Art

Playing with the Privilege to Make Art About Anything

Dominique Duroseau’s exhibition shows us what black bodies look like when “glamoured” by a racist imagination.

Dominique Duroseau, “A Woman Is Still a Woman, If She’s a Woman” (2017) mixed mannequin parts, fabric, paper, rubber; varied dimensions (all images courtesy the artist and Gallery Aferro)

In an article of mine published almost two years ago, I asked colleagues and friends who are researchers, artists, and educators to address the question of how to disrupt the dominance of white supremacy in the mainstream art world. The answers I received were insightful and unsparing and gave me a great deal to think through. On seeing Dominique Duroseau‘s exhibition, Black Things in White Spaces, at Gallery Aferro, I thought of what Travis Webb had written about whiteness in that article:

Ultimately whiteness is not coterminous with the hegemony of white people … whiteness — shorthand for an otherworldly contempt for the body — is a habit, a mode, a glamour to conceal these messy, universally non-white bodies.

Dominique Duroseau, “Does my Presence Offend” (2017) ephemeral installation, vintage stiffened fabric, steel; varied dimensions

I think of this idea of whiteness being an attitude, a world view, a kind of glamour, that is to say enchantment, because Duroseau’s show is so much the antipode: the title alone tells us that the artist is focusing on things. When I visited the gallery and spoke to Duroseau about the show, querying the many material things I saw that invoked corporeality — particularly the mannequins that looked like they had gone through a process of “negrofication” such as “A Woman is Still a Woman, If She’s a Woman” (2017) — she addressed this contradistinction. She said that so many artworks she saw, particularly those made by white men ensconced in art historical canons, “were about nothing,” and thus she wanted to use a similar material idiom to “talk about something.” Given this conviction, the viewer gets pieces like “Does My Presence Offend” (2017), which consists of a large, dark cloth scrunched and folded on a wall with intermittent visible metal struts piercing the material to hold it up. A similar work is “The Identity You Prefer” (2017), which consists of garbage bags held horizontally against the wall almost at eye level, tempting me to place my face inside to see what might be hidden in their recesses.

Dominique Duroseau, “The Identity You Prefer” (2017) ephemeral mixed media installation, dimensions variable

These are works that use the artist’s intuitive play with materials in the way that Robert Rauschenberg had or Richard Tuttle might. In both cases, much of their work reads to me as exultation in having the agency and the daring to just play, as if they were betting with house money. This is why I think Duroseau gets it a little wrong: that work — the neo- and abstract branches of post-war and contemporary Expressionism associated with certain heroicized white, male artists — are not about nothing; this work is about the freedom to have the work be about anything. And this freedom over time has come to represent a kind of disdain or contempt for the social practices, government policies, and lived political realities that shape and limit most bodies in the world — especially black and brown bodies that don’t come near to such extravagant freedom.

To show us what these bodies look like when “glamoured” by a racist imagination, they are what I call “negrofied”: the mannequins are wrapped in black tape; limbs are missing; the lips, nose, and nipples are enlarged, and the eyes are blinded. They are reduced to a few signs of ethnic identity and sexual stereotype. In addition to the mannequins, the exhibition contains drawings, photographs, written and typed words, language actualized through speakers, and more. Throughout there is a kind of insistence on the (black) body as a kind of counterpoint to this ideology, this enchantment that is whiteness. But then I think: Is this our future? Will we continue to have blackness and whiteness locked in this dialectic, and will we continue imagining our being existing somewhere between these two poles?

Dominique Duroseau, “Mending me, Mine, Your, Our Blackness” (2017) fabric, vintage black cast iron sewing machine, candles, plastic flowers, looped audio; varied dimensions

Dominique Duroseau: Black Things in White Spaces continues at Gallery Aferro (73 Market Street, Newark, New Jersey) through October 28.

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