Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 1, 2017
Derek Conrad Murray Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity after Civil Rights London: I.B. Taurus, 2016. 256 pp.; 8 color ills.; 41 b/w ills. Paper $27.00 (9781784532871)

Amid a litany of compelling critical-theory trajectories that have garnered attention over the last twenty or so years (Afrofuturism, Afro-Pessimism, etc.) and a wave of ideas about how blackness circulates as an object of theoretical inquiry as interiority, form, materiality, flesh, and most recently “liquidity,” no term is perhaps more contested (in both public and academic spheres) than the subject of Derek Conrad Murray’s new book—post-blackness. According to Murray, an art historian and visual-culture theorist, post-blackness has “paradoxically become the most talked about and debated issue in contemporary African American art” (1) while simultaneously inciting an almost primal vitriol in the minds of those who would disavow its significance. In his introduction Murray addresses the criticisms leveled against post-blackness, first by clarifying the term (differentiating it from the vacuous misnomer “post-racial”), then authoring a concise chronology of the term’s critical and social life and pivoting to what amounts to the most comprehensive (and engaging) post-black theoretical methodology to date. More than a decade after the term post-black was famously coined by curator Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon, an artist whose work a chapter in the book is devoted to and whose art appears on its cover, the term continues to linger in our cultural unconscious.

Several books have been published on post-blackness in recent years including Ytasha L. Womack’s thoughtful Post Black: How a New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010) and Touré’s widely read social critique Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now (New York: Free Press 2011). More recently The Trouble With Post-Blackness (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), edited by Houston A. Baker and K. Merinda Simmons, provides a full-frontal attack on the underpinnings of post-black as a theoretical approach, particularly challenging its views on the Black Arts Movement of several decades ago. Yet none of these texts offer the critical rigor and innovative thinking that Murray presents in Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity after Civil Rights. And perhaps another indicator of post-blackness’s durability and its growing place in the popular imagination is the increased visibility and circulation of the work of those termed “post-black” artists. Several of the most prominent artists to whom the term has been applied—Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Kalup Linzy—are each the subject of a chapter of Murray’s rich text, and each has, in her or his own way, penetrated “the heart of whiteness,” to use Nicholas Mirzoeff’s metaphor for the white art world (“Painting at the Heart of Whiteness” in Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and the Ideal Figure, New York: Routledge, 1995), and contributed to a provocative reimagining of the futures of the social and cultural life of blackness and black artistic production. Further evidence of post-black’s public viability and its aesthetic utility is the staging of works by Wiley and Thomas within the elaborate visual landscape of Fox’s provocative TV series Empire. I will return to Empire a bit later, but will first examine Murray’s very precise and timely articulation of the nuances of post-blackness.

For Murray, post-black is an expansive exercise in “futurity,” an effort to magnify the possibilities of what black artists can do and a rethinking of what blackness includes—or excludes. Post-black artists, while working in a range of styles and having a distinctive and individuated artistic intent, will often rely on tropes of ambiguity, satire, and irony over sentimentality, nostalgia, and the recuperation of the black body. These artists embrace, distort, and reconfigure relationships to Western aesthetic traditions, at times offering a critique of these conventions and the anti-black racism engrained within them, while at other moments staging encounters with experiences and sensibilities that lie outside of racial solidarity and trauma. Post-black art offers a number of important aesthetic strategies, as Murray explains:

I characterize the aesthetic strategies of post-black artists as creating a semiotic vulnerability, or in other words, a liquidity or porousness in the semiotic function of blackness that transcends its historical and ideological opacity . . . blackness—as Thelma Golden suggests—is something to be embraced, but not necessarily autobiographical, or specific to their individual experience. (23; emphasis in original)

The most groundbreaking component of Murray’s thesis is his investment in the way in which “queerness seems to always fall outside the auspices of normative blackness” (14). This premise forms the basis of his inquiry, which deconstructs how art and image aesthetics align not simply around significations of race, but more explicitly as a challenge to blackness and its own mandates: “the black in post-black is more than an umbrella term signifying the African-American experience, but is actually a more pointed reference to a particular regime of representation: specifically, the history of images depicted black men in the throes of collective resistance” (4–5; emphasis in original). Murray identifies aesthetic strategies for how “post-blackness speaks not only to sexual marginality” (23), but provides “a framework that allows for queer artists to achieve a visibility and centrality that is unprecedented” (29).

Murray’s analysis begins by exploring Ligon’s work, focusing on his use of text/language and image, saying: “it is in this content-versus-form binary that Ligon’s work provokes us and frustrates attempts to easily affix meaning” (38). Ligon’s intense play with the dialectics of legibility versus illegibility is a seminal feature of post-blackness, and this feature layered on top of his critiques of sexual and gendered identity (specifically his series Notes on the Margin of the Black Book [1991–93] in which Ligon famously challenges Robert Mapplethorpe’s reading of black gay male bodies). Through Ligon’s work, Murray demonstrates how post-black aesthetics simultaneously render both blackness and queerness as slippery constructs. It is through Ligon that we lose our footing in both race and formalism: “Neither race nor form takes centre stage. Rather there is an oscillation between a self-reflexive mediation on race and sexuality, and an intervention into the falsity of formalism’s mythic universality” (40). For Murray, Ligon renders blackness as a “material presence,” but perhaps more importantly, his work “queers” racial representation, that is, it “forms a counter-narrative and a corrective to constructions of American identity that erase black queer subjectivities” (73).

Likewise, in chapter 2, Murray elaborates on the queering of black bodies in the work of Wiley, perhaps the most well-known artist to whom the term post-black has been applied. Building on his reading of satire in Ligon’s work and its role in post-black art, Murray traces its functionality in Wiley’s reimagining of Western works of art in which he positions vulnerable black male bodies as objects of desire. Murray provides an account of important artists like Lyle Ashton Harris, Isaac Julien, and Marlon Riggs, as well as William Friedkin’s film Cruising (1980), to explore the intersectionality of black and queer artistry and subjectivity in order to reveal a paradox among fantasy, freedom, and the visualization of how “queer subjects can be desired and valued” (93). Chapter 3, while not the most robust section of the book, discusses Thomas whose work indexes the problematic treatment of black female forms, but manages to “assert something innovative that inspires a renewed sense of curiosity and aesthetic decipherment” (113).

The final chapter of the book, one that is arguably the richest, unpacks Linzy’s provocative video works. Murray describes them as neither revisionist nor recuperative, terms he uses more than once to describe how post-black works resist sentimentality or waxing nostalgic about a mythical black past and refuse aesthetic strategies that attempt to “fix” or redeem the black image. Linzy’s video projects borrow heavily from soap opera aesthetics; Hollywood’s woman’s films of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce; TV melodrama; and drag performance in using the artifice of these genres to “employ a survival mechanism that mobilizes levity to transgress almost impenetrable racial boundaries” (162). Linzy and his casts play a range of queer, sexualized characters who traffic in deeply entrenched stereotypes likely to trigger a range of complicated responses from viewers. Murray views Linzy’s work as essential to “queer representation and ultimately the stifling and repressive logic of normativity in its many manifestations” (178). Murray includes a revealing quote from Linzy who says, “I love satire and I love what I satirize.” This quote reveals that Linzy’s visual narratives, which are replete with vulgar and comedic readings of black women, men, sexuality, and experience (often taken from interpretations of his own life), are valued by him, and it is perhaps his viewers who must take a fuller account of how to see, engage, and theorize bodies in whatever form they take. While Murray has dismissed the need to recuperate and redeem blackness as an embodied set of predetermined racial expectations, he undoubtedly encourages his readers to recuperate queer bodies and artistry.

The first book of its kind, Queering Post-Black Art provides rich analysis and a chronology of artistic and theoretical work highlighting the intersection of black queer and sexual identities by unpacking themes of queer shame, fantasy, survival, ambivalence, and the notion of difference within spaces of difference. Murray’s work is timely and relevant in its alignment with #BlackLivesMatter’s insistence that LGBTQ lives are to be valued, and it also has profound implications for how high and popular culture might navigate the uneasy relationship between blackness and queer identity. Returning to the TV series Empire, I wonder if Murray’s work might help make sense of this show’s (and others’) implicitly uneasy relationship with queer identity (specifically the main character Lucious Lyon’s homophobic rants against his gay son) and black/queer culture. These are weighty concerns, but Murray has created space to navigate them in our theoretical discourse, in our engagement with popular culture, and in our everyday lives.

Michele Prettyman Beverly
Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Mercer University