Interviews

The Queer Art that Helped Define Post-Blackness

In his collection of essays, Derek Conrad Murray explores questions of post-blackness by drawing on the artworks of Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Kalup Linzy.

Mickalene Thomas, “Hotter Than July” (2005) (all images courtesy Derek Conrad Murray)

LOS ANGELES — “Post-black” is a term that’s thrown around a lot, though its meaning is not totally fixed. In Derek Conrad Murray’s book Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights, he argues that the intersectionality of sexual politics and queer identities has been essential in shaping and defining post-blackness. Murray, a professor at UC Santa Cruz specializing in African-American/African Diaspora art and culture, does not focus on blackness as race, but more so as a racial, social construct. For him, the “black” in post-black refers to a construction of what blackness is, and “post-black” is a means for redefining the parameters of blackness.

“If post-black represents a threat, it is to the hegemony of hetero-patriarchal expressions of blackness that, in their essentialist logics and racial nostalgia, relegate African-American identity to a series of limiting scripts,” he writes in the introduction of the book. “In response, I argue that post-black is simply a notion. It is an idea that allows for intellectual discussion to occur.” As such, it is fitting that in this collection of essays, Murray expounds upon his ideas around post-blackness by drawing on the works of artists Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Kalup Linzy. All of these artists were born after the Civil Rights Movement, and all have themes of queerness within their work. I caught up with him recently to talk more about how he got involved in this research and why chose these artists to consider questions around post-blackness.

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Alicia Eler: What made you decide to write about Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Kalup Linzy? You of course talk about other artists within those chapters, but why did you focus on these four?

Derek Conrad Murray: I chose these artists for various reasons, but the most obvious one, considering the title of the book, was related to the central presence of queer themes in their work. I found this extraordinary, particularly because black queer artists have historically struggled for recognition, and in this generational moment, there appears to be a change. That said, there were also formal and aesthetic qualities in their production where queering takes place, so it’s important to recognize that the term queering has a double meaning in the book. In terms of its construction in the US, racialized blackness is meant to function as a reduction, a simplification, that is more about an ideological idea of black people as ‘social symbolism’ (something to revile, pity, fetishize, or project sentiment onto), rather than as a reflection of the complexity of our humanity. Each of these artists is capturing something that seeps through the cracks of these simplifications and stereotypes — and they achieve this both conceptually and representationally.

Kehinde Wiley, “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ” (2008)

AE: Could you talk a bit about your own academic and personal background, your interest in and research on post-black art? What was the moment when you discovered post-black art, and why did it resonate with your work?

DCM: The first time I heard the term post-black, it was in reference to an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, and since then it has become widely discussed, if not also maligned — but mostly it has been branded and rebranded by various journalists and intellectuals. I was initially drawn by the word itself: its polemical force, and the way it tends to enflame certain people at its very utterance. There’s a certain power in that that I could not ignore. On the other hand, it’s widely thought of as a post-racial stance, but that is a complete misinterpretation and antithetical to my critical framing. I’m a theorist, so I’ve utilized the term to construct a theory of representation specific to contemporary African-American art: a theory that attempts to unpack the conceptual and aesthetic specificities of post-Civil Rights visual artists, who are creatively reimagining the visual rhetorics of blackness. I’m theorizing blackness, rather than commemorating African-American history, and that generates a certain degree of skepticism.

I did doctoral work in art history at Cornell, and it was during that time that I made the decision to become a theorist, as opposed to a historian. I knew from a relatively young age that I wanted to make an intervention into the history of African-American art, but I’ve often found its historiography to be too bound to a politics of respectability, and a need to continually celebrate, and habitually restate the value of black culture and history. There are many fine scholars doing this work, many of whom I greatly admire, but I wanted to forge a new path, and that’s what I’ve done — even if it has positioned me outside of the dominant discourse.

Glenn Ligon, “Malcolm X (Version 1) #1” (2000), Flashe paint, silkscreen ink, and gesso on canvas, 96 x 72 inches (© Glenn Ligon, image courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London)

AE: I have been reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and it’s such a powerful read, but also the amount of misogyny is staggering. I’ve had your book and that book side by side on my desk for a while, and I’ve just been looking at the covers — the queered version of Malcolm X, with red lipstick, blush on his face, and blue eyebrows under his ’50s hipster glasses, against the original one of him looking stern and visionary, gazing off into the distance. I’m curious about your decision to put this image on the cover. How do you feel it reflects the contents of the book? 

DCM: The image is actually a recreation of a child’s rendering from an Afrocentric coloring book. Ligon supplied these coloring books to children and they produced some compelling images. In my reading of the work, Malcolm X’s image can be interpreted in different ways: metaphorically in terms of a child’s pre-ideological innocence, as intentionally mocking, or as a queered re-envisioning of the slain leader. Either way, it skews perceptions of a figure whose legacy is extremely over-determined, and dislodges any compulsory and uncritical expectation of racial fidelity. In African-American intellectual thought there has always been a lingering historical and critical consideration of homophobia, particularly in revisionist historical assessments of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. And therefore this image may also function as an artistic corollary to these interventions, even if the artist has created a conceptual framework that allows for a certain critical distance. I chose the image for the cover specifically because I felt it fully captured the self-critical force of post-blackness as a representational theory.

AE: These days, I’m not just reading politicized contemporary art within the context it was made, but against the backdrop of the Trump administration circus that continues to unfold — or, as Angela Davis puts it, “the embodiment of the last gasp of white male supremacy in America.” How are you seeing the current political climate in relation to this collection of essays? 

DCM: My work is committed to an intersectional approach to the complexity of identity, so this necessitates always considering the ways that gender, race, and sexuality are interconnected. But I also resist essentializing black culture and history, and refuse to hermetically seal it away from other histories of social and political struggle, or other intellectual and creative traditions. Within that approach is a deep commitment to human rights and equality, but I’ve always done this work, so I’m somewhat surprised that so many people are just now realizing that something is wrong with this country. I’m as disturbed by that as I am with the current political reality. 

Within the liberal or left-leaning milieu in which I operate, the dominant sentiment in response to the current political climate is one of shock, revulsion, and moral outrage. I’ve been heartened by this outpouring of resistance and solidarity. Still, within these spaces is the ongoing presence of discrimination and structural inequity. Within liberal institutions, minorities often find themselves shut out of hiring and promotion, demeaned and harassed, or simply paid less than their white counterparts. This is a widely known fact, yet in many respects, Trump functions as the perfect boogeyman and a symbol that the evils of racism are somehow out there…beyond the walls and value systems of liberal institutions and their diversity mandates. I truly believe that if we are all so committed to progressive change, we need to look into our own house, and our own communities, because we’ll surely find that the boogeyman has been right among us all along.

Artist Kalup Linzy photographed by Grant Delin for Interview Magazine (2009)

AE: In your essay on Kalup Linzy, you point out how Holland Cotter, in a review of the artist’s work, overlooks its political undertones and focuses instead on its funny content. You write: Linzy’s humor and wit so palpably resonates on the surfaces of his videos and performances that one can easily look past its engagements with difficult subjects like racial marginalization and queer shame.” It made me think about the ways that, even if work is overtly political, it seems to need a possibility for a non-politicized reading by a white audience/gaze in order to “pass” and become “accepted” into the white, Eurocentric art world, which is ultimately not a space for political action. Would you agree or disagree? Why or why not?

DCM: All art is political and all art is about identity. Regardless of the polemics around black creative production, the notion that art produced by white artists (regardless of medium or conceptual intent) is somehow not inherently political or concerned with whiteness is more than a bit absurd. In the US there is no neutral ground on which to stand when it comes to identity. And everyone is thinking about it, whether they’re making abstract paintings, or staging political interventions in art spaces, or making Hollywood films. The challenge is to envision the world as we experience it, and resist the urge to always create fantasies of racial homogeneity, as delightful as they may seem. Linzy’s art is so brilliant in the way he manages to resist, even mock, the legibility of identity to the degree that nothing is stable: especially blackness and whiteness. And that is the reason why I chose to close the book by saying: “we’re all Kalup’s churen.” I like to imagine that we are.

Derek Conrad Murray’s Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights is out from I.B.Tauris.

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