Sunday, March 6, 2011

Definitions of the Self

Definitions of the Self (12x12in acrylic on canvas, 2011)

Yo! I'm back this week to show and explain the concept behind one of the works I showed at the TU gallery last month, 'Definitions of the Self' (click the photo to see it big). I'm proud of this piece because it communicates, which is what I've been striving for. When I found out that I had been invited to be part of the 5 Artists 1 Love show, the only restriction on content put forth by the curator, Darren W Jordan, was that each featured artist submit one 12x12 piece inspired by the words 'Black People', since the show was in February, which is Black History Month. To me, the phrase 'Black People' is a complicated one - it is used all the time in media and pop culture to describe a specific group of people, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't know exactly who that group was. Which is more relevant to membership within the group, the darkness of one's skin or how quickly someone can trace their ancestry to Africa or the Caribbean? Are albinos born in Africa still considered black? And importantly, who gets to decide what's 'Black' and what's not?

It seems to me that there are a lot of people attempting to define the group called 'Black People', and since I am counted within this group, I am especially curious about how it is defined in popular media, as these popular views are reflected on me, and have powerful impact on how others perceive me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how potent this topic was. The work I created for the event was based on these ideas. I chose to use strong symbols because I believe they have a gravity that is appropriate for the weighty nature of the message. In the background, I first scrawled some racial slurs specific to Black people, then covered it over with white paint. These were and are used by some to define Black people, but where I'm from, these phrases have mostly been left to the past, although subtler and sometimes more dangerous forms of racism definitely still exist.

I then carefully scrawled the Oxford English Dictionary (6th Edition) definition of the word 'Black' onto the background. Dictionaries are usually seen as the official source for the definition of a word, and thus hold a lot of power in their ability to decide the semantics of, or 'shape of meaning' of any given word. Malcom X, a very important figure in the ongoing battle to define the qualities of Black people as a group, read the dictionary while he was incarcerated because he wanted to get educated. He came across the definition of the word 'Black' and was shocked when he realized the depth and power of the semantics involved. 'Black' is a word identified, according to the O.E.D. 6th Edition, as being associated in some form or another with 'distress', 'despair', 'anger or hatred', as well as being used to describe a specific group of people. Some may attempt to explain this away by saying these different definitions are not associated because they are used separately in different contexts, but Malcom X knew that this ambiguous definition had much impact on the perception (and self-perception) of Black people, and that these separate definitions had a subtle way of bleeding into one another. I tried to illustrate this through the way the letters connect to each other, pulling each other around the page, creating pockets of seemingly unrelated text, and making the definitions increasingly difficult to read as separate articles. I made a few small changes as well – I reversed the order of two of the articles in the definition for emphasis, and I changed the spelling of the word 'Coffee' to 'Coffy' in order to reference the movie I took the Pam Grier image from.

The final layer I painted, the two figures in the foreground facing off with shotguns, is a heated battle to define 'Black People' as a group. On the left is Pam Grier, famed Hollywood actress who first made her name by doing a series of influential Blaxpoitation movies. Blaxpoitation as a genre is important because it was really the first time in mainstream media where movies were being made largely by Black actors, directors, and producers for Black audiences, and thus had a huge influence on the popular perceptions of Black people, both within and outside the group. Black people were, for the first time, being cast as people in positions of power – taking control of their situations, defeating whatever oppressor was cast, and often dealing out heavy doses of social justice along the way, 'Coffy' being one example. Pam was primarily cast as a strong female lead throughout her career, and had a lot to do with defining Black women in the popular eye.

On the right, the other character with a shotgun is pulled from an old Warner Brothers cartoon called 'All That and Rabbit Stew', which apparently has been discontinued and largely covered up by Warner Brothers, although finding a clip from the cartoon is as easy as visiting Youtube. This character is an example of 'Sambo' style depictions of Black people - they have pale palms and their lips are light and massively oversized. This cartooning style has been used in the past to ridicule and denigrate Black people in popular media, and thus also played an important role in the definition of this group. After doing some research, I chose this particular example of Sambo caricature to add another layer of meaning because I found out that this character was inspired by Stepin Fetchit. This was the stage name of Lincoln Perry, who happened to be the first Black actor to get screen credit, as well as the first to make a million dollars, all from playing stereotypical roles of servitude and ineptitude to a largely white audience. There is some argument about whether he played these roles over-the-top with ironic intent, which complicates the symbol in an interesting way.

In the end, I'm trying with this piece to show that any group, not just Black people, has forces from the outside and within all struggling with one another for the power to define the group for themselves, and not have another's definition imposed upon them, because this definition of self is the basis of how we interact with one another and with society as a greater whole. 'Nah mean? Word. Thanks for stickin around, and hopefully I wasn't too long winded with this one - it's a complicated issue, and I'm still working on getting it figured out myself. Check back soon for the next unrevealed pieces from the TU gallery show!! Addendum: Peep this poignant song/video on a similar topic - it's called Brothers by Canadian rapper Shad, who is a genius.

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