Black Portraitures: Whose Black Is It? — Emeka Okereke

Multiple Boxes, Douala Cameroon, IB 2012 60 cm x 90 cm

Some days ago, I joined a host of brilliant and beautiful scholars, writers, cultural operators and art enthusiasts of African descent (about 900 of them) in Florence to discuss topics related to the narratives and realities of Blacks. This ambitious undertaking was put together by New York University (Tisch School of Arts and NYU Florence) under the coordination of Professor Deborah Willis, Professor Awam Amkpa and many others. It is important to note that this came on the heels of a previous conference of equal intentions held in Paris in 2013.

Against the backdrop of artistic and architectural opulence underlined by the impressiveness of NYU’s Villa La Pietra, the ever-present legacies of the Medici dynasty and warm temperatures, Florence was a perfect host city. But beyond the atmospheric, the conference took place as many thousands of African immigrants were drowning off the shores of Italy. This, alongside the spectre of Xenophobia in South Africa, and the upheavals in the United States around “Black Lives Matter”. I made a note too of black immigrants in the shadowy sidewalks and streets of European cities (no different in Florence) hawking cheap replicas of bags, sunglasses and toys of mainstream Western brands – always at the mercy of the police. My expectation was that all of these issues would inform the discursive components of a conference put together to engage the “re-imagining of the black body”.

The weekend-long event kicked off with a welcome reception at the NYU Florence Campus La Villa Pietra which foreshadowed its atmosphere: an assemblage of peoples of African descent from all over the world but very much framed by African American presence. This however, was to be expected (and should be given the benefit of the doubt) given that it was an NYU-run initiative, and the speakers represented commendable artistic and scholastic achievement.

The actual conference was to commence the next day. It did so with keynote remarks from Charlane McCray, First Lady of New York and Professor Awam Amkpa, Curator of Resignifications, the Exhibition scheduled to run alongside the conference.

Moving on, there were laudable presentations from the likes of Robert E. Holmes on the Blackamoors and the relation to servitude, Gunja Sengupta’s “Re-Signifying Estevanico” (dubbed Africa’s first African American Explorer), Kwami Coleman’s expounding of Jazz Music and the history of some of the common techniques for its expression. Jason King allowed us a glimpse of Missy Elliott’s Spectacular Afro-Fabulous Visual Sublime through excerpts of music videos, which got the audience unwinding from head to shoulder. Most importantly King broke down the intersecting features which make this ingenious musician and performer one of a kind. Nikki A. Greene spoke extensively on Radcliffe Bailey’s “soundscapes” and how Sun Ra came to be a key pioneer of “Afrofuturism” through his eclectic and eccentric fusion of free Jazz, funk music and black science fiction thinking.

Cunningham St. Meeting, Piassa – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia IB 2011 60 cm x 80 cm
Cunningham St. Meeting, Piassa – Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia IB 2011 60 cm x 80 cm

It went on and on for two days. While I felt amongst the most fortunate, nourished by a wealth of history, I could not help but feel the strong inclination towards an African American subjectivity. I cannot count how many times the word ‘black’ was used but always in relation to a wholly African American reality. Perhaps this would not have been an issue if I didn’t begin to feel like I was caught up in some African American bubble. I mean, there I was, an African Nigerian (or Nigerian African – whichever word play makes more sense) sitting in this audience, taking in historical accounts always introduced, underlined and emphasised by the word black. Yet this notion of black had little or nothing to do with me. It wasn’t until I stood up and raised the question – “whose black are we discussing?” – did I realise I was not alone in this sense of detachment.

The gravity of this shortcoming was perhaps flushed out from where it hid – under the uniformity of our skin colour – by the panel focused on “Black American Identity and Global Travel”. A topic, which immediately places the Black American perspective in juxtaposition with other Black life-worlds and lived experiences, is likely to reveal blemishes of distance and disconnection. Laylah Amatullah Barrayn presented works she created as “research on religion and identity through the documentation of the Baye Fall of Senegal”. Of her presentation she said: “When I am abroad, especially in West Africa, I find myself searching for Ancestral memories, something of an extension of my Gullah/Geeche and Muslim roots. As a photographer, there is also a part of me that feels a need to rectify the questionable and imbalanced media of images of people of colour that are shipped out of the world.” [1]

Asia Leeds, on the other hand, took a much more subjective position. She situated her body as the locus of attention seeking to unpack the complexities of travelling as a black woman, and demonstrated how her body, complexion, hair style and clothing shape her experiences and the way she is read or mis-read through her travels in Latin America, Europe and Africa. She stated, in the abstract of her presentation, that “My looks, “brown” (rather than dark) skin, curvy figure, natural hair, and other physical factors impact the ways that I am welcomed, catered to, or perceived as a threat. In places where only whites are recognised as North American, the elusiveness of my status keeps me safe (where I am read as a local and not a tourist) but other times situate me on the outside of the privileges that may come with being recognised as a U.S citizen” [2].

The good intentions of these intellectuals, in exploring and reaching beyond the confines of their comfort zone, is no doubt apparent. However, something must be said of the undertone accompanying the presentation of these intentions. Let us spend a bit of time on the question of agency. From the above assertions, we sense from what vantage point they speak – that of subjectivity. It can be argued that it is no different from the subjectivity enjoyed by any first person narrator of an experience. But when does such a position become more one of privilege than of responsibility? It is when the account of a given experience embodies or continues to fall back on, the preconceived notions of the narrator rather than on freshly acquired perceptions. In other words, the privilege of subjectivity was not put on the line. At least, enough to allow a feedback loop and account for intersecting factors through which one can consider the agency and voices of other parties; and variables at play in the making of the experience now presented to an audience at the mercy of the narrator. A common sense argument would be that the narrator speaks from her own personal transcription of a given occurrence, and how that imprints itself on her consciousness. However, we are left with no reason not to conclude that it could be a situation of projecting her perceptions verbatim onto other persons and variables involved in the making of her experiences. What is the uniqueness of an encounter if it does not give a sense of a journey made from both ends of preconceptions, and a meeting point situated somewhere half way? To put it another way, I invoke a friend’s take on the issue: “how do you put yourself in one’s place without removing the person?” [3]

This glitch was made obvious by generalisations and stereotypes employed in the presentations of Barrayn and Leeds, which gave off a sense of surface-level engagement. There are intricate variables by which the black body is perceived through appearance – be it in North America, Latin America, Europe or Africa. This, by no means renders African American blackness unique in that regard. There are equally multifarious narratives of blackness which play a crucial role in the perception of black. So much so that a subjective account of one’s blackness (most especially in the context of a travelling one), which does not allow room for complex variables, is at best anecdotal projection. With this approach, there is the danger of creating centres and peripheries out of the many pockets of black narratives and realities, rather than putting them in dialogue with each other. In this lies the greatest danger of the future, a perhaps unconscious attempt to construct hierarchies in the order of blackness.

Blackness as we know it was deliberately constructed to be a convenient antithesis to whiteness. To this I will add that a lot of black persons (and more so in the African American reality as in many communities of Diasporan Africa) in their upbringing, have been taught to loathe and deny blackness (or more precisely, their Africanness) as a thing for ghettos and projects or worse still, for the primitive. It is something you leave behind as you climb the ladder of survival, and hence the so-called “new blacks” or “new African diasporans”. Within this category, one is also likely to find those blacks whose lifelong goal is to earn the validation if not admiration of the white person. There is often a thin line between seeking validation of the white person, and insisting on being recognised as the newest arrival to the playing field of western-centric ideologies. It is therefore easy to see how one can presume that one black is more authentic than the other by, for example, downplaying the “African” in the quest for the validation of one’s “Americanness”, considering that this Americanness is submerged in an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal system as bell hooks describes it. [4]

Point of Blur En Route Bobo Dio lasso, IB 2010
Point of Blur En Route Bobo Dio lasso, IB 2010, 50 cm x 60 cm

Therefore to the question of agency one may add: Where do you seek the validation of your agency? This question will alert us to the much needed difference in one’s subjective positioning, within the many pockets of black narratives hovering around the planet. As we know, the most undermined version of Western civilization is the Afrocentric one. In other words, as a black person, you may not find romance in the streets of Champs Élysées or Montmartre of Paris, but you are likely to find a whole lot of it in Barbès Rochechouart, Montrouge, or St. Denis. [5] It is a question of what kind of black you have chosen to be and in what ideological frame you seek validation of this blackness. Whichever one choses, one thing to not take lightly is the implication of this in relation to the perception and function of the black body within a context of sociocultural conflations.

Each of our black realities are unique in their own right, and by that are permutations of the story of displacement, of dispersion, of a journey which began in continental Africa some 400 years ago. The journey is not yet over, and we are far from arriving at a destination. Perhaps the destination is to permeate the world, and to eventually live up to the insistent foreknowledge that Africanness – by the eventualities of our realities, and the ensuing fluidity – transcends form and location without negating either. If this is the case, the most urgent task at hand is the grounding of these fluid forms and diverse black realities through a rigorous process of articulation and engagement with each other. It is crucial not to forget that the forms these realities take are always sculpted by survival, resistance and the hope of transcending limitations in a context and world where the black person is preconceived as marginal, minor and inferior. Much worse is where all of humanity – regardless of race – is caught in the quicksand of white supremacist thinking. Thus, no matter the specificity of black realities, the premise is always the same: the black person suffers from projections which are not his or her own and have nothing whatsoever to do with his or her blackness. Just like James Baldwin would say: “You are the nigger baby, it isn’t me.” [6] This provides an equal footing from which we begin the process of articulating and engaging the nuances of our specific blackness.

Paths Apart, N’djamena Tchad, IB 2011 60 cm x 90 cm
Paths Apart, N’djamena
Tchad, IB 2011 60 cm x 90 cm

Another good reason why it is urgent for blacks all over the world to engage with each other is quite simple: We are not one because we have the same skin colour and texture. That would be the same as taking the myriad forms of our dispersal for granted. We are one because there is a history and trajectory to every form of our multifarious realities, which is still anchored to the beginning of a journey which took off in continental Africa. It is less important to focus on the factors which ignited the journey. Neither am I proposing that we take lightly the ominous happenings in the process of that journey. The most constructive task in my view is to begin a conversation as to what these various forms of blackness mean to the nature of Africanness rather than a disassociation from Africanness. One thing is certain: every person of black descent is an African, regardless of where you were born or currently live simply because we can retrace, in history and time, the circumstances of our locality.

Following from these ideas, explored here, is the need to dislodge a mindset from the idea of a fixed notion of Africa merely because the physical location known as Africa is still in existence. On the contrary, this physical location is at best a crucial point of reference, an anchor, or in the way of various moving parts, a departure point. In this light, it will not be entirely utopic to revisit the idea of continental Africa as the “shore” from which Africa reached beyond the limitations by which it was continuously defined. Rather than limiting our struggles and the deliberation of our predicaments to the stifling definitions imposed on Africanness (to the extent of self-hatred and internal racism as experienced more frequently in recent times), we can embrace the proactive possibilities inherent in our different forms of blackness and turn its effects for the benefit of the world. What this amounts to is as follows: As we strive for self-actualisation, to stand firm and assert our place in the world at large, to heal the wounds of dehumanisation, every black person must equally strive to engage with each other, nourish from the differences in narratives while constantly looking for ways to intersect and reengage with the energy and radiations of the ultimate motherland which is continental Africa.

Be the Me, Yaoundé Cameroon, IB 2012 60 cm x 90 cm
Be the Me, Yaoundé
Cameroon, IB 2012 60 cm x 90 cm

In the face of these propositions, Africa as a location, cannot be an abstraction. It does exist, and still carries traces of all the ancestors brutally snatched away from it. It is in these traces that we shall find the grounding and articulation for the continuous dispersion and propagation of our respective blackness.

I do not imply a return to Africa in the literal sense, and not even a re-enactment of Marcus Garvey’s ship can help in this case. [7] What comes to mind as effective is the recalibration and re-appropriation of the meaning of blackness through a process deeply informed by African ancestral wisdom. It is not sufficient to say “Black is beautiful” and leave it at that, for even the notion of beauty is clouded by imperialist white supremacists capitalist patriarchal ideologies. [8] We must dig deeper for the buried treasure on which all tramples.

Notes

  1. Abstract of Laylah Amatullah Barrayn’s presentation, “Chasing Memories Abroad”, from the brochure of Black Portraiture(s) II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging History. P.15
  1. Abstract of Asia Leeds presentation, “Privilege, Misrecognition and the Body Politics of Travelling as Black Woman”, from the brochure of Black Portraiture(s) II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging History. P.16
  1. The friend in question is Emmanuel Iduma, writer and art critic with whom I have worked upon several occasions and in relation to projects.
  1. bell hooks, in her book Writing Beyond Race, expounded on the interlocking systems that give rise to imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal thinking prevalent in today’s society.
  1. This analogy was inspired by a comment I made in response to one of the presenters at the Black Portraiture conference who, as an example talked about the presumption that Paris is a romantic city only to be surprised as a black woman that this is not the case in her experience. Barbés Rochechouart, Montrouge and St. Denis are districts and suburbs of Paris in which a great number of people of black descent live.
  1. James Baldwin, during an interview in 1963, by the KQED film unit, and produced by National Education Television, San Francisco. Available online and on YouTube as “Who is the N**er?”
  1. Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was a Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur and orator who was a staunch proponent of Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism to which end he founded the Universal Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities league. Through this platform he incorporated the Black Star Line through which he aimed to achieve his Back-to-Africa aims. It operated between 1919 – 1922. It stands today as a major symbol for Garvey followers and African Americans in search of a way to get back to their Homeland. Wikipedia.
  1. bell hooks, in her book Writing Beyond Race touched on the link between beauty and white supremacist thinking with the following quote: “All these cultural and aesthetic practices are rooted in white supremacist aesthetics that continue to set the standards for what is deemed beautiful and desirable”.

Emeka Okereke, born in 1980, is a Nigerian visual artist and writer who lives and works between Africa and Europe, moving from one to the other on a frequent basis. Presently, his works oscillate between diverse mediums. He employs mainly photography, time-based medium of video, poetry and performative interventions in the exploration of the central theme of ‘borders’. He is the Founder and Artistic Director of Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project. In 2003, he won the Photographer award from the AFAA “Afrique en Création” in the 5th edition of the Bamako Photo Festival of photography. He has a Bachelors/Masters degree from the National Fine Art School of Paris. His work was exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale of Arts under the Invisible Borders space-installation: “A Trans-African Worldspace”  which he also curated. http://emekaokereke.com/home. @kupeski

All images courtesy of Emeka Okereke, from The Trans-African Project.