black scholarship

“The Origins of Respect”

Introduction

Upon embarking on “The Origins of Respect,” my aim was to research the black body in our current socio-political climate and the careful ‘idealization’ thereof, necessary for preservation/survival. To find seeds for discussion, I set out to find a visual language of “double-consciousness”; a language that will/would most effectively expand the discourse of behavior and perception pertaining to the black, female body. In my visits to the African Art Museum (AAM) and National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), I discovered an incomprehensible amount of possible origins of the ‘ideal’ and evidence of their persistence through today. Ranging from tribal practices of coastal West Africa to Post-bellum black enterprise, the manifestations of European presence and ideals were ever undeniable. The Vitruvian standard usurped traditional standards of beauty in many parts of Africa and shaped them for the Diaspora. Through these observations, I began to find common threads that I could distill into three trains of thought.  Double Consciousness (1) and Respectability(2) became polar opposites and the liminal space (3) between them becomes the grounds for which these two ideas communicate.

“Double-Consciousness”

In addition to the Vitruvian Man, the idea most adherent to Double Consciousness came from a collection of Crest Masks from tribes local to the Cross River region of West Africa.. A pride in exaggerating otherwise realistic physical features of the people depicted, the most important trait of these masks, showed the ideal people of their society. I used the profile of the most stunning of these masks as the most active, yet least rounded identity. The title, “Broke the Duck: You’re pretty, for a black girl”, begins the explanation for this comes through the title of the piece. This comes from the sentiment that one’s identity traits and accomplishments must be hyphenated. It shows a persistent and widespread categorical habit that people can be distilled into being exceptional--for our race. This lack of equity takes anything that should be a point of pride and flattens it to mediocrity for reasons outside of our control, not the best--‘the best of…’

Respectability

The seedlings for the ‘Respectability-Inspired’ painting came from works and people ranging in origin from the transatlantic slave trade to postbellum American personalities/figures. Ideas and symbolism from nkishi of Congo, Buffalo Soldiers and Madam C.J. Walker’s hair products combine into the narrative seen in the piece titled “Buffaloed”. Nkishi are small to mid-sized carved figures filled with sacred herbs, covered in symbolic items for the sole purpose of channeling a spirit of healing. When Nkishi solve a problem, one must nail the problem into it. The more nails it has, the more effective and therefore powerful it becomes. Buffalo Soldiers were part of the Westward expansion after the Civil War. African American Union soldiers were incited to [really] earn their freedom by fighting another marginalized people (first nations people) after they had just won their freedom. The inspiration therein, derived from fighting against someone with your same interests in mind to become superior to the oppressed, never equal to those for whom you fight. Lastly, Madam C.J. Walker’s idea of “cleanliness” through the use of her hair straightening products as the key for advancement of blacks in America falls into a similar category and points to the main problem of respectability. Both the Buffalo Soldiers and those buying Walker’s supplies were told they themselves were the problem and that if they could just change a little more they would be closer up an exponential curve of not-good-enough. All three elements become key in not only in questioning depictions of derivative ideas in popular media and among peers, but fine art’s ability to broker these discussions.


Vitruvian Influence

Inspired by the dogma of the Vitruvian ideal, these pieces draw influence from the idea that if your skin color is not correct, you must behave in a certain to contort your way into some semblance of the ‘ideal’ with little to no avail. Both pieces show one woman, acting in ways beside or outside herself. In “Buffaloed,” the character is outside of herself, projecting her being into an identity seen as more worthy of respect. She has replicated herself to a degree but is still left [and right] behind. One steps to the side of the piece to see that she has reached the extent of what this ideal has shown (two hands, two arms) but in doing so they are removed from her own body. The green nail in her head gives two keys to the piece. One, the yellow girl becomes an Nkishi, embodying the answer to respectability. Two, one realizes there are only two eyes in the piece, one longing and the other aware. As for “Broke the Duck”, she herself is closer to the ideal, yet twice as aware of the perceptions involved in being based on her race over her being.