Project 4.7: Blackness

Read the chapter Fact of Blackness by Frantz Fanon on pages 417-420 of the course reader.

  • Fanon is writing from the point of view of a black colonial, a second class citizen in his own country (although in French Law he was a citizen of France.) What are his key points and how do these relate to visual culture?
  • Many artists of Afro-Caribean, African or Asian family origins working in Britain, the country of their birth, make work dealing with their take on, for want of a better term blackness. Find such a work and make notes and annotations to explain this. Chris Ofilli is just one such artist but there are many others.
  • As a black person Fanon describes himself as an ‘object’, by which he means in relation to non-white people who objectify him and everyone else without a white skin, by seeing only his colour rather than his person
  • In a colony he can only ever experience himself as an other, ‘being for others’
  • Being black is the result of not being white, and so in relation to others – one cannot exist outside of that
  • His culture has been wiped out as it did not sit with the culture that colonised him
  • “Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity” (418) i.e. Since I must consider my difference, I can only recognise it in relation to what it isn’t – it isn’t white
  • When we were looking at Lacan’s mirror we thought about how a child looks at itself and then recognises the image as self in the mirror. The child will imagine parts of itself, ultimately reaching/ achieving a gestalt. For Fanon, seeing himself as a black man and what that means for how he relates to the world and how it relates to him is integral to that – “in the middle of a spacial and temporal world”. We also considered the way in which people continue to see an image of themselves reflected in the eyes and expressions of others – a living mirror. Fanon, as with any non-white human being, living especially in a colonised world or where people have been displaced, discusses how his image is defined by the reflection he is faced with in Other. He describes this as a “definitive structuring of the self and of the world”
  • Fanon talks about the reaction he sees in white people who consciously or not imagine the very worst of him, believing in an historical narrative which reaches back to days of Empire when white explorers went off and returned with exotic and frightening ‘tales’ of what they had witnessed. “Mama, I see a negro! I am frightened!” (418)
  • Fanon compares his own plight with someone who is of Jewish descent and sees that a Jewish person has at least some possibility of hiding their ethnic history more readily than a non-white person can (In no way do I wish to diminish Fanon’s sense of separation from the ruling position of white (male) subject, but I suspect all Others feel that their Otherness is so entrenched it can never be reconciled or overridden in another or themselves to greater or lesser extents. However, I do see just how horrifically violent and destructive the legacy of slave ownership, and all that entails, has been for people)
  • Fanon also states that the fantastical tales about other Others who exist in society might not be quite as extreme as the ones that follow him around

It is difficult to see how to begin to practise actual critical writing in this section, as outlined in my previous post. I can never be qualified to argue against Fanon’s statements, and would never presume to do so either, because I am a white British middle class woman who grew up in apartheid South Africa, and who is acutely aware of the privilege all those factors afforded me, along with the degradation and pain involved for the vast majority of people living in that country. I was taught the most extraordinary nonsense in my white only school in history class, which attempted to obliterate people’s culture and background entirely. I grew up in exactly the sort of colonised country that Fanon describes. And even if I’d grown up here in the UK, the fact I have less melanin in my skin than he does means I can only imagine but never know the subjectivity of non-whiteness.

What I can say with certainty is people who don’t have Fanon’s experience, in Britain and the rest of the western world, dominate an economy which includes advertising agencies, photography, newspapers and magazines, Film and TV production companies, as well as the organisations that employ those services. It therefore requires awareness and constant vigilance to ensure that advertising and visual story-telling of all descriptions are consciously inclusive, and actively aim to avoid stereotypes. This has proved incredibly difficult and there is a general sense we fail as a community, even though there are some places where you can see an effort to address these issues. An advert I included in Project 4.5 at the very end which advertises teaching as a profession shows several white children and a white teacher. Other images from the same series can be seen elsewhere, also only showing white people. It is an astonishing failure in 2016.

Sonia Boyce

At Tate Liverpool, artist and professor in Fine Arts, Sonia Boyce is leading a research project aimed at valuing black British artists that have been overlooked. As well as unearthing artists, “BAM’s work, says Boyce, is to demystify Black or minority ethnic artists and bring them back into the conversation.” (Robertson, 2016) Boyce also works herself, and was a painter when she started but now incorporates a range of mediums including sound, photography, video, and live performance. In the 80s she played with stereotypes ‘appropriating them back’ and owning them herself, thereby deconstructing them. She now works with language and meaning. It is of particular interest that Boyce is so concerned with “diffuse individual authorship” (Google). In various videos online referring to her project Exquisite Cacophony, she talks about the process of collaboration, about how different people bring their ideas and influence to a project, and how each of them will take ownership in their own way. This ties in with Isabelle Mege’s project which I will look at in A4 shortly, as well as Barthes’ Death of an Author. Boyce’s interest in race seems less critical in her latest work than it was in the 80s. Nowadays she seems to be looking at more universal concerns but they are nevertheless very much linked to the way in which traditional world views are being replaced by less fixed definitions of power, status, and a move away from individualism.

Exquisite Cacophony” was produced for the 2015 Venice Biennial, at “All the World’s Futures, Central Pavilion, Giardini/Arsenale. The combination of rapping and Dada-inspired poetry may not be an obvious one, but Sonia Boyce’s film of a high-energy performance by the US rapper Astronautalis and the British vocalist and poet Elaine Mitchener reveals surprising parallels.” (Pryor, 2015)

I have only been able to watch a shortened clip of this performance and so the annotations are probably a little scant, if anything at all, but the work is relevant for lots of reasons, even though it doesn’t really deal with blackness, which we were asked to look for. As I said earlier, I do not feel qualified to deconstruct such a work and am also very interested in issues that arise out this one. Elaine Mitchener improvises sounds, song, scatting, poetry alongside Astronautalis who speaks. At the Venice Biennial where Exquisite Cacophony was shown there was a 40 minute live performance as well as the film which was recorded at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The ‘conversation’ is apparently nonsensical but meaning and connections are made anyway – the human desire to find meaning in arbitrary sounds is overwhelming. It is ever possible to remove meaning entirely? What’s more, when there seems to be most evidence or obviousness of meaning, surely this is where we must practise the highest levels of vigilance against imposing or accepting it. Exquisite Cacophony is reminiscent of Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire and Hugo Ball’s sound poem (which my friend David Wotton performed in a re-enanctment of the cabaret for Manchester University alongside three other actors, including me, in 1994 – I have a video but sadly the DVD drive on my Mac doesn’t work so I can’t include a clip on my blog for now). Ball believed “journalism and politics had irredeemably debased the meaning of words and that this was symptomatic of the wider decay of Western civilisation” (Merdre, 1997: 52) In Boyce’s film her collaborators improvised the performance  following a briefing. Unlike Hugo Ball’s performance they are not dressed up in a ludicrous costume, perhaps representing what he thought of politicians and newspaper people, but rather in a variation of formal black tie – albeit a more relaxed version in the film, and in ‘smart casual’ wear for the performance. There is something un-performative in the presentation. There is an element of acting of course, but it seems acknowledged and so there is no mystifying fourth wall. Like Semiotics of the Kitchen, lots of the usual theatrical or filmic conventions are ignored or not made use of, and so there is no invitation to suspend  belief, in the live performance at any rate. This leads to an alienating affect which should allow an audience to focus on the specifics of the piece. I do not know how the recorded version plays out but in photographs it looks as if the audience and equipment are included so it is probably safe to assume a similar set of decisions were made. The lack of artifice prevents a similar interpretation to Ball’s sound poem from being reached. Here the unfamiliar sounds begin to sound familiar and human relating becomes the focus, along with the way in which we communicate or don’t, and they way in which we create something new out of that communication.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University, pp.417-420.

Gale, M. (1997). Dada & surrealism. London: Phaidon, p.52.



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