Tag Archives: blackness

Mary Sibande

Inspired by the explorations of race, gender and sexuality in the work of American artists Kara Walker and Cindy Sherman, and London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Mary cast her own body in fibreglass and silicone to create Sophie. She then painted her a “flat black,” so that she stands out like a dark and static shadow … Sophie’s eyes are always closed as if in a “constant ecstasy of fantasy” and it’s in her mind that her dress becomes a thing of voluminous Victorian splendour. “If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform,” said Mary.

Elle Decoration ZA (Cited at M. Dash)

The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin, and clothing is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out. Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black women and in this sense her work is informed by postcolonial theory, through her art making. In her work, domestic setting acts as a stage where historical psycho-dramas play out.

Sibande’s work also highlights how priviledged ideals of beauty and femininity aspired to by black women discipline their body through rituals of imitation and reproduction. She inverts the social power indexed by Victorian costumes by reconfiguring it as a domestic worker’s “uniform” complexifying the colonial relationship between “slave” and “master” in a post-apartheid context. The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships.

Gallery MOMO

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY, ON BEAUTY

LINKAGE: “Fear of a Black Venus”

I’m thrilled that my friend and colleague Isabel Molina Guzman has entered the blogosphere with Color (Re)adjustment, an extension of her valuable scholarship on race and representational politics. In her words, Color (Re)Adjustment (an homage to the late great filmmaker and educator Marlon Riggs) hopes “to disrupt the burden of representation by stepping outside of a commitment to respectability; to move conversations outside of the confining dichotomy of the positive and negative image debate.”

Her thoughts on the mind-boggling controversy over Venus Williams’ tennis shorts at the Australian Open are absolutely right-on. That some commentators might believe or suggest that Venus Williams would perform without underwear in a global arena –examining closely, and inviting others to do the same, photographs of Venus’s backside to try to discern exactly what they might (or might not) be seeing– seems continuous with long histories of discourses and practices of scrutiny and surveillance aimed at black female bodies.

In Spectacle of the Other Stuart Hall writes, “Representation is a complex business and, especially when dealing with ‘difference’, it engages feelings, attitudes and emotions and it mobilizes fears and anxieties in the viewer, at deeper levels than we can explain in a simple, common-sense way.” So I ask you, in a world where women tennis stars are paid millions to wear as little as possible on the courts, what is underlying the public hysteria surrounding Venus Williams 2010 Australian Open outfit, an outfit that she designed for herself under her label?

It appears that the spectacle of the black female bootie threatens the spectra of upper-class respectability surrounding the predominantly white sport of tennis, a sport that has only had two black elite female stars in the last 20 years — Venus and Serena Williams. What I find truly humorous and troubling is that tennis fans and the mainstream media find it plausible that one of the world’s best women’s athlete would actually go on international television flashing her butt and vagina. What does this say about the contemporary representational status of black urban femininity and sexuality?

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Radio Silence + Some Noise

Apologies for the recent radio silence — I’m suffering a terrific head cold as well as ever-anxious anticipation for my manuscript workshop this week. Being ill has been something of a relief, quite frankly, as it feels like a legitimate reason to stop working for at least a little while. (Or to do other work, though I have my cat Morton to do my laundry for me!) I’ve actually taken a bit of a break from the Internets –except for vintage shopping on Etsy!– but here are a few things I’ve enjoyed reading in the last week or so, while Minh-Ha has been on a research trip.

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Queer novelist and performer Michelle Tea is blogging for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now, and in her latest missive she ponders the return of possibly regrettable fashions past:

I don’t know if I am ready for creepers to make a comeback, even in the form of a boot, even if the boot comes with a leather faux-sock poking over the top, even and especially if it comes hung with a couple of decorative boot-belts. And even if they are designed by Alexander Wang. But you know, even as I type this, looking at the boots in their buttery lighting at Barneys, where they live, I am starting to have second thoughts. Maybe they are actually the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Sometimes being repulsed by a piece of fashion is a signal that I’m about to be obsessed with it.

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It seems that the Internets is spitting up reflections on the impact of fashion bloggers these days (we’re no exception), especially with Style Rookie Tavi’s skyrocketing interplanetary profile as both model and muse. Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion offers this new social media reality check to industry insiders, while Evil Monito’s Lindsey Ibarra chimes in with some thoughts on the increasingly blurred divisions between insider/outsider status, as well as shifting measures of expertise, especially apparent as amateur fashion bloggers appear to replace professional stylists:

As the fashion blogosphere has grown it’s become packed with new voices, talents and faces. Through its evolution it has become clear that in order to be a valid blogger one must be a visible blogger and in turn the World Wide Web has been flooded with boys and girls eager to show themselves off to the rest of the world. No longer is it just about the clothing; suddenly it’s also about a face wearing the clothing, and yet I suppose in some ways it always has been. When supermodels ruled the world their faces were just as important (if not more so) as the clothing they were modeling but the added element of worldwide exposure at the click of a button has created an entire generation of “I’m famous on the Internet” icons.

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Next, there be black dandies all over! Jezebel covers the recent release of photographer Daniele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo, documenting the phenomenon of sapeurs, or the Congolese subculture of dandies. I’d been worrying at this postcolonial knot of politics and desires since I read a few months earlier Patty Chang’s review at Fashion Projects of George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary The Importance of Being Elegant. Chang’s comments are insightful:

Watching this documentary, it’s unavoidable to draw parallels to the image of ‘bling-bling’ culture propagated by new school hip hop. The projection of cool by emulating the conspicuous consumption of elites, and the impersonation of success and fashionability, rather than the projection of a sense of depravation are traits shared by both subcultures. Indeed, Amponsah and Spender seem more inclined to portray the phenomenon of la Sape in a similar vein to the glorification of material excess found in hip hop culture. The inherent paradoxes of poor unemployed urban youths who hustle to be able to wear designer duds or footage of Papa Wemba trying on garish fur coats by Cavalli, all seem to confirm this.

Yet, la Sape has a history that is far older than this documentary suggests. Originating in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1930s, the movement’s inspiration (though often disputed) draws reference from the archetypal dandies of modernity as well as Western films of the 1940s and 1950s, especially those of mobster, black and white thrillers, and the Three Musketeers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville were mainly composed of lower middle class young men, high school drop outs, and later, disenfranchised youths. Observing a strict three color rule, their austere elegance became a method to cope with colonialist hegemony and assimilation policies, as well as a way of subversion and resistance. In addition, the acronym la Sape plays on the French term for clothing and points to the fascination with their colonizers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville preached a conservative style that focused on cleanliness and absence from using hard drugs. Through the cultivation of clothes, they sought to define their social distinctiveness while deriving pleasure in admiring themselves, somewhat akin to what Pierre Bourdieu has called a ‘strategy of self-representation’. Fashion became a symbolic gesture of reclaiming power in times of economic deprivation and attempts at political dominance. In some instances, it proved a man could be a master of his own fate. Some authors have remarked that the sapeurs concealed their social failure through the presentation of self and the transformation of it into an apparent victory.

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And finally, Fashion for Writers is on some kind of posting roll with wonderful prose and lovely photographs. I’m inspired, though not enough to get dressed in something besides yoga pants and my old Maximumrocknroll t-shirt right now. Damn this cold! I will just have to heal in the warm glow of the Kate Bush Dance Troupe!

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PICTURING POLITICS: On “Pride In His Work”

This past Monday, in what brings nothing less than Driving Miss Daisy most prominently to mind, the Sartorialist posted a photograph from his book tour, featuring his (unnamed) driver in San Francisco. In his commentary, the Sartorialist remarks: “As you can see he was very elegant and practically oozed self-confidence, dignity and pride in his work. I love people who show pride in their work, regardless of the job.”

Seemingly unaware that service workers labor under constant public scrutiny, he continues: “This man’s car was spotless, his shoes were shined and he knew exactly where he was going. He wasn’t dressed like that for me, he had no idea who I was, this was just another day and just another ride done in his own stylish way.”

My first reaction was, What the fuck.

I’ve written about this before with regard to the Sartorialist’s photograph of a presumably (but not assuredly) homeless black man and the commentary in which he imputes a quality of dignity to the man on the evidence of his well-matched accessories. This quality reappears here in the suit and smile, now matched with “pride in his work.” Those structures of privilege or social realities that might mediate the encounter are nowhere accounted for. Instead, we are presented with what appears to be the snapshot of an individual who has risen above those unnamed social structures (only apparent in the condescension of “regardless of the job”) to attain self-confidence and dignity, but who (in this story the Sartorialist tells) does not challenge those structures at all.

I want to quote again the brilliant Lauren Berlant on the icky sentimentalism of such regard:

The humanization strategies of sentimentality always traffic in cliché, the reproduction of a person as a thing, and thus indulge in the confirmation of the marginal subject’s embodiment of inhumanity on the way to providing the privileged with heroic occasions of recognition, rescue, and inclusion.

As before, the Sartorialist’s rhetoric is the affective symptom of this world-view that first expresses amazement at the other’s dignity (“he wasn’t dressed like that for me”/”he is communicating his sense of pride and self-worth”) and second expresses self-satisfaction at his own willingness to recognize that dignity — without ever confronting the conditions or ideologies that enable such assumptions as its absence in the first place.

The comments performthis same economy of affirmation and forgetting — this is the conditional affirmation of the other’s dignity in so far as he appears to be “like us,” and this is the selective forgetting of the histories of labor and race that continue to exclude the other from the measure of humanity. Especially here, because conceptions of labor are always interpolated with considerations of race, gender, sexuality, and nation, the figure of the black driver signifies in all these at once.

That is, in the following comments we see certain conceptions of contracted and service labor as they intersect with forms of racism and racialization (about black masculinity through prisms of racialized threat and its “domestication” in particular), material privileges and class comfort (consider the remarks about “trust” and “politeness”), and rules of gender stylization:

I immediately thought of Marshall (Ossie Davis) the limo driver in Joe vs the Volcano. Very nice.

He looks clean, and he looks proud of his job!

Pure style indeed. Could you post his contact information? I am in the Bay Area every few months and would like to book him.

VERY well put. everyone should take such pride in their jobs, regardless of the profession.

What a nice-looking man! You’re right; taking care in one’s appearance definitely inspires confidence. I’d definitely trust him to drive me anywhere.

Echoed repeatedly is the notion that “pride in one’s work” is an important but increasingly rare quality. (This leads many commentators to wax nostalgic for an idealized image of the past, which carries its own historical racial connotations.) But what sort of attitude is this about those forms of labor that are comprised of economic vulnerability and racial exploitation? To emphasize, indeed to belabor, “pride in his work” as such is thus merely to raise a rather conventional attitude about the other’s compliance with capitalism’s often violent inequities.

That is, when does “pride in his work” slide seamlessly into “knows his place”? Such comments as “I would like to book him,” “He looks proud of his job,” express pleasure at what is presented as the scene of a black man proud to be at the service of others.

Thus the violence of historical servitude disappears, and it occurs to only a very few in his audience (of the commentators) that perhaps this performance is less pride and more prudence. In an uncertain economy, an individual employed in the service sector –especially as a driver or some other position requiring also affective labor (e.g., smiling, nodding, chuckling at terrible jokes)– must perform satisfaction with their position in order to ensure their continued employment.

Showing this post to my students, many of them understood this immediately: that doing service work is a careful negotiation of bodily and sartorial performativity informed by race, gender, sexuality, and nation, under unequal conditions of labor and capital.

Meanwhile, I want to believe that this comment is the work of a minion at The Onion, because the final bit about his teeth seems so ludicrous it must be satire lampooning the racism of above-mentioned observations about the driver’s cleanliness: “Well put, Sart! Regardless of one’s job, even if it’s just to drive people around, one should always look nice, as this gentleman certainly does. We can’t see his shoes, so we’ll have to take your word that they are shined, but we can see his teeth, and they are well brushed indeed, further proof of his self-esteem.”

A few comments do protest (“The fact that he is a driver doesn’t mean he has a personal sound track which consists of ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’……”), and Stephanie writes at length:

You write all of this as though the fact that someone with a lower-class service job actually cares about themselves and has self-confidence and “dignity” is remarkable. He might not have been dressed like this specifically for you, but who knows why he dresses like this…could very well have something to do with wanting to get ahead in a service industry. As a friend of mine said, “Additionally, the post, especially in remarks to politeness and “self-worth” makes me think of Richard Wright’s novels, and specifically of Bigger Thomas in “Native Son,” or of generations of black porters who learned to smile at every white person, or of cooks, drivers, and other employment groups of subservient Negroes that have faded into cultural memory.”

Not that there is anything wrong with that on his part, just that I feel like you are romanticizing/aestheticizing away a lot of the more gruesome aspects of class, labor, and race in America. Which is potentially dangerous, and not in a good way. (Or, at least not in a good way for those of us who care about changing those conditions for the better.)

While allowing other comments –notably, the more obviously fucked-up ones expressing surprise and pleasure at the driver’s cleanliness– go unremarked, the Sartorialist did respond to Stephanie with a few disproportionate sentiments, including: “The problem is not me ….it’s you! you try to scare people with your hyper-political correctness so everyone is scared to say anything…. Next time read what i wrote and not what you think you can twist around to fit your daily pc rant.” (Oh, cliche*!) After Stephanie gently pointed out that she was just one comment among many –most of which are uniformly fawning– and had no actual power to censor anyone on his blog, the Sartorialist apologized, sort of (“we were too harsh on each other”).

* From this post: “Underlying every complaint of ‘PC’ is the absurd notion that members of dominant mainstream society have been victimized by an arbitrarily hypersensitive prohibition against linguistic and cultural constructions that are considered historical manifestations of bigotry.” And furthermore, from Racialicious: “Berg explains that in its original context, PC was a pejorative term used by people who felt they were losing something. Exactly what they were losing is very hard to describe, especially to them. But many sociologists and historians today have come to a consensus on what they call it: it’s a loss of privilege—and in terms of race, a loss of white privilege.”

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PUBLICATION: Monica Miller on Slaves To Fashion

Duke University Press’s new release, Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, promises to appear on all my future syllabi, no matter the course. Read Miller’s illuminating essay about the book’s core concepts and their development at Rorotoko, an online venue for engaging authors and ideas in intellectual nonfiction. Below is a long excerpt to whet your appetite:

Slaves to Fashion began with a footnote I encountered in graduate school. While auditing a class on W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, I came across a troubling reference to the fact that the revered Du Bois had been caricatured as a black dandy. In the class, we spent even weeks in detailed analysis of Du Bois’s skill as a rhetorician and lyricist. In order to appreciate the truly interdisciplinary nature of his talents, we took very seriously his training as a philosopher, historian and sociologist. The image of Du Bois that emerged was that of an erudite, punctilious, quintessential “race man.” None of this prepared me for the footnote and accompanying illustration from a political cartoon of Du Bois as a degraded buffoon, overly dressed and poorly comported, whose erudition had been turned into what the cartoon called “ebucation.”

Only when I began to research the history of dandyism and, in particular, the racialization of the dandy figure, did I realize the complex strategy and history behind that caricature. Dandyism has been used by Africans and blacks to project images of themselves as dignified and distinguished, it has also been used by the majority culture (and blacks) to denigrate and ridicule black aspirations. Slaves to Fashion examines the interrelatedness of these impulses and what the deployment of one strategy or the other says about the state of black people and culture at different moments in history.

Although dandyism is often considered a mode of extremely frivolous behavior attentive only to surfaces or facades and a practice of the white, European elite and effete, I argue that it is a creative and subtle mode of critique, regardless of who is deploying it. Though often considered fools, hopelessly caught up in the world of fashion, dandies actually appear in periods of social, political and cultural transition, telling us much about cultural politics through their attitude and appearance. Particularly during times when social mores shift, style and charisma allow these primarily male figures to distinguish themselves when previously established privileges of birth and wealth, or ways of measuring social standing might be absent or uncertain. Style—both sartorial and behavioral— affords dandies the ability and power to set new fashions, to create or imagine worlds more suited to their often avant-garde tastes. Dandyism is thus not just a practice of dress, but also a visible form of investigating and questioning cultural realities.

Anyone can be in vogue without apparent strategy, but dandies commit to a study of the fashions that define them and an examination of the trends around—which they can continually re-define themselves. Therefore, when racialized, the dandy’s affectations (fancy dress, arch attitude, fey and fierce gesture) signify well beyond obsessive self-fashioning—rather, the figure embodies the importance of the struggle to control representation and self- and cultural-expression.

Manipulations of dress and dandyism have been particularly important modes of self-expression and social commentary for Africans before contact with Europeans and especially afterwards. In fact, in order to endure the attempted erasure or reordering of black identity in the slave trade and its aftermath, those Africans arriving in England, America, or the West Indies had to fashion new identities, to make the most out of the little that they were given. Whether luxury slaves or field hands, their new lives nearly always began with the issuance of new clothes.

Enslaved people, however, frequently modified these garments in order to indicate their own ideas about the relationship between slavery, servitude, and subjectivity. For example, there are documented cases of slaves saving single buttons and ribbons to add to their standard issue coarse clothing, examples of slaves stealing or “borrowing” clothing, especially garments made from fine fabrics, from their masters for special occasions. Slaves created underground second-hand clothing markets in major cities to augment their wardrobes and to exchange clothing that identified them when they wanted to escape. In fact, many slaves “dressed up” or “cross-dressed” literally when they absconded, wearing clothing beyond their station or of the other gender in efforts to appear free and be mobile. The black dandy’s style thus communicates simultaneously self-worth, cultural regard, a knowingness about how blackness is represented and seen. Black dandyism has been an important part of and visualization of the negotiation between slavery and freedom.

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Blackface, and the Violence of Revulsion

This post is supposed to be about the latest occurrences of blackface in fashion — specifically, the 14-page editorial featuring Lara Stone, a white Dutch model, painted black and shot by Steven Klein for the October 2009 issue of French Vogue and also Carlos Diez‘s show at Madrid Fashion Week (September 22, 2009) in which models walked in blackface and, at times, with bared breasts.

There is indeed quite a lot to say about both events. To begin, fashion’s seeming ineptness for dealing with race in ways that do not accommodate and/or supplement the already too long histories of racial objectification and commodification. We’ve discussed much of this history on Threadbared (see especially here, here, here, here, and here) already and will no doubt continue to, as there seems to be an inexhaustible amount of material. Second, these events (and others like it) are revealing of the ways in which multiculturalism and multiracialism –under the guise of postracialism, postmodernism, or just artistic edginess– enables the continuation of white supremacy. For example, some are defending French Vogue for its provocativeness (“creative images . . . can sometimes [be] off-putting”) and for its postracialism (arguing that it is “sort of beautiful in that having a person of one ethnic background look convincingly like she might be of another race shows the interconnectedness of us all”). But what is on display in French Vogue and on Diez’s runway is not beautiful black bodies, but what Nirmal Puwar describes as “the universal empty point” that white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked: “[Thus] they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the ‘violence of revulsion.'”

The “violence of revulsion” that women of color generally, and black women particularly in the cases of this issue of French Vogue and Diez’s show, experience is not mediated by these “edgy” acts of “postracialism”. In fact, the violence of revulsion is redoubled here. Blackface highlights the privileged universal empty point that white bodies continue to occupy even in this so-called postracial moment, and in so doing, it positions racial difference against whiteness, as the other to whiteness. Moreover, blackface and other performances of racial commodification produce a different kind of “violence of revulsion” — an everyday violence of revulsion like I experienced when I discovered Klein’s editorial and Diez’s fashion show.

By this second order of “violence of revulsion,” I mean the assault of racism and the assault of colonialism’s traces on what was for me, until that moment of violence, a relatively mundane workday at home. Violently interrupting this scene of banality is not simply these images of racial arrogance, but my own visceral response of anger, exasperation, disappointment, and a feeling I can only describe as racism fatigue. Such images and their inevitable postmodern, postracial, freedom-of-artistic-expression discourses and apologists are not only tired, today they are tiring.

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LINKAGE: The Color of Beauty

Naomi Campbell rightly argues that the all-black Italian Vogue was an inadequate gesture: “That made some noise but, unfortunately, we are the same as before. People, in the panic of recession, don’t dare to put a girl of color in their campaign, full stop.”

At Sepia Mutiny, contributor Phillygrrl recounts the value given to lighter skin among South Asians in “Dark is Beautiful, Indeed.” She posts the efforts of a new organization called Women of Worth and its “Dark is Beautiful” campaign: “The organization purports to erase the notion that ‘the beauty and value of an Indian woman is determined by the fairness of her skin.'” (via Racialicious)

For The New York Times, Catherine St. Louis notes that “Black Hair [Is] Still Tangled in Politics.” From the article: “’For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ said Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of black studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. ‘If you’ve got straight hair, you’re pegged as selling out. If you don’t straighten your hair,’ she said, ‘you’re seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices.’ Anyone who thought such preconceptions were outdated would have been reminded otherwise by some negative reactions to the president’s 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, who wore her hair in twists while in Rome this summer. Commenters on the conservative blog Free Republic attacked her as unfit to represent America for stepping out unstraightened.” The New York Times also features an interactive gallery of nine African American women discussing their hair, and Jezebel “combs through” the issue.

Afrobella sorts out her thoughts about Tyra Bank’s National Real Hair Day episode, hot on the heels of the multiple stories recently published about black hair preceding the nationwide release of Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, in which she appeared without her weave. “Maybe, despite the hype, Tyra wasn’t yet ready. And that I can almost respect. Going natural shouldn’t be a fad — it takes dedication, committment, and courage. Maybe this was a baby step for Tyra.” Afrobella and her commenters parse the significance of real as opposed to natural hair, and the implications that follow. (via Racialicious)

Make Fetch Happen thoughtfully scans the Vogue interview with Beverly Johnson, discussing her experience as Vogue‘s first black cover model.

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