Black Skins, White Snow – Report from Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West

By Michelle Joan Wilkinson Friday, February 8th, 2013 Categories: Features, Reviews, Updates
 

What does it feel like to be part of a critical mass, finally? It feels like a swelling in your limbs and mind, pride swelling up in your heart, and your people swelling, swirling with you—there is someone at your back, on lookout, and your posse is circling round ready for whatever. This was the feeling last month in Paris as a critical mass of artists, scholars, curators, writers, thinkers, and doers gathered for Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West, the fifth in a series of conferences organized by New York University and Harvard University. In three non-stop days of presentations, international attendees traversed Paris’s Left Bank to conference sites at École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, University Paris Diderot-Paris 7, and the musée du quai Branly. A fourth day at the museum featured film screenings. By all accounts, Black Portraiture[s] was a conference for the history books.

Image from Black Portraitures' Facebook page. Image by donnthompson of dracinc (c)2013

Image from Black Portraitures’ Facebook page. Image by Donn Thompson of dracinc (c)2013. http://www.dracinc.com/

There were many highlights, including a very frank conversation between NYU professor Manthia Diawara and athlete-activist Lilian Thuram on opening day. Born in Guadeloupe, Thuram is a former professional soccer player who has been active in France in the fight against racism. Thuram was a curator of the exhibition “Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage” for the musée du quai Branly, and he spoke about debunking myths of black inferiority and white superiority, even among his family members. Thuram expressed a sentiment that would be echoed throughout the rest of the sessions: in France, talking about race is often misinterpreted or maligned as being racist. Thus, the fact that hundreds of scholars and artists had gathered in Paris to talk about “the black body in the west” was a major accomplishment. The conference opened up a space for discussions of race and representation that rarely happen in a public forum, much less one supported by major educational and cultural institutions.

Caribbean artists were prominently featured in a joint presentation by Alissandra Cummins and Allison Thompson who discussed works by Joscelyn Gardner, Sheena Rose, and Christopher Cozier among others. Cummins and Thompson are Barbados-based coordinators of the Black Diaspora Visual Arts program which produced the recent collection Curating in the Caribbean. Another session chaired by Joan Morgan explored the spectrum of diasporic visual culture including Caribbean themes, from Renée Cox’s imagined portrait “Queen Nanny of the Maroons” to misreadings of pop icon Rihanna’s carnival queen play.

Dandy Lion installation at Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Baltimore. Photograph courtesy of Jati Lindsay.

Dandy Lion installation at Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Baltimore. Photograph courtesy of Jati Lindsay.

Forthcoming Archive Image Projection campaign, Courtesy Autograph ABP (original portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London).

Forthcoming Archive Image Projection campaign, Courtesy Autograph ABP (original portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London).

Panels explored museums and archives, nostalgia, exoticism, black style, dandyism, cinema, stereotypes, and beyond. The inclusion of fashion designers Mimi Plange and Xuly Bët, history-making photographers J.D. Ojeikere and James Barnor, and presentations on topics as diverse as Ota Benga, Herero women, and Blackamoor figures, made for a rich mix of visual and intellectual stimulation. One of the most powerful images shown was during Renée Mussai’s presentation on Autograph ABP, a London-based photographic arts organization with an archive and research center. Autograph will be making their archive accessible to the public through forthcoming campaigns using large-scale, outdoor projections onto buildings and, in one of Mussai’s stunning examples, onto the surface of water. Another gasp-worthy moment at the conference was curator Shantrelle P. Lewis showing a 20 foot “dandy,” an enlargement of a photograph by Russell Frederick from the exhibition Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity. (Lesson here: size matters.)

Snow blankets the streets of Paris. Image courtesy of Tuliza Fleming

Snow blankets the streets of Paris. Image courtesy of Tuliza Fleming

Provocative moments from each day’s panels carried conversations out from the lecture halls into the streets, into dinners, and into evening events across the city. Questions lingered, like Simon Njami asking if “the black body” isn’t a metaphor, or a slogan?  “As long as the body is a stage, it is no longer someone’s body (to do what they want with it),” he suggested during his talk. “Whatever the body is staging, it is staging. It is not ‘the body’ anymore,” he continued. You could hear the quiet consideration and a collective “Hmmm” from those listening. A hush was coming over Paris. At the end of this second day, our mass of black and other bodies emerged out of sessions onto sidewalks blanketed with a January snow, still falling. More ideas piled up with the snow. A blustery whiteness slowed the city’s pace, but not the purpose of this gathering, and not the critical mass of bodies swirling in from far and near to speak for themselves on this world stage.

Michelle Joan Wilkinson
Michelle Joan Wilkinson

Michelle Joan Wilkinson is a writer and curator of Guyanese descent. She is currently the Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, where she has curated numerous exhibitions including A People’s Geography: The Spaces of African American Life and Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists. Her interests range from art and culture of the African Diaspora to architecture, design, and contemporary craft. Wilkinson has worked for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. She was named a 2012 fellow of the Center for Curatorial Leadership, and completed a short-term residency at the Design Museum in London as part of her fellowship activities.