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Scholarship on the theory of the gaze explores the power dynamic within the act of looking and being looked at. The male gaze, the racist gaze, and the colonial gaze are analytical concepts that help us understand how representation is implicated in the construction of gendered and racialized hierarchies and systems of control. They also reveal how subjects resist visuality’s capture through processes of self-representation and aesthetic defiance. Tina M. Campt’s A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See offers a profound reconceptualization of the politics of visibility and spectatorship within contemporary art. The book features nine artists who work across media and demonstrates how each proposes new ways of visualizing Black experiences in complex and dynamic ways. Campt, a Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, has organized the book into a series of “verses” rather than chapters in order to present “a free-flowing and open-ended meditation on the musical/ poetic dimensions of artworks” (18). Each verse focuses on a different artist’s practice and simultaneously narrates the multisensorial, embodied experience of viewing artworks.
Campt contextualizes these artistic practices within the contemporary explosion of Black cultural production and innovation in mainstream culture today, made possible through the diversification of media distribution channels and the reach of online and social media platforms. In response to this broadening visibility, she poses a central question: “Rather than looking at Black people, rather than simply multiplying the representation of Black folks, what would it mean to see oneself through the complex positionality that is blackness—and work through its implications on and for oneself?” (7). A Black Gaze is a curatorial project that brings together artists who refuse to flatten or simplify Black life into easily consumable narratives. Instead of representing Black communities through modes that traditionally elicit “pity, sympathy, or concern” (7), these artists, including Khalil Joseph, Arthur Jafa, Simone Leigh, and Okwui Okpokwasili, embrace a diverse range of experiences while advancing a more transformative aesthetics that push at the limits of their respective media. They do not shy away from presenting difficult or even contradictory images—of poverty and excess, precarity and joy, violence and community—to reflect the full richness of Black experiences. While Blackness is central to these artists’ works and themes, Campt avoids imposition of fixed identities or identitarian politics. Rather, her project is one of positionality: How do we, as viewers, position ourselves in relation to Blackness, given the overall climate of anti-Blackness and white supremacy? How does the art present different positions in relation to Black life and to the state-sanctioned forces that lead to Black death?
Rethinking the politics of the gaze is a challenging critical endeavor, and Campt acknowledges this from the start. The gaze, she states, is “steeped in white male desire as a privileged perspective of viewing and lodged so profoundly in the logic of the plantation" (23). The theory of the gaze is famously associated with feminist film studies scholar Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey theorized the gendered dynamics of visuality within patriarchy, but this theory also applies to other practices of visual domination, including the long histories of police surveillance of criminalized subjects and colonial representation practices that serve to legitimize conquest. Campt questions if the gaze is even “capable” of serving the theoretical foundation of her book while casting her attention on Black theorists whose work supports the concept of “a Black gaze,” specifically bell hooks and Manthia Diawara. These theorists posit that the dynamics of the gaze is not a totalizing force while foregrounding the potential for Black resistance within visuality’s hold. Historically oppressed subjects have dared to look back (what hooks deems “the oppositional gaze”) and thus have asserted their own subjectivity and agency for self-identification. As a theorist of Black studies and visual culture, Campt embraces the strong impact that the notion of the gaze has in contemporary art and media discourse and explores the potential to invest it with a new power.
The subject of Campt’s “a Black gaze” is not necessarily consumed by viewers, but rather is part of a complex aesthetic landscape that confronts viewers’ expectations and tendencies to passively consume images. A common quality across the featured artist’s divergent practices is that they demand viewers to work and grapple with their own position to and complicity with anti-Black violence. Campt’s use of the indefinite article—a Black gaze instead of a singular and closed the Black gaze—asserts the polyvalence of this new theory. She states, “It is at once a critical framework, a reading apparatus, a term that defines an artist’s practice, and a mode of spectatorial mediation that demands particularly active modes of watching, listening, and witnessing” (21).
“Verse One: The Intimacy of Strangers” is dedicated to the life-size photographs of the artist Deanna Lawson. Referencing rich histories of studio portraiture and quotidian snapshot photography, Lawson’s images are both captivating and uncomfortable. They juxtapose the familial spaces of living rooms and bedrooms—with patterned curtains, floral bedsheets, casually displayed family paraphernalia—with highly staged bodily poses and choreographed contortions. (We are told that the Los Angeles artist Noah Davis advised Lawson to “go big.”) Famously, the subjects of Lawson’s photographs look directly and impenetrably into the camera. “Rather than viewing them, we are viewed by these subjects instead” (36), writes Campt. The unwavering quality of their gaze conveys a refusal to be consumed—refusal being a generative strategy to protect and sustain worlds that are systematically under attack. These are images of marginalized working-class Black subjects who are not straining to justify their own legitimacy nor are they defined by the proximity to whiteness. Instead, they are “imaged so unapologetically on its own terms” (39).
A young boy wanders the city with his group of friends or cowboys gather and perform in a rodeo. In the gorgeously attentive “Verse Two: Black (Counter)gravity,” Campt presents a sustained reading of these scenes by artist Khalil Joseph’s practice, covering three of his major video projects: Until the Quiet Comes (2012), FlyPaper (2017), and Wildcat (2018). Joseph’s cinematic meditations on place include the all-Black town of Grayson, Oklahoma, which was settled by former slaves on land provided by Indigenous tribes; the public housing complex Nickerson Gardens, considered one of the “most dangerous” projects in Los Angeles (56); and the city streets and parks of New York City’s Harlem. The central thesis of this chapter, or rather mantra of this meditation, is that Joseph’s works display acts of “Black countergravity,” the power to defy “the physics of anti-Blackness that has historically exerted a negative force aimed at expunging Black life” (47). The works depict Black pain and excellence all at once, and they do so in a cinematic abundance that amplifies the psychic impact of kinship and social life.
In “Verse Three: The Visual Frequency of Black Life,” Campt’s attention homes in on the sonic register of artist Arthur Jafa’s video works. While many critics focus on the relationship between image and music in Jafa’s videos, Campt examines a more nuanced aspect of his work through the notion of visual frequency which shifts focus from what we see to how we see images. She discusses Jafa’s Crystal and Siegfried (2017), Sharifa Walks (2015), Apex (2013) and the well-known Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016), and highlights his use of unstable temporalities, irregular camera rates, and fixed frame replication patterns that approximate Black vocal intonations and the intensity of Black music through images. Just as sound makes us move, feel, tune in, and tune out, Campt states, images also offer a full sensorial experience. Jafa’s editing techniques translate music’s affective and spiritual intensity into a visual landscape. Bringing together found and newly filmed footage of mundane domestic life and community gatherings with horrific state violence captured on police dash cams and cell phones, he creates a cacophonous archive of contemporary Black life that is “framed by a gaze that shows us the inseparability of the history of Black suffering from its opposite: Black pleasure” (100).
The subsequent verses ruminate on the practices of Okwui Okpokwasili and Dawoud Bey, Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, and Luke Willis Thompson, followed by a short reprise on the “haptic images” of artist Jean Nikiru. The themes of “hapticity,” “flow,” “slowness,” “pacing,” “quiet,” and “hum” are braided throughout the book. These terms periodically appear in the margins, and thereby accent each verse’s creative use of language as well as their multisensorial engagement with art. By narrating travel experiences, her body’s reaction to the weather, or sitting on the floor of an artist’s studio to better engage with the work, Campt also entangles the process of art writing with the lived experience of being a moving and feeling body. She contributes the expansive theory of a Black gaze while enacting a new and refreshing way to write about, to, and with art.
Visiting Lecturer, Department Art and Art History, Williams College
PhD candidate, University of California, San Diego