Objects Made Black

From Art Journal 73, no. 3 (Fall 2014)

Huey Copeland. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 280 pp., 65 color ills., 82 b/w. $49, also avail. as e-book.

Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America
Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America

Bound to Appear is not about the comforts of representation. In other words, this work does not circle back to dominant representations that erase the violent and untenable realities of being black. This ruse of representational access suggests that black experience is penetrable, relatable, and speakable. This book is definitely not about recuperative or romantic understandings of black experience, black artists, or black art writ large. In short, it doesn’t make us feel good. Instead, it leads us to the limits of representational discourse, to something deeper and more opaque. This book is about the antiportrait, everyday objects with violent histories, and installations that call attention to how the visual field is always already touched by blackness, if not saturated by it.

Huey Copeland articulates the uncomfortable and often purposefully neglected shared genealogy between the materialized object and the black body. As Hortense Spillers so brilliantly details in her iconic 1987 article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”—a piece of writing that Copeland himself returns to throughout Bound to Appear—this shared genealogy between objects and black bodies can be traced to the Middle Passage, where human cargo was accounted for based on its quantifiable relationship to money.1 This system of valuation translated across varying objects in the ship’s hold, from barrels of sugar to black captives, where worth was determined based on rules of accounting (72). Thus, the Middle Passage marks an attempted ontological and epistemological equivalence between black sentient beings and objects extracted for trade. This desired and imposed equivalence, though limited in its ability to account for how and when these black “things” resist, lingers both structurally and visually within contemporary art.

Copeland’s book turns to site-specific installations executed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, years that geopolitically also generated a peculiar discursive and material turn toward “multiculturalism” and “globalization”—terms often said to embody cultural formations of the decade. This turn often praised cultural formations that attended to apolitical meditations on the diasporic, and often away from the specificity of blackness in the United States. Copeland turns to Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, and Renée Green, whose works critique the romance afforded to the discourse of multicultural diaspora precisely through their centralization of slavery as an originary diasporic practice, the foundational entry into modernity, and the primary zone of racialization.

Copeland examines multiple works by this cohort of black American artists whose oeuvre marks how blackness was and is structured by slavery through their uses of installations that foregrounded the body (both in terms of flesh and object)—its presence, absence, and abjection—in all its subjection and radical capacity. Each chapter leads us into strategies for materializing slavery and its afterlives, as well as for reconceptualizing the terms of black freedom.

In chapter 1, we are introduced to Wilson’s work as it posits a particular rhetoric of redress that accounts for how his famed juxtapositions are usually read. Copeland insists that Wilson’s best-known show, Mining the Museum (1992), is often hailed precisely because it is said to register the “speech of reformist grievance” that is a legible and even acceptable way to package black suffering, even while Wilson stages moments of immense, incomprehensible loss that works against the grain of reformism itself (21). In this reading, Copeland extends Wilson’s work by positing Wilson’s ability to adjust vision through the language of redress. By this means, Wilson stages “rhetorics of reparative speech” as a demonstration of black approaches to figuration that open up new conditions of possibility for seeing, hearing, or feeling black suffering in ways that do not register upon arrival (26).

For example, in a compelling argumentative turn, Copeland details Wilson’s display of a large unglazed clay water jug made around 1830 by a slave named Melinda. The jug was placed alongside other examples of “slaves’ creative labor” in a darkened hallway near the close of the exhibition (49). Copeland describes the jug’s presence as a particular turn in Wilson’s methodology of display, in which the object is placed without the sort of sonic, textual, or archival juxtapositions that appear elsewhere throughout Mining. The jug’s presentation, as the “recalcitrant fact of the thing itself,” recalibrates the viewer’s sight in such a way that one is urged to think through the history of objects, objecthood, and blackness as a history of sentient thingness imbued with radicality (49). Or, as Copeland so brilliantly illuminates, Melinda’s jug extends Martin Heidegger’s jug, as it offers an “opportunity both to hear things in all of their radical alterity and to apprehend the flesh that undergirds the historical construction of objecthood” (50).

While Wilson’s uses of objects often stage comprehensible models to account for black grievance, Copeland suggests in his second chapter that Simpson’s work aims to haunt the viewer, and therefore works within the racialized and sexualized excesses of black pain. In his discussion of Simpson’s Five Rooms (1991), Copeland unfolds how the history of slavery aligns with the history of the object. He offers us a psychoanalytic analysis of the materialized object that we can use in art history—one that tracks how transitional objects (as theorized by Donald Winnecott), part-objects (Melanie Klein), and malignant objects map directly onto Simpson’s particular figuration of the black body. According to Copeland, Simpson’s Five Rooms applies objects as extensions of (rather than departures from) her earlier figurative bodies in antiportraits such as Guarded Conditions (1989). Her use of rice, water, and dolls is staged to make present the black female body, while also activating gestures toward the “alreadymade” quality of blackness with or without figures, objects, bodies, or artworks that maintain its presence. In an exceptional turn on the art-historical embrace of the Duchampian readymade, Copeland rhetorically assembles how in Five Rooms, “blackness is ‘alreadymade,’ capable of being evoked with the lightest of touches” (99). As alreadymade, blackness is a historical object/subject/feeling/being that reaches far before the 1913 call to see commodities in other lights, stagings, and presentations. The lightness of touch refers to both the haptic weight of Duchamp’s heavy-handedness and the color of his epidermis—both epistemologically referenced in Simpson’s works with or without the figure and always through the material objects of slavery and its afterlives. In other words, the natural world of trees is colored by the haptic and epidermal weight of lynching; each grain of rice transfigured by both commodity and communion as crucial components to the slave economy; and the clarity of water marked with the opacity of slaves who jumped overboard to escape the “peculiar institution”—each is colored, each is lighted, each is marked, each is alreadymade by blackness.

The alreadymade quality of blackness displayed in Five Rooms offers us the stage on which chapter 3 introduces the notion of black resistance, which in Ligon’s practice is visualized as what Copeland terms “fugitivity.” Copeland demonstrates how the artist’s uses of text and color play with how blackness constitutes formal, technical, historical, and social meanings. In other words, black text printed on white walls embraces the politics of contrast and reveals the contours of racialization. Ligon’s practice, as Copeland contends, is to give shape to the nothingness that has come to constitute blackness (110). While those shapes often share sharp edges—most of Ligon’s works are framed by the uses of square or rectangular composition—Copeland limits a discussion of the politics of sharp edges in relation to the politics of blackness, which I believe would further his argument on the tenacity and searing surfaces and interiors of Ligon’s work.

However, Copeland details how both lawlessness and fugitivity are spatial practices that appear in Ligon’s early critiques of the delimitations that organize black movement in cities through “lines of force” that structure the “policing function of the grid” (120). Works such as Picky (1993) conceptually seed what would become the material of To Disembark (1993), primarily through their assertion that black fugitivity requires transitory states of being that are historically preceded by and learned through slavery (121). The notion of fugitivity sediments in Copeland’s discussion of the shipping crates that appear in To Disembark. Ligon’s boxes cite and site Henry “Box” Brown’s heroic 1849 escape from slavery, a feat he completed by shipping himself across state lines in a three-foot-wide, two-foot-long wooden box. Copeland’s writing on Ligon’s crates suggests that fugitivity operates as both a synonym for blackness and a strategy for black people. In other words, Copeland poetically grants subjectivity to these crates as slave-surrogates, which as objects and commodities echo the object-status of the enslaved, and therefore become—through surface and interior—kinds of blackened bodies that anchor in place the spatial practices of fugitives. Elsewhere, Copeland hauntingly notes that while the black body is absented in To Disembark, we are thrown onto the “skin of the object”—these crates become “corporeal armors” that protect the fugitives inside, while also somehow becoming black themselves (145). Once again Copeland instantiates how the emptying-out that these crates produce leads us to the structural (versus only visual) dereliction of fugitives, and therefore all blacks.

In his final chapter, Copeland turns to the work of Green as she stages the vexed multiplicity of black placelessness marked by the omnipresence of slavery’s touch. This chapter focuses on three visual and tactile deployments that could have been conceptually bridged with more fortitude: spatial enclosures, placelessness, and finally decorative fabrications. While all three embody Green’s oeuvre, Copeland’s analysis particularly shines when he discusses Green’s 1990 installation Sites of Genealogy, at PS1 in Queens, in which he centralizes her conceptual and site-specific uses of two kinds of black literary narratives—Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). Copeland fleshes out Green’s particular citational and situational methods in the attic space in Sites, in which Green constructed a space similar to that once constructed by Jacobs herself. Green shaped the attic space into a place of spatial enclosure where the artist was herself protected by a stringed border within which she was free to write, rest, weave, mount a ladder, or peer through a telescope affixed to the building’s exterior (163). In many ways an extension of Jacobs’s garret, in which she hid for seven years to escape her master’s sexual advances while retaining a peephole through which she could constantly see his movements to and from the building, Green mobilized the immanent ambiguity under constraint that embodies the black female gaze in the history of contemporary art (164). Copeland insightfully asserts that Jacobs’s small, self-bored hole is an activation of her incarceration and thus amplifies Green’s deployment of a literally telescopic gaze—both unevenly sighting/siting/citing black female uses of the look to manage the scenes of their subjection.

In his discussion of black placelessness, Copeland calls Green’s primary tactic a petit marronage (borrowing the definition from the historian Richard Price), that is, the “practice among New World slave populations of ‘repetitive or periodic truancy with temporary goals’” (172). In his analysis, Green’s wandering sojourns attended to the “differential meaning of migration in the modern era” in light of how slavery marked the first forced, globalized, diasporic migration of entire populations, and thus all contemporary understandings of movement and transportability must contend with what it means to move, wander, and self-transport if one is black (172). The punishing calibration of enforced placelessness makes its way into Green’s video experiments, which explore what it means to be black and in touch with the ground beneath one’s feet—a practice that requires understanding the value of place, without having access to it.

Finally, the chapter ends with an extended discussion of Green’s arguably best-known work, Mise-en-Scène (1991), and its later iterations. Copeland beautifully details the visual imagery Green eventually borrowed in the making of her own toile after her initial exhibition in Nantes, France. During a 1992 residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Green produced her own fabric, which captured the horrors contemporaneous with the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century production of toile in Nantes (179). Copeland illuminates the fabric’s circulation during the triangular trade in which African slaves were sold in exchange for raw cotton, which was sold to merchants to produce textiles that were used to purchase more slaves (178). The fabric—made with the very cotton picked by slaves who were themselves bought and sold to make more fabric—operates in Green’s work for its decorative tactility. Copeland tracks the visual iconography of slavery Green imbricates into the fabric’s traditional white background with leisurely patterning in order to situate its eventual application to sofas, chairs, curtains, and other staples of interior domestic space. In this move, another kind of spatial enclosure is created—one that argues domestic space or home is perhaps only available to white life with all its sentient and decorative luxuries. While the fabric itself is, of course, structured by black experience and history, the fabric’s application calls attention to white domestic luxuries produced by slave labor. Green self-fabricates black subjection into the very materials produced from black enslavement.

In this final gesture, Copeland’s analysis of Green’s uses of spatial enclosure, placelessness, and the racialization of decorative fabrics could have circled back to the interplay among looking, moving, and touching—all three of which are activated throughout Green’s works discussed here. With further elaboration on the triangulation of looking, moving, and touching—much like the triangulation of the transatlantic slave trade—Copeland could have furthered an implied argument pertaining to Green’s critique of modernity’s pleasures, all of which require the structural degradation of black bodies.

Bound to Appear seamlessly threads how blackness inhabits the visual field in ways that differ from other kinds of racialized and sexualized subject formations. This difference is marked by how blackness shares genealogical proximity to the object—a centralizing figure in the history of contemporary art. Copeland tracks how Wilson, Simpson, Ligon, and Green misdirect art history’s romance with the object by confrontationally staging scenes in which objects that were once taxonomized in relation to slaves come to act as surrogates for black bodies. By presenting objects as radical substitutes for people, Copeland argues, these contemporary black artists create conceptual racial antagonisms from which we cannot escape precisely because these antagonisms unequivocally argue that the material world is, albeit unevenly, touched, inflected, and made by blackness. Bound to Appear adjusts our vision, tunes our listening practices, and recalibrates our haptic sensibilities to see blackness everywhere, in all its pain and promises of resistance.

Sampada Aranke holds a PhD in performance studies and is currently a visiting assistant professor in art history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her research and writing engage performance theories of embodiment, corpses and corporeality, histories of dispossession, radical print media, and black cultural theory.

This review originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Art Journal.

  1. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 72.