Iwishiwas - Post-Black Aesthetics, Post-Black or Post-colonial?
by Nana Adusei-Poku
Iwishiwas is the name of the piece by Afro-German artist Philip Metz, a photograph and portrait of a “self” and certainly much more than a wish – it also represents a biographic document, that raises questions about our contemporary conditions of being-in-the-world as Black (1) subjects. The short agglutination iwishiwas (“Ich wünscht ich wär”) represents a longing to escape a current situation.
In this article I am discussing the parameters of how to approach contemporary Black artists in the diaspora. By doing so, I propose the term post-black as one way of describing a generation of artists, who deliver new ways of defining idea(s) of Blackness.
Taking a Closer Look
The photograph confronts the spectator with clean and harsh exposure, the subject portrayed sits in a black T-shirt in front of a white background. The person appears to be of male gender, the blond hair shines a bit too glossy and seems neither to correlate with his complexion nor does the hairline fall natural. He stares at the spectator and his gaze appears empty, because there is not a glimpse of gesture in his facial expression. The eyes seem veiled behind a mask, though there is none. “Is this a passport picture”, one may ask, particularly since no smiling is compulsory for the biometric passport picture. Is this person real or is it a plastic doll? Have we not seen this style of hair in the 1980s window-displays on male mannequins? What is the connection between the portrait of this apparently white man with blue eyes, pink cheeks and rose lips and the yearning that I have described in the beginning? I felt uncomfortable when I first encountered the portrait because of the emptiness of the Gaze, the clarity of exposition and the familiarity of the subject portrait. The uncanniness has not left me yet; “iwishiwas” echoed in my mind, I wish I was what? This man, the cold light? When you have a closer look at this, it becomes clear that the man in the picture wears heavy makeup; the shiny hair is a wig; his eyebrows are retouched and the apparently empty blue eyes are blue because of the concealing effect of blue contact lenses.
I am reading this art piece as a kind of biographical document and at the same time as a visual testimonial which needs a reading outside of a predominantly identity focused approach. Equally Darby English expressed this kind of approach when he says: “It is no less convincing than ever to speak of Black artists as if they share an enterprise. The work of Black artists for whom questions of culture are subject but not an end in visualising or representing race/identity obligates us to displace race from its central location in our interpretations of this work. More, it recommends a turn towards the subjective demands that artists place on the multiple categories they occupy, and that we grant this multiplicity right of place in our methodologies.”(English 2007, 12)
In this paper, I will apply both aspects that English describes. In other words, I take into account the context of the work and its subjective claim and at the same time emphasise similarities within a broader network of aesthetic productions.
Philip Metz is an Afro-German artist and the man that we see in this portrait in masquerade or reversed Blackface (a.s. Micosse-Aikins 2011) is the artist himself. One can even go one step further and argue that he performs Ethnic Drag as coined by Katrin Sieg. However, he does so in a deconstructive fashion, as opposed to a form of identity (re-)establishment (Sieg 2002). Because Sieg’s argument about Ethnic Drag predominantly focuses on white identities performing the other in order to consolidate a post-war idea of white Germanness.(2)
The photograph documents his past desire to become a white person with blond hair and blue eyes when he was twelve years old growing up in Germany’s south in the 1970s, as he explained in several conversations. The idea of looking white thus grew about three years before May Ayim, Katarina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz published Showing our Colours. This was the first book that focused on the biographies of Afro-German women and coined the term “Afro-German”, as an expression of self-empowerment. I am mentioning this publication as it is important to realise in which cultural landscape Metz formed this idea, one in which Black German identities were exposed to a total denial of their existence.
Although the idea for this piece was planted very early in Metz' career, its realisation was only possible through the temporal distance to externalise this racialised desire. Today this appears as absurd to Metz. Some voices may argue that we are looking at an internalised inferiority complex, but the fact that the artist exposes the racialised desire opposes this notion. The desire to have light skin has many sources and cannot be read solely within causal logics. The discourse that iwishiwas touches upon is much more complex and subtle as it appears to be, because it offers a contemporary Afro-German perspective, that can be linked with the idea of post-black. It works through the reverse, the invisible, the mirroring of desires and cultural constructions of beauty and power and thus depicts a German perspective that calls and challenges on the spectators to reflect about identity per se.
The artist and photography theorist Deborah Willis argues in her book Posing Beauty, in which she traces the understanding of beauty from 1890 to the present, that the tradition of portraying Black beauty in photography has not only been marginalised, but it also reflects cultural and political conditions through the way “black beauty in photography […] is posed, constructed, imagined and reviewed and contested in art, the media and everyday culture” (Willis 2009, xv) (3). Whereas Willis emphasises the self-representation of Black individuals, Metz in contrast indicates the symbolic violence that is and was drawn upon Black subjects in Germany through the constant denial of being beautiful or having the position of a legitimate existence.
Hence, the idea of being beautiful can be read as a constant affirmation process of existence. Furthermore, the violent denial of a Black presence is not just about the renunciation of beauty, but also it is bound to the notion of unbelonging. In this way, he deconstructs the idea of Whiteness as well as Blackness through the reverse Blackface. In other words, Metz uses in iwishiwas a strategy of visual representation (Hall 1997), which is usually applied onto bodies that are culturally constructed as the other. Blackface represents the brutal practice of minstrel in which white actors paint their face with black dye like charcoal in order to perform racialised stereotypes on stage (Bean 1996; Sotiropoulos 2006; Ochieng’ Nyongó 2009). These performers stage predominantly cabaret and comedy pieces and a smiling/grinning face is one of its key-characteristics. However, this notion is reversed by Metz severe look that allows no amusement.
Metz visual vocabulary takes us back to artists like i.e. American Cindy Sherman (i.e. Untitled 2002) and the Ghanaian Samuel Fosso (i.e. African Spirits 2009), as well as the aesthetics of French Jean-Paul Goude and Jamaican Grace Jones (i.e. Grace Reviewed and Corrected). But his work differs from its predecessors by turning himself into the desired object. For the desire becomes externalised as well as materialised, despite being contained within the hermetic temporality of the photograph.
Iwishiwas read as a biographic document creates a link to Michelle Wright’s analysis of biographies by Black Germans. She analyses Hans Jürgen Massaquoi’s book called "Destined to Witness" as an example of a Black German subject formation during National-Socialism, which is embedded in a nationalist discourse grounded on gender binaries. This observation is contrasted with Ika Hügel Marshall’s post-war narrative in "Daheim Unterwegs", who defines her subject position ”as produced by temporal and geographic intersections that can never fully be stable as they cannot fully rest on their ultimate reference race and nation” (Wright 2010, 280–281). As a son of an African migrant, Metz’ portrait iwishiwas requires an update on as well as an investigation into the contemporary condition of Black subjects and artists in Germany and else where.
Post-Black but Not Yet Post-Race
Linked to this update, the question comes into play if we are dealing with a post-colonial, decolonial or rather black condition? (4) This question derives from the difficulty to apply a concept of Diaspora and Blackness. On the one hand, this is primarily based on the narratives of the Middle Passage. On the other hand, Germany proves to have a short but nonetheless sustaining colonial history.
One important aspect of the following discussion has to be foregrounded; I am not talking about post-race. Post-race simply does not exist because it asks for a vanishing of difference per se. Difference in the context of this article is referred to as a concept that sees our societies within a classificatory system in which difference structures and orders our societies. I think that it is equally important to recognise that post-race is not institutionally performed. The utopic assumption that we have entered the post-race era shows how contested and politically charged the discussions about post-black are and that the desire for a post-racism is on its forefront.
Let me define post-black: the term derives from a curatorial concept by Glenn Ligon and Thelma Golden, the curators of the exhibition Trilogy Freestyle (2001), Frequency (2006) and Flow (2008) (5) at the Studio Museum Harlem New York.
The term became the centre of a critical debate (Byrd 2002; Taylor 2007; Oliver 2005) dominated by US-American scholars and artists. This designation entered the public discourse and it was misattributed as it was known to most US-Americans through president Obama’s election and the idea that his election ignited a post-black era. The term fell into a trap of collective misattribution without even being connected to its primary framing that derives from the art world. Looking further, Golden described “[...] ’post-black’, at first, as a description of artists who were adamant about not being labelled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness” (Golden 2001, 14). Despite its innovative promise, post-black was not really a new term, as the art-historian Robert Farris Thompson already noted in 1991 that: “A retelling of Modernism to show how it predicts the triumphs of the current sequences would reveal that ‘the Other’ is your neighbour – that black and Modernist cultures were inseparable long ago. Why use the word, ‘post-Modern’ when it may also mean ‘postblack’” (Thompson 1991, 91). Thompson points towards the close liaison of the development of Modernism in the West and its borrowing and influence through African and diasporic art, but he also – with reference to Emmanuel Lévinas (6) – opens a space for thought at a time in which diversity, multiculturalism and its multiplicity of perspectives come into the awareness of politics and intellectual thought. Post-black has thus many meanings, it is a “multiplicity of multiplicities”(Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Touré 2011, 5) embedded in the concept of Blackness and its assumed identities, difference and subsequently race.
A difficulty and limit of post-black is, that it does not offer a particular coherent narrative or form. However, I argue that this is exactly the challenge that Black subjects face today. The described multiplicity transcends the experience of alienation and discrimination within these biographies class and space. The art that is described as post-black is much too diverse to claim a congruent style. Nevertheless, is it possible to look at it as a diasporic phenomenon which would thus include Philip Metz and his work.
Therefore I argue that post-black aesthetics uses the historical legacy of epistemic oppression i.e. not to be part of the idea of Modernity, which the postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy successfully opposed in his book the “Black Atlantic” by emphasising the dependence of the idea of Modernity on the Transatlantic Slave Trade.Equally by epistemic oppression, I am talking about the denial of Fanon’s proposed sociogeny, by which Fanon tried to understand human beings within a framework that includes socio-economic factors in order to understand the development of men (7). Post-black aesthetics translate this legacy into the use of materials and images. These are easily accessible in order to highlight their simultaneous construction hinting to a notion of nihilism.
Iwishiwas visually paraphrases the symbolic violence that Fanon expresses and deconstructs it as ad absurdum. I am using the concept of nihilism, as discussed by Cornel West when he writes "Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophical doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority: it is far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness" (West 2001, 14). Cornel West points out that there is a clear lack of significance and meaning within the Black community; he prepends his thoughts by saying that this nihilism is the result of a series of systematic symbolic and institutional violence against Black human beings. Moreover, this goes along with the strategic exclusion from the capitalist system of the United States (West 2001, 16).
I am reading the afore mentioned disobedience as a response to the described nihilism. Black artists today use the categories of race and Black by deconstructing these categories. As a result, the question of race is somehow moved out of the centre of the reading and creates a visual disobedience. The term disobedience is inspired by decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo’s concept of epistemic disobedience. It describes an intellectual movement against the way in which western concepts of Modernity produce practices and orders of racialization, gender, and/or sexualities. Thus, epistemic disobedience stands for alternative subjectivities and set of practices.
In contrast to previous definitions (Golden 2001; Womack 2010; Touré 2011), I argue that post-black is an attempt to describe a social condition, an aesthetic form as well as a way of thinking. Post-black artists strategically (Certeau 1984) use similar categories as the queer of colour critique (Cohen 1997; Ferguson 2004; Ahmed 2006; Munoz 2009) and synchronically elaborate their construction. This opens a new space to think about identity and visual culture. This similarity to queer theory can be emphasised by Jose Munoz: “Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. Often we can glimpse the world’s proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic.“ (Munoz 2009, 1)
The interconnectivity or diasporic relationality (Campt 2009) becomes clearer through the following example by Ebony G. Patterson, who is currently on show with her piece Untitled Species I at the Studio Museum Harlem show named Caribbean Crossroads of the World. Although with different media and scale questions the Jamaican-born artist shows notions of Black masculinity and here particularly within Jamaican Dancehall Culture. The large scale collage shows the portrait of an apparently Black man wearing sunglasses. His body consists of a collage of differently shaded patterns. I would like to only highlight the contrast between the light face and the rest of the dark body and the red lips, which creates the same effect of reverse Blackface as mentioned earlier in Philip Metz’ work. The eyes of the portrait figure are equally masked (if we consider Metz’ contactlenses as a mask) which deindividualises the portrait. The similarity of the two portraits shows that desire for light skin and the images of hegemonic views on beauty and desireability are more connected to the sphere of experience than to the ideas of cultural topography, nation or location and have to be contextualised.
Part of the title of this paper is “post-black or post-colonial”, a provocative question because there is no ‘either - or’ – the contemporary condition is both at the same time. If post-colonial is seen through a linear timeframe – the answer is “yes”; the former colonial empires do not exist anymore if we understand the term colonial as “geographic expansion”. But if post-colonial is defined in the aftermath of colonialism including the economic exploitation of former colonies and inequalities, which has not found its end and persists through “Postcolonial Melancholia” – as described by Gilroy (2004, 96, 106), the answer has to be “yes” as well. Active post-colonial thinkers try to analyse with continuous efforts about the enduring effects and inequalities of colonialism and its aftermath. Here, I have to verify that post-colonial deliberations are part of the discussion on Metz’ work. Therefore, it should rather be a question of when and how to apply which term.
The Black diaspora cannot exclusively be defined by the Middle Passage. In effect, the Black German diaspora traces its beginnings to Europe’s African colonial history - human beings that were brought to Germany as “gifts” or as “evidence” that the colonizers have been to Africa and later through migrants from the African continent who have stayed in Germany (El-Tayeb 2001). Black Germans do not necessarily conform to the preferred narratives of the Diaspora. The history of the Black German presence reminds us of the gaps and inconsistencies in any concept of “diaspora”. For instance, the Middle Passage has been also used as a framework in order to unify all Black people across cultural and historic differences.
Post-colonial thinkers like Stuart Hall (i.e.1997), Edward Said (1978; 1994), Homi Bhabha (1994), Gayatri Spivak (1990), Leopold Senghor (2011), Silvia Wynter (2000), Frantz Fanon (2008; 2007) or Edouard Glissant (1997) have vividly influenced our contemporary cultural landscapes and this knowledge has also found its way into the art world through the notion of a “decolonial” perspective as proposed by Walter Mignolo (2000; 2003; 2012) or Ramon Grosfoguel (2007). Part of the post-black idea is that it constantly questions normative ideas about the subject and tries to generate knowledge outside of the parameters of the Enlightenment. It therefore aims for a transformation of Eurocentric epistemologies and highlights the significance of productions of knowledge in different (local) geopolitical contexts.
In conclusion, when I started introducing post-black, I mentioned the misattribution and migration of the concept. It is a difficult and ambiguous term but it challenges us to open new discussions regarding the conditions of our existence as Black subjects in the present. If we exist in a multiplicity of multiplicities, why re-main in a dialectic idea of the self and collective? This is the question that most of these artists challenge us to ask by showing their individual perspectives of “being-in-the-world”, including historical legacies and interconnectivities through experience.
Iwishiwas creates disruptions and disturbances because it portrays a society that has not managed to adjust its ideological concepts of beauty and belonging to its ideal of national identity. However, it has to be emphasised that Metz abandoned this idea by externalising it. This is the moment where something new begins that we have not even started to theorise yet, nor do we have created the right vocabulary. Post-black is just one proposition.
(1) I write black with capital B in order to refer to the political and historical dimension of the idea of Blackness and take only an indirect reference to complexion. White in contrast is not highlighted, because it indistincts the dimension of Black as a political empowerment.
(2) Also see for the US-American context: Rogin 1992.
(3) Tina Campt argues very similary in her latest monographic publication Image Matters 2009.
(4) The way in which contemporary Black artists are represented in Germany is marginal and exhibitions that focus only on Black artists are exceptional. Contemporary African Art in contrast is predominantly shown in group-shows like Afrika Remix (Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf 2005), A short Century (Villa Stuck, München 2001) or Who Knows Tomorrow (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin 2008) et.al.
(5) In November the fourth show of the series “FORE” will open soon, with works by i.e. Toyin Odutola, Jennifer Packer and Zachary Fabri.
(6) Emmanuel Lévinas writes about the intersubjective encounter: „The Other becomes your neighbor pre-cisely through the way the face summons me, begs form, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question.“ (Lévinas 1989, 83) Thompson borrows from this observation and emphasises Western ignorance by not giving the other a subject status.
(7) Fanon clarifies sociogeny as a form of sosciodiagnostic when he writes: "Reacting against the constitutionalist tendency of the late nineteenth century, Freud insisted that the individual factor be taken into account through psychoanalysis. He substituted for a phylogenetic theory the ontogenetic perspective. It will be seen that the black man's alienation is not an individual question. Beside phylogeny and ontogeny stands sociogeny ..."(Fanon 2008, 11).
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Nana Adusei-Poku is an award winning lecturer, who teaches a course on Post-colonial, Gender, Queer Theory and Visual Culture at the University of the Arts Zurich. She is a doctoral fellow at Humboldt University, Berlin.
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