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Black Visuality in the Arts: Agency in the Unseen

Portraitures have been foundational in making a person visible and recognizable. In creating portraits, Black artists are able to make their experiences legible, to enforce into the viewer’s imagination aspects of who they are, who they want to be, and what they desire. However, this Black legibility in artwork is vigorously policed and bounded by expectations and white consumption. Black artists are pressured to create not for themselves but for the world. Thus, their artworks are often misconstrued, categorized, surveilled, and forcibly labeled to cater and pander to wider, often white, audiences. Under capitalism, Black artists are constantly contending with the fact that what they produce becomes commodified, further hindering creative self explorations and imaginations. So, what does it mean for Black artists to deviate from white expectations of consumability? To redefine and reclaim their art by resisting the traditional practice of legibility, portraiture, looking, and knowing? It was these questions that came to mind when I went to see Defying the Shadow last semester.

Defying the Shadow was an art exhibit displayed at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD Museum) exploring the interiority and non-legibility of Blackness and Black life through anti-portraiture and visages. The exhibit featured photography, etchings, screenprint, lithograph, and paper collages, incorporating the works of well-known artists including Kara Walker, Gordon Parks, Lorna Simpson, and Roy DeCarava. Many pieces displayed in Defying the Shadow spoke to me in their refusal to be perceived and consumed. The exhibit’s lack of labels represented the rejection of categorization and white access, formulating a Black visuality that resisted the white gaze and encouraged a deeper engagement in Blackness itself. One piece that does this effectively was captured by Black American artist Roy DeCarava. DeCarava was a critically acclaimed Black photographer known for developing Black and white fine-art photography. This type of photography uses Black and white imaging of a person, place, or object to enunciate emotional expressions, interiority, and creative sensibilities. Using this technique, DeCarava captured the lives of African American jazz musicians, local residents of Harlem, and the environment that reflected racial and social inequality during the mid 20th century.

What drew me to DeCarava’s piece – titled Untitled – was how he utilized this technique to create a Black gaze. Tina Campt, who is the current Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, explored this gaze in her book entitled A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See. In A Black Gaze, Campt articulated that in reconceptualizing and transforming a white, colonial lens to a more nuanced, complicated lens of Black interiority and depth, Black artists produces a “Black gaze” that shifts “the optics of ‘looking at’ to a politics of looking with, through, and alongside another.” A Black gaze disrupts normative, compulsive notions of looking, giving care and meaning to bodies that have been historically dehumanized. It is this disruptive gaze that I would like to explore in Untitled.

Untitled portrays a shirtless Black man with glasses sitting down looking to the left side of the frame. He is sitting in a space that may be a living or family room and his shoulders are bent over, as he leans in a curved position from his chair. Behind him resembles a windowpane, and within it, a reflection, perhaps of what is on the opposite side of the room. His facial expression reveals conflicting, deep emotions that one can not translate into words. He remains inaccessible, hidden, refusing to be fully seen. Shadows linger across his body, troubling the viewer’s perception. It is this refusal to be made legible, which symbolizes the unknown man’s agency from the onlooker. This agency, cultivated in inconspicuousness, produces a Black gaze.

Interestingly, DeCarava’s work in Untitled made his subject, a Black man, unreadable for his viewers. What does this do for the viewers who can not make sense of the piece? How are we supposed to feel after engaging with a photograph that refuses to follow the conventionalities of perceiving? In viewing this piece, I stopped for a moment and questioned why I was working so hard to understand Untitled. What about it made me want to ask what’s this piece trying to say? What agency is created when Blackness becomes non-legible to the viewer? In what ways does Blackness become readable and unreadable simultaneously? I traversed these questions in my mind, coming to the notion that Blackness constitutes the seen and unseen, the visible and invisible, the said and unsaid. These dichotomies persistently divest and defy stereotypical perceptions of Blackness, rather, transcending the viewer to a visuality undergirded in a Black gaze.

Defying the Shadow expanded the ways of exploring Black visuality and interiority through a Black gaze, beautifully portrayed by Roy DeCarava’s piece Untitled. Black artists have creatively engaged in new means of expressing themselves and their bodies that contest oppressive notions of perceiving and capitalistic expectations of consumption. Experiencing this exhibit last semester enriched my knowledge of Black visuality and agency through the unseen and non-legible. I find inspiration and power in not ‘looking at’ Black bodies as objects but ‘looking with and through’ these bodies as beautiful, complex, beings of life.

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