Crying in Art, Part 32
Kerry James Marshall
Born: Birmingham, Alabama 1955
acrylic on fiberglass
108 x 72 in. (274.3 x 182.9 cm)
Kerry James Marshall is one of the leading contemporary painters of his generation. Over the past twenty-five years, he has become internationally known for monumental images of African American history and culture. Marshall attributes his interest in these subjects to the geography of his upbringing. Born in Birmingham, Alabama just as the bus boycotts were beginning, the artist and his family moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, in 1963 (two years before the race riots) and finally settled in South Central Los Angeles at the height of the civil rights movement. The experience of growing up at the epicenter of socio-political change has yielded a body of work deeply rooted in personal biography and historical detail.
SOB, SOB evokes Marshall’s intellectual journey over the last fifty years beginning with his boyhood visits to the local library. According to the artist, by the third and fourth grades he knew “every single art book in the library,” and by the seventh grade he was taking summer classes at the Otis Art Institute. SOB, SOB reflects this thirst for information. It is a painting about the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and relates closely to Marshall’s ongoing exploration of African American history.
The painting depicts a female figure seated in front of a tall shelf of African history books. A volume titled Africa since 1413 lies at her feet as she gazes into the sunlit interior. It’s unclear whether her contemplative gaze is one of wistful longing for a pre-colonial past or anguish over the transformation of the African continent that began in 1413 with European expeditionary missions. A thought bubble floating above the girl’s head further complicates this emotional ambiguity. The text can be read as either a cry of despair or a pointed expression of anger.
Painted in 2003, SOB, SOB marks a pivotal moment in Marshall’s career as one of the first paintings to address the idea of black aesthetics. The term “black aesthetics” first emerged in the early 1960s as a means of promoting racial equality and fostering black cultural pride. Writers, musicians, and visual artists of the period imbued their work with the tones and textures of African American heritage to create a unique form of expression. Marshall’s own exploration of black aesthetics grows out of previous paintings like The Garden Project series (1995), which focused on the failed utopia of urban renewal through federal housing projects. SOB, SOB not only represents a new conceptual direction for Marshall, but also a stylistic shift from the glitter-encrusted Souvenir paintings (1998–2002) that commemorate cultural heroes of the civil rights era. In contrast, SOB, SOB presents a spare interior space very different from these earlier works. Here we see Marshall at his most serious and technically refined, meditating on the events that have shaped the lives of African Americans today.
If there’s one thing that most fans of Star Trek will agree on, it’s the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show — and, more optimistically, for human society — was predicated on the idea that all life is valuable, and that the worth of a person should not be judged by their appearance. Much of this was done through the old sci-fi trope of using aliens to stand in for oppressed groups, but Star Trek didn’t rely on the metaphor; it had characters who were part of the ensemble, important and beloved members of the Enterprise crew, who were people of colour. It had background characters who were people of colour. And, here and there, it had anti-heroes and villains who were people of colour … one of whom, Khan Noonian Singh, became well-nigh iconic.
Image 1: “Who is your favorite villain?” ; Actor John Cho (Lt Sulu) answers.
Image 2: TOS Khan looking at a watercolor of himself. Yes, he’s wearing a dastar (Sikh turban)
Image 3: Cumberbatch and Montalbán (as Khan)
And who is now being played by white actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the new JJ Abrams reboot movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness.
We’re all cynical and jaded enough to know the standard dismissal when it comes to matters of media representation: Paramount Pictures and most film studios are not interested in diversity or visibility, they only care about the bottom dollar. Star Trek as a franchise is too much of a juggernaut to affect with boycotts. There are too many people who love it, who love those characters and that world, and will go to see the movie. And for some of these people, this devotion to the idea of a future where even South and East Asian men get to pilot a starship and love swashbuckling, where Black women make Lieutenant on the Enterprise and actually get the boy, will be trivialized and eroded and whitewashed when the most formidable and complex Star Trek baddie becomes a white man named Khan.
It wasn’t perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalbán was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. It’s disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for … what? The hopes that casting Benedict Cumberbatch would draw in a few more box office returns? It’s doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.
Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of “best actor for the job, not racism” becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like Racebending.com from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. This happened with the character of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, as well as ‘Miranda Tate’ in The Dark Knight Rises, who ended up being Talia al Ghul but played by French actress Marion Cotillard. This practice is well in effect in Hollywood; and after the negative press that was generated by angry anti-oppression activists and fans when Paramount had The Last Airbender in the works, studios are wising up. They don’t want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released — Airbender proved that these protests create enough bad feeling to affect their bottom line.
So the studio has now found a way to keep it secret and underhanded. Racebending.com was there for most of the production of The Last Airbender, and were even able to correspond with Paramount Pictures about it. This time, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, their hiding and opaque practices has managed to silence media watchdogs until the movie’s premiere.
As I said, this racist whitewashing of the character of Khan won’t affect how much money this Trek movie makes. And I’m happy that the franchise is popular, still popular enough to warrant not only a big-budget reboot with fantastic actors but also a sequel with that cast. I’m happy that actors I enjoy like Zoë Saldaña and John Cho are playing characters who mean so much to me, and that they, in respect for the groundbreaking contributions by Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in these roles, have paid homage to that past.
But all of that will be marred by having my own skin edited out, rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen. In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.
And that’s why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man. Racebending.com has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that’s true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he’s smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.
What an enormous and horribly ironic step backwards. For Star Trek, for media representation, and for the vision of a future where we have transcended systemic, racist erasure.
THIS IS PISSING ME OFF
"As the club [i.e. National Association of Colored Women, 1896] women went about their work of ‘defending our name,’ they dissociated themselves from working-class women’s blues culture, and assumed the missionary role of introducing ‘true womanhood’ to their less fortunate sisters. In fact, they were defining the name of the female contingent of the black bourgeoise. It did not occur to them—and may not be obvious today—that this women’s blues community was in fact defending the name of its own members. And while club women achieved great victories in the historical struggles they undertook against racism, and forcefully affirmed black women’s equality in the process, the ideological terrain on which they operated was infused with assumptions about the inherent inferiority of poor—and especially sexually assertive—women. In hindsight, the production, performance and reception of women’s blues during the decade of the twenties reveal that black women’s names could be defended by working-class as well as middle-class women. Women’s blues also demonstrate that working-class women’s names could be defended not only in the face of dominant white culture but in the face of the male assertions of dominance in the black community as well."
This quote is from her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. This is really important. She doesn’t ignore the accomplishments of middle class Black women BUT it is important to note that many looked down on blues singers at the time—the same ones who are idolized now in hindsight. They weren’t always idolized. We see the same thing occurring today with notions of “respectable” Black women singers being juxtaposed to ones not deemed “respectable” and such labeling ends up being patriarchal, sexist, misogynoirist and classist. There is no true choice or good side to a binary. While it is understandable that middle class Black women wanted to be treated like “women” versus chattel for centuries as all Black women were under slavery, this often came at the price of them looking down on working class and poor Black women, even as the former worked towards social justice as well as the latter. While respectability politics sought to eschew racist oppression and humanize Black people, it also reinforced colourism, classism and misogynoir. Blues singers helped to give working class Black women a voice and amplified their voices. Also, in many ways, they were more daring than some middle class Black women because they directly challenged oppression from Black men, not just from Whites. So many blues songs focus on financial independence, choice of sexual partners, sexual empowerment, rejection of abuse, fighting back and more.
June 14, 1928 - Birthday of Comrade Ernesto Che Guevara
Che Guevara, pictured in Gaza, who was born on this day, 14th June 1928.
“The first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels,” said Ernesto Guevara Lynch.
Via Gaza TV News
Why do people always conveniently forget the Irish were also colonizers and missionaries?
Anyway HBD Che! Figured you for a Gemini.