigrants in an effort to neutralize their perceived threat to American society. The historical parallels between these earlier polices of child separation and the most recent one become apparent through the juxtaposition of disjointed images and text throughout the gallery space. Like the writers of these statements recalling childhood memories, the viewer must activate her own memory to make these connections across texts, countering historical erasure with collective memory.
As the artist Adela Licona makes explicit with her work, child separation has its roots in an American history of colonization, slavery, internment and mass incarceration. Indeed, the project was inspired by what Licona describes as “the ever-expanding Migration Industrial Complex.” After the child separation policy came to light to massive public outcry, the government policy shifted to interning entire families together. This latest policy will be funded using money robbed from FEMA, the organization that largely failed to give lifesaving assistance to American citizens in Puerto Rico. With this cascading series of decisions affecting documented and undocumented Latin Americans in the U.S., the administration’s devaluation of life is made clear.
In her talk, Licona explains she was “haunted” by the image of the child crying for her mother who was photographed after being detained and searched by border patrol agents. This child, Licona reminds the viewer, did not give her permission to be photographed. In response to this image, Licona crowd-sourced childhood photographs and “declarations” from friends and colleagues who shared her outrage. The artist made a concerted ethical stance, deciding not to exploit and reproduce the images that so often accompany news stories about human rights abuses. News media tend to frame these events in terms of victimhood and abject suffering, effectively promoting “compassion fatigue” among viewers who feel passive and helpless in the face of tragedy. Rather than using these highly recognizable and exhausting images of suffering, Tender R/age aims for an empathetic understanding of the events among participant-viewers of exhibit. Tender R/age compiles together a variety of experiences in an effort to effectuate, as Licona says, an “intersectional consciousness.” Inspired by the direct action of the gay and lesbian liberation movement—the artist herself identifies as a member of the queer community—she designed the work to build coalitions, raise awareness and enact change.
At the same time, the choice to use crowd-sourced images and testimonies is an act of substitution that displaces the individual stories of those directly affected by the Trump Administration’s policies. In this Tender R/age is not alone. There are numerous examples of artworks that depict migrants and refugees through these types of object-substitutions. For example, Tom Kiefer’s photographs capture objects confiscated from undocumented immigrants apprehended near the border. Jami Porter Lara’s Border Crossing similarly photographs abandoned objects, in this case the detritus and belongings left behind in the desert along the border in Arizona. Her work parallels the stacks of abandoned objects in the State of Exception Exhibit sponsored by the Undocumented Migration Project. Other examples include Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo’s Border Cantos, and the morbid gallery of objects captured by forensic photographers at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. Like these other artworks and galleries, Tender R/age uses objects—in this case childhood photographs of those connected with the artist—to stand in for the children and families separated at the border.
Based on this pattern of artworks, it seems we can only engage with these liminal subjects through the disconnected traces they leave behind. The artworks raise questions about how artists can document the undocumented in order to bear witness to their marginalization and oppression. In these artworks, substitute objects give presence to the absent bodies who otherwise remain underground, “in the shadows” or behind bars. Though they are fragmentary, the substitute testimonials and photographs in Tender R/age similarly serve as “documentary” evidence insofar as they index the traumatic history of child separation in the United States. Rather than material linkages, the Tender R/age images serve as affective markers that connect disparate histories and recurring patterns of trauma. Viewers are invited to engage reflexively—connecting images and text, personal and political, news narratives and individual testimony—as they survey the fragmented collage of the exhibit.
Tender R/age invites viewers to think critically about U.S. policies on immigration in the Trump era, while also connecting these polices to a longer history of separating children from families justified by racist laws that seemingly advocate for what is “best” for children. Tender R/age also invites viewers to contemplate how images of migrants and broader human rights considerations circulate in the news. It raises ethical questions about exploitation and substitution, refusing to give the viewer an easy answer.
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