Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 30, 2016
Krista A. Thompson Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 368 pp.; 143 color ills. Paperback $26.95 (9780822358077)

What is bling, if not more tightly focused shine? The Oxford English Dictionary defines bling (sometimes reduplicated as bling-bling) as both a material referent and multivalent signified: “A. n. (A piece of) ostentatious jewelry. Hence: wealth; conspicuous consumption. B. adj. Ostentatious, flashy; designating flamboyant jewelry or dress. Also: that glorifies conspicuous consumption; materialistic.” According to the rapper B.G., one of the coiners of term at the end of the last century, bling is also the imaginary sound light makes when it hits a diamond. Bling is key to Krista A. Thompson’s Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice. Via analyses of a variety of self-affirming performances in front of lights and cameras, the multifaceted book explores the ways in which bling aesthetics and shining can be forms of resistance. Photography, the medium that relies most heavily on light, is discussed and dissected in every chapter. Thompson sensitively assesses many traditional facets of photography (lens effects, cropping, posing, capacity for taxonomic categorization, popping flashes), as well as things that might be considered para-photographic (video light, backdrops, mass circulation, mediation, feedback, dematerialization, and Bixels).

An overarching motif in Shine is the contradictory nature of light. For instance, while bling encapsulates the visual, sonic, and performative, the term also evokes visibility and invisibility; as both a highlight and whited-out blind spot, it is “both the threshold of absolute visibility and utter blindness” (199). Thompson also considers how shine and bling might literally and metaphorically relate to blackness. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s suggestion that the black body has reached a degree of hypervisibility that renders African Americans “un-visible” guides her reading. Partially due to popular outcry and the Black Lives Matter movement—which, surely due to limits of the publishing cycles, is not mentioned in Thompson’s book—the urgent need to reconsider the policing and surveillance of black bodies (men’s in particular) and the associated shifts in the visibility of law enforcement, including their actions and those acted upon, make this a timely study.

Returning to and reprising techniques found in her first book, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), and a fascinating 2007 article on Freaknic, a now-defunct annual black college spring break event in Atlanta, in TDR: The Drama Review (“Performing Visibility: Freaknic and the Spatial Politics of Sexuality, Race, and Class in Atlanta,” TDR: The Drama Review 51, no. 4 [Winter 2007]: 24–46), Thompson trains her analytic lens on an ambitious range of subjects. Her generally excellent study is broken into four parts. The first focuses on street photography in the United States. The second chapter discusses the evolving role of mediation—by video recordings and camera illumination—in Jamaican dancehall culture. Chapter 3 addresses prom entrances and vehicular decoration and elaboration in the Bahamas. The final chapter considers the role of light within a longer history of art, tracing connections from sixteenth-century painting to hip-hop and contemporary art.

Thompson begins her discussion under the dual signs of performance and diasporic studies, citing scholar Joseph Roach and cultural theorist Paul Gilroy. Her historical narrative nimbly weaves in and out of the art world as well as the broader field of transatlantic culture. Shine makes manifest the points where low and high brows converge, often using the visual culture of hip-hop as a prism through which to view art and vice versa. Following the example of Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), the text illuminates aspects of “the partially hidden public sphere” (Gilroy, 38), such as spectacular prom entries and weekly performances in dancehalls. These kinds of popular practices are rarely given serious consideration by art historians. Thompson also deploys methods from history and anthropology, including participant interviews and observations as a participant-observer. As a hopeful indication of an opening up of art history, Shine won the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Book Award in 2016.

Chapter 1 sheds light on street photography beyond the photograph. Thompson draws on observations and interviews with photographers and subjects alike to discuss the process of picture taking at the impermanent photo studios at hip-hop concerts and festivals. She assesses the content of backdrops, sitters’ motivations, and the tendency for patrons to be more concerned with the process of having their image recorded—being seen striking poses in front of the lens and lights—than with the final product.

Looking outside the art scenes in New York and Los Angeles, Thompson also analyses Charles H. Nelson’s Real Niggas Don’t Die series (1999–2009), a project with which many contemporary art historians will not be familiar. Although, perhaps indicative of the artist’s importance in Atlanta, Chika Okeke-Agulu, an Emory University PhD graduate like Thompson, wrote about the artist’s work in “Studio Call: Charles H. Nelson Jr.: Keeping it Real” (Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 16/17 [Fall/Winter 2002]: 104–6). Nelson created his own street photographer’s booth, which catalyzed social interactions and performances by members of the public. His backdrops were quite different from the slick aerosol art of his counterparts, being of a distinctly less spectacular order. They consist of painterly renderings of morbid images—such as a slain Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Tupac Shakur’s bullet-riddled sedan—emblazoned with bold, stenciled slogans. While they evoke photographs, their facture pulls them from the glossy, smooth hyperreality of “straight” backdrops. The chapter title, “Keep It Real,” is cribbed from Nelson’s oeuvre; one of his paintings slyly combines the hip-hop mantra with a loosely rendered version of realist painter Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers (1849).

Thompson deliberately privileges visual content over sonic material. Following cultural critic Michele Wallace, she interrogates critics’ insistence on employing essentializing musical metaphors to interpret all kinds of black expression. Despite the book’s overall strengths, a few sections could have been enriched by additional connections to broader hip-hop culture. For instance, Thompson primarily uses traditional art-historical methods to assess the album cover art of Jay-Z’s single “Show Me What You Got” (2006), undertaking a formal analysis of Jay-Z and the Rock-A-Fella Records’ “ROC” sign (175). The image consists of a pair of hands on an otherwise black background “throwing a diamond” and framing a luminous mass. The gesture’s function as a supplement or substitute for a spoken call and response merits additional treatment. Both rappers and members of youth gangs use hand gestures to “represent”—to assert identity or claim space. As such, the way performing such signs implicates bodies in the generating of meaning could have been explored further. Indeed, the notion of corporeal gestures as potentially dazzling—like the light Thompson assesses throughout Shine—appears in Eazy-E’s classic song “Boyz-n-the Hood” (1987): “About to go and damn near went blind / Young niggaz on the pad throwin’ up gang signs.”

Thompson wonderfully links the visual culture of hip-hop to a longer history of imaging conspicuous consumption dating back to the sixteenth century. To make her case, she borrows the concept of “surfacism” from Christopher Pinney, who uses the term to refer to the reflective qualities of photographs that also depict reflective objects (see “Notes from the Surface of the Image: Photography, Postcolonialism, and Vernacular Modernism,” in Photography’s Other Histories, eds., Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, 202–20). Reading a montage of Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Henry VIII paired with B.G.’s lyrics and a deliberately humorous misquotation of the infamous king from a Vibe advertisement, she demonstrates both sources’ parallel fascination with surface (230). Her suggestion that Hype Williams’s videos, which are shot through fish-eye lenses, almost seem like recordings of reflections on dark, polished surfaces and hence possess the same type of “surfacism” as Dutch still life paintings is especially compelling (37; 225).

Thompson’s final chapter provides close readings of works by Kehinde Wiley and Luis Gispert. Given the book’s focus on performance, it is surprising that more of the implications of Wiley’s title for the series Posing/Passing are not addressed. Although the author mentions the artist’s sexuality and notes that Wiley’s sitters strike the poses of female figures, her interpretation of his work could have been strengthened by a consideration of his canvases through a queer lens. Beyond claiming the history of art for black subjects (who depose history’s “great” whites), Wiley’s paintings often suture spectators into a desiring gaze. Both objects and subjects, the sitters longingly look back. Furthermore, the well-lit figures, staged in “urban” fashions and caught in frozen stances, could even evoke voguing, a predominantly black gay male dance form consisting of the animation of feminine-coded glamour poses in tour-de-force performances. Wiley’s beautiful boys might be capable of enough brilliance to shine and “throw shade.” This turn of phrase, which of course trades on metaphors of luminosity, refers to indirect public criticism or expressions of contempt; it originated in the vogue subculture before entering into more mainstream usage following Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

Thompson argues that possessing agency in the visual economy of light is valuable because of the empowerment and resistance to the status quo it implies: “While seeming on its surface a hyperbolic version of late capitalism . . . [a hip-hop aesthetic] results in a visual economy wherein one’s social capital comes in part through the aesthetics of light. Shinin’ generates its own social currency and expression of value through optical effect, with or without commodities” (199). Nevertheless, she concludes by wondering if, in some cases, “the hypervisibility of bling [might] be another instance of the disappearance of the black subject, a new form of emblazoned invisibility” (270). By plumbing the dialectics of bling, Shine provides important illumination; it shows that non-elite culture holds up to serious academic scrutiny. Particularly given their reach and popularity, the practices Thompson brings to light cannot go overlooked and unanalyzed.

John A. Tyson
Assistant Professor, Art Department, University of Massachusetts Boston