Muse as Critic, Returning the Gaze from the Pedestal
I have always been drawn to the camera. My praxis as an artist, curator, critic and more recently I have adopted the term “muse” to describe elements of my relationship with photographers, has always aimed to develop and understand the complex relationship between black bodies and the all-pervasive white male imagination. How do we see ourselves outside of oppressive structures? Who are we without whiteness? The guilt and shame I faced as a Film undergrad, I felt like a traitor to my culture, selfishly dedicating my degree to a traditionally racist and elitist artform. I wanted to see new images and iterations of blackness that I felt were missing. I wanted to know what came before; I wanted to contribute to the conversation around what happens next. After an emotionally exhausting three years, I began the difficult transition from theory to practice.
At around the same time I started university, I discovered Tumblr. I initially saw it as an updated, sleeker, less popularity-driven version of Myspace. It very quickly became my ‘thing.’ I had never seen so many constructed images of black people in one space – physical or otherwise. Tumblr became my escape from the predominantly white middle class institution I felt isolated in from the moment D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was screened (first week of the first semester in an academic space) for me (the only black body for miles) to analyse and critique from a silently complicit “I know this is racist, but…” perspective. I didn’t belong there. The next three years were spent living between the confused hedonism of London nightlife, sporadic extracurricular creative breakthroughs in a rigorously academic bubble and this digital space I had so carefully curated, first for myself, then for my online peers. On my Tumblr, I subconsciously made the curatorial decision to exclusively share images that referred directly to black identity. Online / offline space became a hard dichotomy for me to negotiate as I became increasingly dependent on digital spaces and platforms to express the frustration and isolation I felt studying images every day that often fetishized and dehumanized black bodies, erased us from the narrative, silenced our voices. I soon realized I wasn’t at all alone; so many of us had been starved of images of black love and were ready to move away from this damaging model of visual politics called Hollywood. We as a generation it seemed were ready to think beyond this broken post-recession image industry clearly in decline.
The very first images I associate with the foundation of my current artistic and critical interests are of Grace Jones. She has always been an iconic reference point and constant source of inspiration: her Jamaican roots, international status and natural musicianship, her embodiment of New York’s 1980s downtown art world alongside her connection to European avant-garde circles led to the creation of some of the most iconic images of black queerness. Her body, image and perspective were refracted through the lenses of art and fashion’s most respected white male image-makers of the time. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Paul Goude all placed Jones and by extension, their white male imaginations of black femininity, masculinity and sexuality on a pedestal for the world to see. Her body and presence in these white avant-garde spaces created for artists and muses fascinated me. From her career beginnings as a fashion model in the upper echelons of New York and Paris nightlife, black critics in 2015 should be asking how complicit was Grace Jones in the creation of racist imagery credited to art director and ex-lover Jean-Paul Goude? Their relationship is surprisingly telling when examining the connections between black womanhood and white European fantasies of sexual liberation. He told People magazine in 1979, “Men think she’s sexy. Women think she’s a little masculine, so they’re not jealous. Gays think she’s a drag queen… She’s the manifestation of all my fantasies. She’s the face of the 80s.” During their romance, they worked closely together to create some of the most iconic representations of black modernism and queerness; the image of Grace Jones became larger than the New York underground nightlife circuit as she and Goude began to experiment with new characterizations of Grace Jones, the star and quintessential muse. She is still often described as “frightening” and “terrifying” by white audiences, a predictable knee-jerk racist response to black women’s sexuality, especially when that sexuality is not clearly defined but highly visible and intentionally projected without shame or apology. White artists, audiences and critics projected their anxieties about modernity onto Jones’ futurist perspective. These images also functioned as her album covers, a bold introduction to the world of music through art and fashion. Jones’ Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981) and Slave to the Rhythm (1985) extended her praxis as a disco performer to what was called “New Wave,” a music genre definitive that attempted to describe her innovative and unique hybrid of musical cultures. She worked closely with Jamaican producers Sly and Robbie to craft a timeless body of work that still continues to distort genre definitions. She became a prominent and assertive voice in an offensively white canon of rock ‘n roll music and constantly re-worked, updated and improved on original music by The Pretenders, Sting, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, an aesthetic move that from a black critical perspective is reclamation of black cultural artforms from oppressive structures.
What are some of the necessary critical frameworks we as black art critics have to implement in order to retrospectively and fairly reflect on Jones’ continuing cultural impact and legacy? Beyond particularly heartbreaking images of Jones jumping down a flight of stage steps in a gorilla costume (see the opening of her long-form music video One Man Show, directed by none other than Goude himself), there are so many more images that ask more relevant questions than “Is this racist?” We should aim to unpack some of the more complicated images where there is a clear dialogue between Jones, the white male imagination and black audiences and critics. Toni Morrison tells us, “Take away the gaze of the white male. Once you take that out, the whole world opens up.” What signifiers do images of Grace Jones communicate to black critics and audiences outside of these white avant-garde spaces? Complicit or not, her voice was never totally silenced and her involvement in the creation of herself in her own image makes her an important example of existing both within the white avant-garde, profiting from the visibility that comes with it while aesthetically and politically challenging those pre-existing structures.
The artist-muse relationship has always been a flawed and problematic descriptive term because not only do both labels fall along gendered lines, the white male imagination of the assumed white, male artist and his passive, blank canvas woman muse figure. It strips the muse of his or her agency and critical perspective, what happens when we examine the experience of one of the most iconic muses of our time and make the necessary critical interventions to return the gaze from the pedestal? In Grace Jones’ case, it shocks me how much of her work has been credited to the aforementioned white men, especially Jean-Paul Goude who has since gone on to re-imagine other ethnic muses in a brutally simplistic and dehumanizing way. His aesthetic, based on his work with Jones and several women of colour, centred on the dissection of the woman’s body. A problematic aesthetic viewpoint considering he claimed that he was captivated by “ethnic minorities—black girls, Puerto Ricans. I had jungle fever.” He now says, “Blacks are the premise of my work.” A disgusting sentiment considering where the financial and cultural profit and acclaim inevitably landed. The European white male imagination has proven itself to be traditionally voyeuristic, sinister and degrading. In 1982, Grace made an appearance on the cover of British music, fashion and culture magazine The Face wearing white foundation to give the inverse effect of blackface, blue eye contact lenses and a flaming red high top. She confronts Goude’s camera lens and the world with a smile, the lower half of the image revealing her black skin under a haunting white mask. What critical interventions can we make around this work? I think about Frantz Fanon’s title Black Skin, White Masks when faced with this image – where does Goude end and Grace begin? She confronts her identity, her blackness with the cynical adoption or imitation of the typical American cover girl, yet another beaming blue eyed white woman. Her whitened face is a chilling reminder of the cosmetics industry’s capitalization on racist assumptions of European beautification standards. There is poignancy in her ability, much like the most accomplished performers, to wear several masks that make white audiences and POC question what it is that makes them uncomfortable.
The most visible Black artists have historically had white patrons. The Harlem Rennaisance of the 1920s established a generational model of patron-artist, artist-muse relationships between young black artists and white benefactors and friends. Andy Warhol is a prime example; he used his visibility as “the most important artist of the 20th century” to “introduce” his muses to the public sphere. Consider some of Warhol’s most well-known black muses; Grace Jones, Andre Leon Talley, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Diana Ross. Each of these artists as individuals made significant contributions to the worlds of art, fashion and music. Predominantly white avant-garde, faux-utopian spaces like Studio 54 and Warhol’s Factory gave artists like Jones a platform to embody what Caribbean art historian Petrine Arthur-Shaw describes in her illuminating Negrophilia: Avant Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, “they promoted black culture as an alternative to Europe’s bourgeois values and conservatism. Blacks were seen as dynamic, non-conformist and subversive. Whether perceived as African or African-American, primitive or modern, blacks provided other models of living.” These alternative lifestyle models go hand in hand with making black bodies commodities for the exclusive consumption of the predominantly white ruling classes. It’s no coincidence that most artist-muse relationships do not just fall along lines of gender but also intersections of race and class, black art critics and historians have a responsibility to rescue black muses from erasure. Consider the aforementioned Warhol muses in relation to their involvement with Black community-based political movements in America at the time, does visibility in a predominantly white art and fashion world come at the cost of alienating yourself as a black artist from the rest of your community? The Black Arts Movement, founded by Amiri Baraka in the early 1960s as an artistic branch of the Black Power Movement is an example of an aesthetic movement that centred its ethos staunchly outside of these white spaces, it’s manifesto describes their intentions as “radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community.”
I’m thinking about myself and other black contemporary artists and muses who, in many instances, are using the primary resource of our generation, the internet and social media, in radical ways to dismantle the parasitic cultural bond between a white image-making industry and our black bodies. I am always concerned about what the increased visibility of my curatorial collective The Lonely Londoners and the diasporic community of artists we belong to means in relation to our original praxis of inclusivity for other marginalized young artists who mostly utilise the internet and social media to organise, build and mobilise. Black women artists in particular, Cecile Emeke, Amaal Said, Juliana Huxtable and Adriana Monsalve, are creating and reclaiming space with their work, each of them encouraging me to ask the question: how useful is the term “muse” today when we struggle to move away from a problematic hierarchy in image making? A hierarchy established by a white avant-garde that prides itself on racial and gender exclusivity. Since tentatively transitioning from behind to in front of the camera lens, I’ve had to consider like so many black muses before me how my presence and resulting images of my body contribute to the conversation around blackness, queerness, masculinity and femininity. Artist Hari Nef wrote about Huxtable’s participation in fashion, “she forces her representation into the present… I’ve learned from her ambivalence–from her refusal to participate in what doesn’t serve, respect, or fortify her.” I have almost exclusively worked with black women photographers partly due to a valid distrust of the white male imagination and to challenge the conventionally male-as-artist / woman-as-muse dichotomy. It is important that we are able to function naturally in every art space and institution because radical black visibility both within and outside of avant-garde spaces is not just necessary but vital for the change needed in visual culture. The game has changed, our voices are a part of the conversation and we decide what happens next.
This essay has been published in partnership with ARTS.BLACK.