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The focus of Huey Copeland’s Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness is specific: artworks produced during roughly a three-year period whose subject matter deals with “the peculiar institution.” Copeland sets his sights on four cases: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992–93), Lorna Simpson’s Five Rooms (1991), Glenn Ligon’s To Disembark (1993), and Renée Green’s Sites of Genealogy (1990) and Mise-en-Scène (1991). No expense seems to have been spared: the book is large-format and lavishly illustrated. Its size and glossy pages make it a pleasure to hold.
From a formal standpoint, the objects relate closely, as each engages with conceptualist strategies, especially in the vein of institutional critique, and post-Minimalist installation practices, while also eschewing figuration. According to Copeland, the four artists “created antiportraits intended to grant the black subject an opacity and inscrutability long denied her by concealing her very surface, that site of scopic desire, projection, and surveillance so crucial to the construction of race and its effects” (205). My understanding of this somewhat challenging sentence is that in order for racial hegemony to continue, the black figure is “bound to appear”—in other words, the black body, as a locus of discipline, disrespect, and disempowerment, must be pictured in order to maintain white supremacy. However, the black body is frequently absent from the works studied here, even if Copeland suggests that its material presence is demarcated. For Copeland, the strategy of removing the bodily trace is positive and highlights the artists’ radical subversion of the art-world requirement that black artists only deal with black bodies. While appreciative of the work these artworks do, I am skeptical of such exclusively positive attributions to such absentings of the racialized body, as they elide discursive and stylistic shifts that would close the window for some artists on the margins.
Produced immediately before and after the Whitney Biennial of 1993, which garnered pejorative monikers such as the “multicultural” or “identity politics” biennial, and leading up to Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art in 1995, also at the Whitney Museum of American Art, these works both engage with and disavow race. Similarly, Copeland largely figures race as “blackness.” If race is the more general construct that locates bodies in relation to color, ethnicity, power, and access, then “blackness” is the more specific construct to which people of African descent in the United States (and some would argue elsewhere) are subjected. While blackness may have something to do with the material conditions of being black, for Copeland’s purposes, it is more closely associated with the ideas and stories that are projected onto black people and black culture.
Therein lies a problem, yet I am unsure whether it falls on the works themselves or with the book’s framework. Like the artworks it discusses, Bound to Appear is not about individual black bodies or individual black people, even as these works point obliquely to the discourse surrounding black people. Likewise, they are not about slavery itself or even about enslaved people, but instead point to how the experiences of enslaved people influence the discourse and ideology that continues to ensnare black folks. Suffice to say, Copeland takes an approach that seems to derive from that of the artists, that is, to engage indirectly discourses surrounding identity.
In that respect, Copeland’s book and the objects he studies do sly work: they are unsentimental; they are not plaintive; and they do not pull on the heartstrings. They do not picture wounded or otherwise compromised black bodies, so they do not make viewers squirm with discomfort. Wrapped in discursive and intellectual batting, the book and artworks mostly protect against offending the liberal sensibilities of readers and viewers. According to Copeland, the four artists considered in Bound to Appear resist picturing enslaved folks because their and our experiences can never be bridged. Indeed, he suggests that because “their practices accent the inability of figurative modalities of representation alone to address the structural logic of slavery and its ongoing effects” (14), the artists are exceptional. At moments such as these, Copeland’s dual roles as historian and critic are apparent: he establishes a historical framework as a means to congratulate the artists on their ingenuity.
According to Copeland, the artists “took the meaning of slavery out of the figure and made it a function of the viewer’s relationship to the world” (17). This argument has the potential to be revolutionary: removing the notions of chattel, slavery, and property from the black body, and placing “it” squarely on the shoulders and in the mind of the viewer. However, in the context of the sentence, “it” could refer to “meaning,” “slavery,” or “figure”—an insertion of each changes the meaning of the sentence dramatically. Still, I question what this “it” is: The psychological responsibility for slavery’s existence? The financial gains conferred from slavery’s existence? The multiple deficits black people experience as a result of being the ancestors of the enslaved? Such imprecisions in some of Copeland’s phraseology suggest that he aimed at a moving target.
The first chapter, titled “Fred Wilson and the Rhetoric of Redress,” centers on Mining the Museum. Commissioned by the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, the work is equal parts installation and curatorial project: it comprises a reinstallation of the permanent collection of the Maryland Historical Society such that the city’s and state’s involvement with and reliance on slavery was made manifest. Metalwork 1793–1880 (1992–93) is one of the most reproduced installations in the show. Depicting shackles from a local collection juxtaposed with silver repousse vessels, it points to the manner in which wealth, discipline, and chattel slavery are interwoven in the economy and culture of Maryland. The structure of this chapter determines that of the ones that follow: Copeland lays out the problem with which he will grapple; contextualizes the work in an art-historical framework; and, finally, using rich description, argues his case. The theme of redress—defined as reparation or compensation for loss, amendment or correction of a grievance—guides Copeland’s analysis. He describes it as “the ethical ambition that has consistently animated [Wilson’s] practice, which attempts to adjust our vision, to right the balance of history, and to amend the past with a view toward the present” (26). For Copeland, Wilson’s work is a model of the black radical tradition precisely because it “seek[s] justice for the subjects of racial oppression” (26). Copeland concludes the chapter on an ambivalent note: institutional attempts to include black folks often reify the “white hegemonic order” and guard against “revolutionary change” (55).
Copeland’s second chapter, “Lorna Simpson’s Figurative Transitions,” adapts Melanie Klein’s conceptualization of part-objects to Five Rooms: “the racist who lays eyes on a dark body cannot see the whole person with a mixture of good and bad aspects, but only a collection of malignant objects held together by a carapace of skin that is liable at any moment to fall apart, requiring the black subject’s constant disciplining and justifying her instrumentalization for whatever ends” (68). The theory functions well with Simpson’s art that portrays the black female body in a broken or piecemeal way, and it resonates with the philosophical underpinnings of slavery, an institution that cannot exist without the critical disarticulation of the body from subjectivity. An installation that formed part of the exhibition Places with a Past as part of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina (1991), Five Rooms marks a transitional phase in Simpson’s work, Copeland suggests, when she moves away from the African American women-models with backs turned that characterized her work and toward an installation-based practice. He values the relationality of Simpson’s Five Rooms, in that it “creates chains of signification, material and visual, linguistic and photographic, that might differently link subjects to each other” (94), as well as its evocation of the ghostly remains of slavery.
Glenn Ligon’s To Disembark is the subject of chapter 3. For Copeland, Ligon’s work is “exemplary of how contemporary artists might take up yet ultimately resist univocal assertions of identity” (113) using aspects of conceptualist, minimalist, and feminist practices. It is driven by the notion of fugitivity, by the “sense of being continually unmoored” (115), “a transitory state of being, a way of wandering to survive” (121). According to Copeland, the installation—composed of wall drawings, etchings, sculpture, and sound that take up the experiences or words of historical personages, Henry “Box” Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, and Harriet Jacobs among them—shows that slavery and blackness are, for Ligon, portals that allow different viewpoints. Copeland sees in To Disembark the artist’s ability to map the contours of subjects whose intersectional positionalities render them sidelined or marginal. Copeland emphasizes that Ligon does not make a direct comparison between himself and the enslaved, but rather “he looks for traces of those modes of subjection that have dispossessed the black subject and insistently conditioned his speaking” (132).
In “Renée Green’s Diasporic Imagination,” Copeland focuses on Sites of Genealogy and Mise-en-Scène to show how her work is an “elabor[ation] [of] the multiple positions the artist might occupy as well as the provisional and contextual nature of identification itself” (153). Moreover, “Dispersal is at once a historical fact, an ethical stance, and a guiding principle” for Green’s art, which is exemplary in its introduction of narratives in which African diasporic folks may prosper. Copeland admires Green’s ability to create “an embodied encounter with ideas” that does not “attempt to recreate a physical sense of what the enslaved endured” (168). Instead, she emphasizes the viewer’s “distance from and inability to access the actual position of the enslaved even as her structural location is everywhere materialized” (168; emphasis added). The material location of the enslaved is mentioned often, but is never fully materialized in Copeland’s text. While Copeland’s examination of Green’s work is insightful, I was troubled by language such as “even more than Ligon’s, Simpson’s, or Wilson’s” (153), which suggests that the author prizes Green’s art over that of the other artists. Indeed, at moments, the text reads as a march from art that is good to art that is great, with Wilson balanced on one side of the scale and Green on the other. I would venture that the measuring of the efficacy of one work in relation to another is the purview of the critic and not the historian. Such passages illuminate the divide that separates the two critical practices.
That the artists studied in Bound to Appear engage with slavery while also disarticulating it from the black body suggests that they participate in post-black discourse. It is perhaps more appropriate to say that these works take part in the ushering in of that discourse. By now, many readers will be familiar with the term post-black, first published in Thelma Golden’s introduction to the Studio Museum in Harlem catalogue accompanying the Freestyle exhibition (2001). She explains that the phrase was created, partly in jest, by Ligon and herself to describe a generation of artists who were born after the civil rights movement and attended elite universities and distinguished art programs. These young artists, she goes on to say, are consumers (and entrepreneurs) of blackness as much as anyone, having no immediate attachment to 1960s-style radical racial politics. Golden and Ligon’s post-black did not appear out of thin air; it is the culmination of a sea change that was occasioned by the critical and institutional dismissal, disavowal—or to put it plainly, slap-down—of so-called “identity politics” art. Bound to Appear treats the philosophical, ethical, economical, and experiential legacies of slavery as critical issues that deserve continued study and scrutiny, but what is perhaps most significant about Copeland’s study is his outline of how Wilson, Simpson, Ligon, and Green participated in an important discursive swing away from a direct engagement with the politics of identity. Bound to Appear contributes to that shift at the same time that it illuminates artworks and discourses that have continued significance.
Associate Professor, Departments of Art and Art History and African and African Diaspora Studies, University of Texas, Austin; Director, John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies