'To Disembark': the slave narrative tradition.
To Disembark, Glenn Ligon's recent installation at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, D.C., alludes to the title of a book of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks,(1) suggesting the arrival at the end of a physical journey that, recast in literature, frequently serves as a motif for a journey into one's self. The installation begins with the artist "boxing" black experience by creating a series of packing crates modeled on the one described by ex- slave Henry "Box" Brown in his Narrative of Henry Box Brown - Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. From each crate Ligon has constructed, a different sound issues, such as a heartbeat or African-American music ranging from early forms like the spirituals to contemporary forms such as rap. Surrounding these boxes are posters for runaway slaves in which the artist characterizes himself - in words and period images - as the slave being advertised. The framed posters resemble nineteenth-century broadsheets circulated to advertise for the return of escaped fugative slaves. Following this is a series of stencils painted on the wall whose text is derived from an essay by Zora Neale Hurston titled "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." Read from top to bottom, the stencils repeat but increasingly obscure significant passages from Hurston's essay.
The last element in this installation, however, relies on the literary genre of the slave narrative as its primary resource. In a series of framed etchings hanging side by side on the gallery wall, Ligon has reproduced in authentic typescript and form frontispieces that would introduce the published narrative of an ex-slave. By assuming another series of ironic identities - as the author on a series of title-pages from nineteenth-century slave narratives - Ligon demonstrates that African Americans are still trying "to disembark." This sentiment is further reinforced by Ligon's including the works of contemporary black writers to supplant traditional "sacred" texts like Bible verses, or supporting testimony from distinguished white persons customarily presented on the title-pages of ex-slave narratives. By positioning himself as a fugitive slave or an ex-slave narrator and by including contemporary writings against the background of a traditional genre, Ligon demonstrates that a slave narrative tradition is ongoing in its formation in literal, literary, and also visual ways. By exploring slavery's painful past, Glenn Ligon hopes to understand his own. Furthermore, he gives viewers an imaginative way to participate in the same process of self/historical construction.
Ligon's use of a literary form as an inspiration for a visual work demonstrates his historical awareness that self-portrayals by African Americans first received their most compelling representation not in the form of images but in the form of words. Aided and encouraged by Northern abolitionists, more than 100 ex-slaves wrote book-length narratives before the end of the Civil War. In the process they created a unique genre of literature that at the time of the books' publication was widely read and appreciated by a public that had "itching ears to hear a colored man speak, and particularly a slave. . ." (Gates xi). The writings of ex-slaves were viewed as both powerful works of literary art and persuasive tools for articulating and advancing the abolitionist agenda. These narratives offered convincing evidence in making a case for the humanity of people of African descent by setting forth a particular image of ex-slaves that emphasized commonly admired human traits and virtues. As Lucius C. Matlock wrote in 1845,
Naturally and necessarily, the enemy of literature [American slavery] has become the prolific theme of much that is profound in argument, sublime in poetry, and thrilling in narrative. From the soil of slavery itself have sprung forth some of the most brilliant productions, whose logical levers will ultimately upheave and overthrow the system. . . . Startling incidents authenticated, far excelling fiction in their touching pathos, from the pen of self-emancipated slaves do now exhibit slavery in such revolting aspects, as to secure the execrations of all good men and become a monument more enduring than marble, in testimony strong as sacred writ against it. (qtd. in Gates xi)
The dynamics of the production and reception of ex-slave narratives were underscored by their distinctively intertwined literary and thematic features. Cast in the form of a quest from enslavement to liberation, Robert Stepto denotes freedom and literacy as the dominant issues set forth in the narratives. Acquiring literacy skills became for enslaved people an actual vehicle for obtaining freedom, because enslaved people were denied by law literacy training and education. Once they achieved it, in freedom they used this skill to take down the very institution that forbade it. William Andrews also locates veracity and identity as the two propositions to which African-American autobiographers addressed themselves. In ex-slave narratives the writers came to declare their identity through their truthful recollection of having risen above deprived circumstances.
Demonstrating their proficiency in language arts became a form of resistance - a literal and a literary way to articulate the humanity of black Americans. The narrators challenged readers to confront the elements of essence and social context that make up the formula by which we customarily construct identities. They proclaimed their essential humanity by manipulating and re-positioning themselves in a different social context. Each writer was an artist whose medium was identity. In fashioning their own liberated identity, they gave readers a passageway into their experience by introducing them to another world on the margins of American society. Furthermore, these narrators added the element of transcendent reality to the formula for identity construction. Attendant on the personal and political implications of slave narratives is the broader implication of theological truth. Ex-slave narrators, as Andrews emphasizes, traced freedom to an awakening of "their awareness of their fundamental identity with and rightful participation in logos, whether understood as reason and its expression in speech or as divine spirit." (7) These narratives, or "testimony as strong as sacred writ," also served as symbolic representations of the biblical power of the word. Because the act of abolishing slavery was seen by most abolitionists as a sacred cause, these narrators became "models of the act and impact of biblical appropriation on the consciousness of the black narrator as bearer of the Word" (Andrews 64). Appropriating biblical language and appealing to religious sentiments was a profound way to overturn Southern apologies for slavery, which depended in large part on appeals to religious sanctions derived from scriptural narratives. The result was the creation of literary art that was greater than the sum of its techniques, because after the works were read they continued to resonate in experience as models of resistance.
Despite the attempts of Southern slaveholders to find spiritual justification for their claims, slaveholders' beliefs rested primarily on their desire to preserve their economic interests and their assumption that blacks were inherently inferior beings. Realizing that all African Americans would be judged on the evidence they presented in their narratives, ex-slaves wrote about their experiences to accomplish twin goals. Based on what they reported about the actual conditions of enslaved people they could create consensus in the nation that slavery as an institution was immoral and should be abolished. And by the act of writing and demonstrating their achievement of "higher" skills and thought they could convince white people that they (and, by extension, all black people) were indeed human and worthy of freedom.
Many scholars have pointed out that these slave narratives came to resemble each other in both form and content. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has remarked, a "process of imitation and repetition" created a cumulative effect of each narrative being part of a "communal utterance, a collective tale rather than merely an individual's biography" (x). Because a distinct sense of individual identity was perceived to be hidden in a general proclamation of human identity, for nearly half a century some scholars described slave narratives as possessing "sub-literary quality." Seizing on the formulaic quality of the narratives, they denied the presence of any aesthetic shaping on the part of the authors (Davis and Gates 148). Once the narratives were no longer necessary to sustain abolitionist arguments, little effort was made to promote each writer as a singular artist or to distinguish these narratives as literary works, and they vanished from the canon of American literature. Yet recently these same texts have been welcomed for what they introduce by way of revising canons of American history and literature and how they image African Americans. We now appreciate both the context - the circumstances of their making and their expression - and also the text - the aesthetic or universal qualities that contribute to the endurance of these narratives as artistic forms. Slave narratives are now seen as having transcended the circumstances of their making and their expression, and are considered profound artistic achievements because they continue to provide a source for ongoing moral reflection on the human condition and for aesthetic analysis of how we image humanity and construct identities.
Among the reasons for supporting this kind of appreciation is the fact that, after emancipation, slavery was not abandoned as a topic for inclusion in the works of African-American writers. Contemporary African-American writings continue to be formed against a background of slavery. As Arna Bontemps explained in 1966, slavery is part of black literary ancestry that continues to influence African-American artists: "From the narrative came the spirit and vitality and the angle of vision responsible for the most effective prose writing by black American writers ..." (qtd. in Gates x). Texts that comprise a slave narrative tradition in American arts and letters, therefore, include not only the original documents of the antebellum genre but also post-bellum formations that take slavery as a topic of concern or that use slavery as a symbolic vehicle by which to discuss broader issues of identity and liberation. The slave narrative tradition writ large effectively negotiates among claims of essential, socio-historical, and transcendent reality to convey a whole vision of reality. What facilitates a connection between these claims is imagination -
where art does not happen to society as a whole or all at once, but happens one mind to one mind.
Imagination functions two ways in the slave narrative tradition. It is the faculty the individual artist brings to, and employs in, her or his literary effort that makes it a work of art and distinguishes the creator as fully human, because a full claim to humanity involves not just the ability to report and survive, but also to create and appreciate. Imagination is also the faculty the narratives elicit from and encourage readers to exercise in order to understand what is presented. In this context, imagination is a link created by metaphor - to see the self as the other or to experience an idea of humanity through a particular image of humanity. While the slave narrative tradition is dependent terrain - linked historically to the original experience of an oppressed people and theologically to the idea of the freedom of souls - metaphorically the tradition serves as a point at which one can gain entry to the experience of oppression. Artists who participate in the slave narrative tradition give readers an imaginative road to travel toward seeing what they otherwise cannot see and hearing what they otherwise cannot hear, thereby providing unique access to the circumstances and conditions from which emerge constructs of identity.
The narratives achieve this through an interplay of character and characterization that allows the reader to witness the life of an oppressed person who is characterized not as the sum of her or his oppression but as a human being of dignity and character. From Frederick Douglass's early insistence that "to understand it one must needs experience it or imagine himself in similar circumstances" (144) to Toni Morrison's prescription that "the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine" (Beloved 88), imagination has always played a role in developing strategies for survival and resistance: revealing how to create and appreciate life, demonstrating how to articulate the cause of liberation, and assisting in the construction of identities - both those of the writer and the reader. Writers construct identities by characterizing themselves in specific ways, and readers are enjoined to construct new identities through their identification with the characters portrayed. Indeed, even Abraham Lincoln recognized the potential inherent in this kind of imaginative identification when he remarked, "I never knew a man who wishes to be himself a slave. Consider if you know any good thing, that no man desires for himself" (qtd. in Neely 118-19).
Provoking this kind of imaginative identification is the motive behind Glenn Ligon's To Disembark. Despite Matlock's assertion that slave narratives were "a monument more enduring than marble," thus setting up the literary form as more potent than the visual form, one contemporary African-American artist has seized the possibility of uniting the visual with the literary in reconsidering the topic of slavery. In his installation Ligon asks us to consider anew the same issues slave narratives once forced people to confront. Regarding the construction of history and representations of identity he asks: Who sees, who names, who records? Or, as Ligon himself puts it, "Who are the other 'masters' from which we flee?"(2) Through various media, the artist suggests that issues of identity are best understood as structured by context, not essence. Just as slave narratives often began with "I was born a slave," and went on to show how the author achieved a new identity through fuller participation in a larger social context (rather than by some internal change in her or his essential being), so too does Ligon show how identity is socially constructed. Ligon's exhibit demonstrates that the self is composed of many narratives that are "read" differently depending on who is given voice. He also demonstrates that sacred "texts," while retaining their narrative element, are recorded and read in ways other than literal or literary. Formerly an abstract expressionist, he also challenges the notion that pure form is "rich enough to deal with what's going on."
The issues To Disembark urges us to confront move between constructed dualities: word and image, absence and presence, black and white, self and other, past and present, spiritual and material, visible and invisible, and, finally, essence and context.(3) What brings these dualities into focus is a basic consideration of ideas about how identity is constructed, a consideration that also characterizes the efforts of ex-slave narrators. Ligon's work, therefore, represents a further extension of the slave narrative tradition whereby written texts become the basis for visual "texts." He uses both the classical literary convention of the bearer-of-the-word motif set forth in slave narratives and the Contemporary visual word-as-image tradition to address matters of race and liberation. While Ligon possesses a modern sensibility that explores the aesthetic significance of typographical forms as symbols of communication and as basic formal design elements, he also possesses an historical memory against which he positions himself to find "connections between it and who I am."
Ligon travels in reverse from the actual route enslaved people took when they journeyed "up" to freedom in the North - a classic vertical migration that denoted a corresponding elevation in character. He takes the same path ex-slave narrators took when, by virtue of memory, they traveled back to their enslaved circumstances in order to write about them. In doing so, he discovers that going back, or "down," to Afro-America's past experiences is the only way for him to "rise" in contemporary American culture. Along his journey into the past Ligon pays homage to both visual and literary African and African-American aesthetic traditions. He explores the possibilities provided by an African world view where the arts are intertwined in a complex way. He demonstrates his awareness of the found-art or folk-art tradition that first reflected the creative energies of African Americans. And, finally, he is part of a tradition in African-American art that takes black life as a topic for creative reflection and expression and sees the redemptive possibilities of creating art to address social conditions of racism and oppression. In the process he creates art that, precisely because it is so grounded in experience and tradition, appeals to concepts of identity universal to the human condition.
Art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible. (Paul Klee)
Writing for The Washington Post, Jo Ann Lewis has observed that voices from black history appear often in Glenn Ligon's art, most of which is concerned with the experience of being black in a white society. Ligon'sinterest in black history and literature began when he was growing up in the Bronx. The desire and ease with which he assumes other people's identities also began as a child when, because of his parents' wish that their children have better opportunities for education than those provided by the Bronx public education system, he and his brother commuted from their home in a housing project to the private, progressive Walden School in Manhattan. Later Ligon attended The Rhode Island School of Design and Wesleyan College. Initially, he launched a career as an abstract painter, until his experience in the Whitney Museum's Independent Study program introduced him to theory and helped transform him into a conceptual artist. While some conceptual art has the effect of distancing an artist from the public, Ligon's art is distinguished by the way it invites the observer to participate, never allowing the content to outweigh the effect. Indeed, Ligon's New York dealer Max Protetch affirms that "what makes Glenn different from others doing socially engaged work is that he makes art from his ideas ... and he's making conceptual art that draws on his personal experience which is why it touches me" (qtd. in Lewis G6).
Ligon sets a new standard for conceptual artists who, in their desire to attain what E. H. Gombrich calls a "kind of purity," have formally sought "freedom of the image from the intrusion or indeed the contamination of words" (213). Ligon rejects this "uncontaminated" concept of purity by making words the primary focus of his visual work. He shows a new way of turning the word itself into an image of its meaning. In the process he demonstrates a vital distinction that has concerned philosophers since the days of Plato - a distinction between universals and particulars. Unlike images, language can make vital distinctions and can specify what images cannot. But as Gombrich has further observed, this is in "curious contrast to the fact that images are concrete, vivid, and inexhaustibly rich in sensory qualities, while language is abstract and purely conventional" (220-21). No image can be the equivalent of a verbal statement unless it is accompanied by some directing text or familiar cultural reference that possesses a narrative component. When the artist cannot rely on cultural knowledge - as Ligon cannot, since so few people are "versed" in African-American history - he has to offer instructions for "reading" which mobilize our memory and require us to confront the knowledge presented in a particular text or story.
With To Disembark, Ligon takes the general experience of oppression and search for identity and particularizes it by invoking the slave narratives. He further particularizes this experience by casting himself as the enslaved person under consideration. The viewer is then enjoined to find the link between image and idea, universal and particular, a link which leads through metaphor - seeing self as someone else or the "other." The wider the distance the greater the challenge to effect this link, but Ligon's art makes the distance seem not so formidable. He transforms an historical literary mode into a private and personal idiom, and then back into a contemporary public statement.
Just when we think we are comfortable with the status of African Americans and the arrangement of our social order, he creates a shock of dislocation for the viewing public by his identification of an educated and accomplished contemporary African American with a nineteenth-century slave. The resulting experience is liberating, just as the previous model of the slave narratives was liberating for the new way it imaged people of African descent.
The universal dimension of Ligon's art, while firmly rooted in historical African-American experience, reaches out to everyone because of the way he perceives identity as socially constructed. As the show's curator Phyllis Rosenzweig emphasizes, the artist is "looking at how that history, including slavery, affects all of us personally" (qtd. in Lewis G6). If African Americans are still trying to disembark, then many of us are still on the shore, waiting to affix a price. But the effect Ligon achieves by forcing this awareness is lyrical rather than didactic, provocative rather than confrontational. He thereby invites a broad spectrum of the public to consider the implications of identity formation and representation by positioning himself in the role of an enslaved person, just as the writers of ex-slave narratives achieved the same effect. While the artist concedes that his art is not "easy," because there is a lot of text, he hopes that viewers will "come in, spend some time, and think about the issues" (qtd. in Lewis G6). Through his visual recreation of narratives of slavery - the stories captured in detail by writers or episodically rendered in advertisements for runaway slaves - Ligon forces us to read the texts that we would overlook in a literary enterprise and to become aware of how many narratives - actual texts or "contexts" - structure our social system and contribute to our identity constructions.
Ligon seems prepared for the risk involved in an enterprise that is so autobiographical. But he also notes that paintings are "read" as far more personal than To Disembark, because they are so identified with the artist's hand, whereas his work "plays with the idea of unmediated access to the artist." Ultimately the reproductions and stencils of other people's texts enable him to explore "the border between what is mechanical, repetitive, impersonal and what is autobiographical." This observation points to a feature of the slave narratives that long troubled historians and literary critics - the narratives' patterned and repetitious form and content. Ligon acknowledges this feature when in an interview he makes reference to Toni Morrison's comment from the essay "The Site of Memory," in which she observes that writers of slave narratives often stopped short of really describing the horrors of slavery because they feared public response. Morrison describes this characteristic with a phrase often found in the narratives themselves when authors would claim the need to "drop a veil" over their interior lives. Ligon's work is an attempt to explore contemporary examples of this same phenomenon. What is it that audiences do not want to hear, and how should African Americans be represented by themselves or others? Observing the changes in Frederick Douglass's autobiographical attempts from the first to the third version, Ligon became interested "in the idea of invention and self-invention in autobiography as it speaks to counteracting essentialist notions of black identity. The 'one' that I am is composed of narratives that overlap, run parallel to, and often contradict one another."
Ligon first received wide attention when he was selected to be included in the 1991 Whitney Biennial. He was also featured in the controversial 1993 Biennial at the Whitney, where the exhibits were attacked by critics as preachy and ill-conceived art that abandoned aesthetic goals in favor of polemics on social and political issues. Ligon's own contribution was an installation titled Notes on the Margins of The Black Book, which juxtaposed Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of black male nudes with comments on Mapplethorpe's work. As Ligon explained to me in a letter, this piece "was an exploration of how the variables of race, gender, sexuality and class intersect and form varying and often conflicting readings of Mapplethorpe's images." The artist recalls as an example of this fact how black gay patrons at a particular bar read Mapplethorpe's photographs taken there as "documentation of friends," thereby outweighing discussions of the "fetishic nature of the images." Ligon defends the show and his role in it, for he sees this kind of art and his own as responding to crisis. As he says, "There's urgency in the culture to grapple with these issues." He goes on to explain that he sees social and political subject matter as "crucial" to his own life but also "important to a national debate that needs to go on." While he admits to some insecurity about the appropriateness of art as a vehicle for social critique and expression, he insists that, rather than saying "art is art and life is life, I like to say that they're joined and inextricable" (qtd. in Lewis G6).
To Disembark has four discrete elements or "sacred spaces" that are also "joined and inextricable." One first encounters nine wooden boxes or packing crates on which are stamped international symbols that denote fragility [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. These symbols remind us to "handle with care" the people who will be represented - and to take note of what is common to humanity. The boxes vary in size and construction method, but all take their proportions from the one in which Henry "Box" Brown had himself shipped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia, to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. "The idea for this came from seeing an illustration of Henry coming out of the crate," Ligon explains (qtd. in Lewis G6). While digging through files at the New York Public Library, Ligon repeatedly confronted this image, and it led him to the text or word found in ex-slave narratives. "I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of the person in the box, and how someone would survive that ordeal." As Ligon further explains, the box "in some sense became an extension" of Brown's body, just as any social construction becomes an extension of an essential self. Just as Henry was boxed in order to enter a new space where he could articulate his identity, so too does Ligon "box" black experience and move it into a gallery for public consideration, all the while demonstrating that identity or self cannot be contained in such a way.
From each box issues a barely audible sound, a weak but enduring presence that like so many African-American voices speaks from the margins and is heard if one listens carefully. These human sounds - like a heartbeat or a song - perform an ironic inversion of a time when human lives were considered cargo. Each discrete sound contributes to an eclectic but meaningful gathering of music. Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit," a lyrical elegy to a lynched man. KRS-One is represented in the rap anthem "Sound of Da Police," a rhythmic response to institutional brutality. Yet also of a rhythmic order is the music of the Mcintosh County shouters. These shout songs, which are sung with the accompaniment of only a broom handle beat on the floor, are the antecedents of the spirituals and the musical style that most clearly identifies African retentions in American musical forms. A spiritual sung by Paul Robeson, "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," is also featured. Less expressive of African forms than the shout songs, the spiritual is like the shout songs in displaying the unique cross-fertilization characteristic of African-American cultural forms. This kind of blending of traditions reveals different historical and cultural influences, but also shows a persistent quality of uniting the sacred and the profane in African-American aesthetic forms. The themes or topics of these songs are usually taken from biblical sources and contain some reference to liberation, construed as both this-worldly and other-worldly - both material and spiritual. Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" is a contemporary expression of the same desire for freedom that the shout songs and spirituals articulated, but thematically adds to Ligon's exploration into black identity a pan-African perspective, uniting the concerns of diaspora blacks with those of North American continental blacks. Levity and an uncomplicated celebration of life is interjected with Royal House's disco song "Can You Party?" and Nina Simone's ballad "Four Women" speaks to the essential aspect of gender that also complicates and energizes the process of identity formation under consideration.
In the same gallery surrounding the boxes are lithographs imitating nineteenth-century advertisements for the return of escaped slaves. Rather than tacked on a tree or a post as they would have been in their original use, the advertisements are meticulously rendered and framed for gallery walls. All name and describe the artist himself [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Ligon asked friends to describe him without giving a reason, and used their descriptions to create the prints. In every case he is the runaway slave described in the texts. Most of the comments are limited to physical descriptions, which is typical of how African Americans were regarded by slaveholders - their value located in their morphological construction. For example, one ad reads: "Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5[feet]8[inches], very short hair, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion (not 'light skinned,' not 'dark skinned,' slightly orange)." Not surprising, or perhaps rather ironic, is the fact that one comment describes Ligon as having "nice teeth," which was something slaveholders looked at before they purchased a new slave, much as horse-traders open an animal's mouth for inspection. Also included are a few comments that speak beyond objectifying descriptions and include a range of characteristics identified with humanity - some noble and some suspicious - that hint at the personality or spirit behind the material. Ligon is described as "very articulate, seemingly well-educated," but also as one who "does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you" or as "socially very adept, yet, paradoxically, ... somewhat of a loner."
Included on each poster to accompany the text is a characteristic period image of an African American, ranging from the classic "Am I not a man and a brother?" figure promoted in abolitionist publications to caricature black men who are running scared. There is even one female figure, also on the run, toting a rucksack of personal belongings, accompanied by the description "Lately I've noticed he refers to himself as a 'mother.'" These posters represent an extension of the boxing theme, but it is Ligon's own identity that has been boxed in these surrounding black-and-white lithographs. As the artist explained to me, "The lithos and the boxes are about the relationship between the individuals whom I know and the context in which we live. The question is: What does it mean to suggest that one's friends have a similar relationship to you that a slave owner would have had with a slave? What does it say about the society in which those friendships are formed and the position of blacks in it?"
In another part of the exhibition, four quotes from Zora Neale Hurston's famous essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" are stenciled directly on the walls. The stenciling forms a six-foot-tall stack of black words on a white wall [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. As John Robertson points out, Ligon chose dimensions that corresponded to "the human scale of doors -our bodies walk through them, and they open and close on so many chapters of our lives" (159). The words are meticulously drawn in black oilstick, letter by letter, repeating evocative language from Hurston's essay. In this essay Hurston laments how blackness is only discussed in oppositional terms to whiteness, and she attempts to dispel the notion of whiteness as an appropriate or necessary point of reference in constructing black identity. Hurston was criticized for continually emphasizing her uniqueness in human or spiritual terms rather than in racial terms, and Ligon appears to appreciate her struggle to move away from binary representations of identity. He makes this point visually: As he works from top to bottom, the grease from the stick thickens, increasingly obscuring the letters. The cumulative effect of these stencils is set forth in the way the black words eventually blur and smudge with each repetition so that at the bottom of each stencil the white background is barely distinguishable from the black words. "What these pieces are about," the artist explains, "is the idea of race as a social category. Race is not something inherent to one's being: One does feel more or less colored, depending on the situation" (qtd. in Lewis G6). Here Ligon reads textual content in painterly terms. As the background darkens and text and background become indistinguishable, it is apparent that, as language and context near the same color value, the language disappears, as do customary racial ways of assigning identity to people. The black and white duality of text and page becomes a metaphor of racial relations and how we construct oppositional categories of identity. But, as Robertson points out, the stencils reveal that "color always - or almost always - does matter for Hurston, for Ligon, for the viewer, and for blacks and whites alike. Our attempts to deny its importance - as Hurston's text appears to do - only reinforce its power" (159).
The quotes from Hurston's essay that Ligon selected to stencil for To Disembark are: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background"; "I remember the very day that I became colored"; "I am not tragically colored"; and "I do not always feel colored." Ligon found Hurston's writing pertinent because of the way she explores the idea of race as a concept that is structured by context rather than by essence. He plays with the notion of being colored and how that becoming obscures meaning (obscures the text) and also creates an abstract object. As he explains, "One can 'become colored.' One is not born black; 'blackness' is a social construction." Again, Ligon traces this idea back to the ex-slave narratives, where the writers identified as one of their tasks the effort to convince people that there was nothing inherent in black people to justify their enslavement. He describes Frederick Douglass's famous sentence in the narrative "You have seen how a man was made a slave, now you shall see how a slave was made a man" as an "important intervention of the idea that blacks were subhuman by birth." And just as the Bible was used to support such essentialist claims, so Ligon substitutes for this sacred text a new sacred text that offers a different perspective.(4)
Ligon remarks on the motives and intentions behind this part of the installation by describing how his forays into abstract art led him to a "crisis," because he was looking for a way to incorporate into his visual art ideas culled from theoretical and literary texts. He came upon stencils as an economical, efficient, and durable solution that allowed him to use "text as the work itself," something paint would not allow. He began with painterly backgrounds but eventually settled on a white background - the way we are used to seeing text - but he repeated the quotes. As he explains, "I was interested in what happened if you broke a sentence down in terms of its legibility and the meaning of its individual parts, and how the line breaks and the accumulation of paint on the stencil teased the traces of other meanings out of the sentences."
This part of the installation has its origins in a show Ligon presented late in 1990 which used the same quotes and the same technique. Also predating To Disembark is a 1992 show in which Ligon used the same technique but took as his texts lines from Jean Genet. Like To Disembark, the title Prisoner of Love is taken from a work of literary art. This is also the title of Genet's memoir in which the author describes his involvement with the Black Panthers near the end of his life. The sentence he selects to "break down" is ripe with multiple meanings even before he begins his process of deconstruction. It reads: "They are the ink that gives the white page a meaning." This panel is accompanied by three others that are formally similar, but where the sentence varies: "We are the ink that gives the white page a meaning," and the interrogative "Why must we be the ink that gives the white page a meaning?" Finally, echoing Genet's own qualification, the last quote cautions, "When I said that we were the ink that gives the white page a meaning, that was too easy an image." Ligon subverts the outsider designation they, when he comps on the quotation with the pronoun we, thereby repersonalizing the text. By resisting a fixed meaning assigned to a given text, Ligon draws attention to locations of power in the dominant culture that would determine how black life is "read." As Ken Johnson notes in his review of this show for Art in America: "Despite the apparent simplicity of the text-page, black-white analogy, the installation produces considerable philosophical and expressive complexity. The way Ligon embodies Genet's thought in an austerely sensual object, giving it visual and material as well as verbal expression, is compelling" (131). Johnson goes on to describe the repetition of the sentences as having an effect akin to "chanting" which builds to the point of suggesting a pent-up anger or an accumulative deepening of thought. Moreover, the way the panels were hung in the space created a kind of chapel-like or sacred space for contemplating race, art, and language.
In another series Ligon uses text by James Baldwin. An entirely black work on paper with raised, barely legible letters, the quote he selected deals with the paradox that black people must use the language of the white majority to describe their own experience. It begins, "I was black and was expected to write from that perspective. Yet I had to realize that the black perspective was dictated by the white imagination." This sentiment resonates with Hurston's description of whiteness being used as a category by which to assess blackness. As Johnson notes, "Here the blackness of both text and page suggests the dream of speaking in a language and out of a cultural background from which the black artist is not alienated. That this remains impossible is of the essence for Ligon; for it is the schizoid relationship of the African-American to a predominantly white culture - a culture he can neither wholly accept nor completely reject - that is fundamentally at stake" (131). In another series of prints Ligon repeats the black-on-black theme with the first lines of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man: "I am an invisible man." In this statement Ellison's unnamed protagonist is both proclaiming his identity in essential terms as "a man," but undercutting this declaration with the socially constructed modifier invisible. As Ligon explains in The Print Collector's Newsletter, "Ellison uses the metaphor of invisibility to describe the position of blacks in this country - as ghost, present and real but, because of the blindness of racism, remaining unseen" ("Prints" 124). Ligon uses the same metaphor in his work, and the phrases become incantory, conjuring the visible out of what is perceived as invisible.
Finally, in a piece on permanent display at the Hirshhorn, Black Like Me #2, Ligon further complicates issues of racial identity by using the same stencil technique to consider lines from John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me. In the late 1950s Griffin, a white man, had his pigment altered so that he would appear black and traveled throughout the segregated South in order to try to experience what life was like for African Americans who lived there. Although today the book seems almost romantic in its endeavor and its pious air of awakening and plea for racial tolerance, at the time it was published it was revolutionary. It established in a concrete way the need to understand oppression by making an imaginative identification. The text Ligon chose, "All Traces of the Griffin I Had Been Were Wiped From Existence," states that "the Griffin" - the white man he had been - was eliminated by the act of coloring his skin. But as Robertson points out, "The pattern of smudges - different in each of Ligon's works - belies that claim. As one reads down the canvas, the black smudges are heavier and appear sooner than in other works. But many streaks of white remain, negating Griffin's claim that his whiteness had been wiped from existence" (161). Robertson interprets Ligon's meaning to suggest that race need not be so utterly defining as Griffin's text asserts and that a core of identity may exist apart from racial categories. Yet despite the ultimate failure of Griffin totally to erase his whiteness or to assume a black identity, Ligon also believes that the experience of transgression along racial lines - in this case a white man disguised as a black man - can lead to an understanding of a sense of "otherness" that "changes his life after he returns to the white world as well as while he is disguised as black."
After the stencils one encounters nine etchings with a chine colle that mimic frontispieces of the nineteenth-century narratives. While it is obvious that Ligon could not reproduce the entire text of ex-slave narratives in his exhibit, the specific role a title-page can play is illuminated by L. Tongiorgi Tomasi in her analysis of image, symbol, and word on the title-pages and frontispieces of scientific books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This seemingly remote historical context of the Renaissance shares with antebellum America two characteristic "nodal points." In the Renaissance period, the search for truth and the birth of new learning arising out of a critical revival of the old were paramount, just as in antebellum America veracity and liberation were the goals writers and abolitionists addressed. In both periods artists and intellectuals desired to introduce to the public a new cognitive aspect and a different way to perceive reality. Tomasi demonstrates how Renaissance title-pages were carefully crafted and "gradually came to assume the form of a 'summa' and 'memoria' of the book" (372-73). Thus, the title-pages provide a synthesis and commentary on the ideas expounded in the book. Ligon exploits this quality of title-pages to achieve an economy of form and space in his exhibit. Furthermore, the Renaissance title-pages were designed to stimulate the curiosity of readers and at the same time to elude them, thus urging one to turn to the text itself to gain a complete understanding of the puzzle. Ligon, I believe, is also aware of how his title-pages will tease viewers into consulting the remaining "texts" he cannot include, be they actual ex-slave narratives or any variation on the slave narrative tradition.
This kind of attention to historical detail and precedent is also evidenced in the fact that all the etchings of title-pages are composed in nineteenth-century American literary vernacular and presented in authentic typefaces that Ligon carefully researched. Ligon has replaced the Bible verses and anti-slavery poems that often appeared on the title-pages of the narratives with quotes from contemporary authors such as bell hooks and Derek Walcott. He also composes his own text. While the runaway posters give details about his physical appearance and aspects, the title-pages are far more revealing. Interspersing quotes from famous black personages with writings and comments of his own, Ligon re-emphasizes that African Americans are still trying to disembark and that his experiences and attempts at identity construction are part of an ongoing process. On several occasions he comically signifies on his efforts as presenting a "panorama/mirror of oppression" or as the "commodification of the the horrors of black life into art objects forthe public's enjoyment." The cumulative result of the entire installation, however, while it has its signifying moments of humor, is also very poignant.
These etchings amount to an autobiography. Yet each different title - many of which make use of actual titles chosen by ex-slave narrators, and even titles of contemporary works - reinforce Ligon's point about our life-stories being composed of parallel and over-lapping narratives. Some titles suggest a thrilling or entertaining tale, like "The Life and Adventures of Glenn Ligon, a Negro," or "Folks and Places Abroad," while "Incidents in the Life of a Snow Queen" reveals a more aesthetically shaped sense of novelistic selection. Some, like "Pilgrimage to My Mother's Land," imply a reverential homage, and several sound very modern and direct, like "Black Rage: How I Got Over: Sketches of the Life and Labors of Glenn Ligon," or "Black Like Me or the Authentic Narrative of Glenn Ligon." One title repeats the title of the installation and adds an element from the writings of James Baldwin, "To Disembark or The Price of the Ticket" [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED].
All reveal, as one proclaims, "some aspect of the author's birth, parentage, his early years, and the many hardships and sufferings he endures on his journey toward freedom." Each "page" also describes a different chapter of Ligon's life, including his actual confrontation with the influence of a dominant white culture that would define him: "The Life and Adventures of Glenn Ligon, a Negro who was sent to be educated amongst white people in the year 1966 ... and has continued to fraternize with them to the present time." One particularly poignant example adds sexual orientation to the list of components of self used in identity construction and reads: "The Narrative of the Life and Uncommon Sufferings of Glenn Ligon, a colored man, who at a tender age discovered his affection for the bodies of other men, and has endured scorn and tribulations ever since."
On these title-pages Ligon sometimes names himself as author and sometimes iterates the convention slave narrators adopted in the interest of privacy and protection by proclaiming "Written by Himself" as a partial, if anonymous, declaration of identity. The most veiled self-portrait is "Incidents in the Life of a Snow Queen," where Ligon locates authorship as "Related by Herself." The title of this narrative is a play on Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl - Snow Queen being a term for black gay men who exclusively date white men. The accompanying description describes an "episode of blindness" as the result of the "fall of snow," a metaphor for a kind of fascination with whiteness implied by the term Snow Queen. Eventually her "ability to perceive light and dark" is restored. Ligon does not condemn interracial relationships but suggests some of the problems of blind fascination and the difficulty of maintaining these relationships in this society. What comes through clearly in this title- page is Ligon's belief, reinforced by his inclusion of Hilton Als's comment that "every love affair is an act of conversion," that individual love between people of different color is a force of great "potential and hope," and also of "failure."
Ligon seems prepared to risk failure. On one title-page he includes a typical address "To the Reader," in which he states his intention to risk, to present the "truth ... to view my colored heart at close range." He continues by expressing hope: "If this effort may avail to stir myself and others to a more active pursuit of freedom and self-love, then the object in sending it forth will be accomplished." Individual conversion away from conventional stereotypes of identity is perhaps where we begin, and it is this movement that Ligon's installation effects for the viewer. What Ligon achieves through his contemporary reconstruction of slave narratives is precisely what ex-slave narrators hoped to achieve: He bridges the distance between other and self and forces us to consider how we and others construct our selves. As he writes at one point - in the role of a white person giving testimony - his presentation of "real life-like scenes presented in the PANORAMA are admirably calculated to make an unfading impression upon the heart and memory such as no lectures or books or colloquial expressions can produce." This disingenuous claim, while it appears to set his efforts above those of the original ex-slave narrators, actually points us back to the past for understanding. How we get there is offered up by Derek Walcott in a quote Ligon includes on one title-page: "I had no nation now but the imagination."
I strive to create an image that all mankind can personally relate to and to see his dreams and ideals mirrored with hope and dignity. (Charles White)
Ligon's contribution of To Disembark to our cultural discourse on race and identity is especially significant when one appreciates the fact that, unlike the productive literary tradition, the representation of slavery in African-American visual arts is not so common. In the history of African-American art as set forth by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson in A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, few artists are featured for having taken slavery as a specific topic for concern. But in nearly every instance there is a revealed relationship between words and images that underscore Glenn Ligon's later efforts. The circulation in the mid-1800s of gross caricatures to depict black people made African- American artists sensitive to the issue of image portrayal when depicting African Americans. These caricatures were an attempt on the part of slaveholders and those who shared their beliefs to counter the abolitionists' efforts to demonstrate the humanity of African Americans through their literacy skills. It is these kinds of images that Ligon reproduces on the runaway slave posters. Thus, early on in African-American history, image was used in opposition to text, and each represented the poles of the argument for and against slavery. As Bearden and Henderson point out, these kinds of images reached a flood-tide after the Civil War and became "a major instrument of achieving social and political control in both the South and the North, conveying their prejudicial message instantly to millions who would not have read a book or pamphlet or listened to a discussion" (xv). While this observation speaks loudly to the power of the image over the power of the word, it also presents for the artist the problem of the need to convey images of an African-American self carefully and correctly, and it serves as an ironic comment on the non-literate condition of not just the many African Americans who were denied by law training in basic skills of literacy, but also members of the white public who, although they assumed they were superior, also lacked these skills.
Ligon gets around the problems presented by this sensitivity to visual images by taking his cue from the literary slave narrative tradition. Ex- slave narrators, as bearers of the word, harkened back to the gospel writer John's imaging of Jesus as "the Word." Casting God as the Word becomes a literal or literary construction that Ligon transforms back into an image, but without the customary physical representation of humanity. In this sense he makes a further theological statement that acknowledges the scriptural reluctance to image or describe in physical terms the being of God. The spiritual representation of identity is set above the material representation of identity; but at the same time the artist shows how the spiritual and the material are inseparable in constructing human identity.
Throughout history African-American artists have strived to represent black people as something other than exotic victims or cartoonish characters, and slavery has often been a thematic source or focal point for their artistic statements. Among the first to evoke slavery as a trope was Robert S. Duncanson (b.1823), who settled in Cincinnati, where his style became associated with the Hudson River school of painting. His most important work that considers slavery is The Land of the Lotos-Eaters, an allegorical painting inspired by a Tennyson poem. In "The Lotos-Eaters," the poet renders Odysseus's voyage after the Trojan War. He describes how the warriors, once they found a peaceful island, never wanted to go home. Duncanson saw that for enslaved people the American wilderness was analogous to the land of the lotos-eaters. Positioned in Cincinnati - perched on the edge of slavery as the war loomed - he expressed in this painting the desire for peace and freedom from struggle and war. In other words, while this painting was informed by the experience of slavery, it recasts the experience to express the conflict in imaginative terms through the portrayal of another world which held allure and promise. Thus Duncanson participates in the word-as-image tradition in a unique way, by taking the historical texts of Homer and Tennyson and using them as the basis for creating an image of a place where African Americans could live in freedom and peace.
Other artists who commented on slavery did so in oblique but connected ways. Edward Bannister (b. 1828) painted portraits of people, both black and white, who were significant participants in the struggle for emancipation. Edmonia Lewis (b. 1845), through the medium of sculpture, also honored important freedom fighters like John Brown. To commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation - a text - she sculpted the work Forever Free, thereby setting another precedent for the relationship between word and image. Henry Tanner (b. 1859) composed biblical paintings that made historical identification between the enslaved Israelites and enslaved Africans and thus also participated in the word-as-image tradition by exploiting the potential of recorded scriptural or narrative history to cast light on present circumstances.
By the time of the Harlem Renaissance, when formal slavery had been abolished, the notion prevailed that the resulting prejudice against African Americans could be reduced and alleviated by art. This belief was a more extended declaration of the humanity of African Americans than what was offered for evidence by the slave narrative authors who excelled in literary skill. In describing this period, one of its exponents, James Weldon Johnson, exclaimed: "Through his artistic efforts the Negro is smashing [an] immoral stereotype faster than he has ever done ... impressing upon the national mind the conviction that he is a creator as well as a creature ... helping to form American civilization" (283-84). Johnson's comment displays an awareness on the part of African Americans that, having settled the issue of their actual humanity in the struggle over slavery, it was now necessary for African Americans to establish their full entitlement to this humanity which culture judges not by essential status alone but also by one's intellectual and aesthetic production. In this way African-American artists of the Harlem Renaissance were engaged in a process Arthur Schomburg explained in the definitive text of the period, Alain Locke's anthology The New Negro: "History must restore what slavery took away" (231).
The most powerful representation of slavery by Aaron Douglass (b. 1899) also points in the direction of its ongoing implications. In the murals he created for the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library, four panels depict aspects of the history of African Americans. The first panel focuses on the African legacy and its rhythmic dynamic. The second panel spans slavery and Reconstruction, figured in human images, revealing the change from an enslaved person's doubt and uncertainty to her or his exaltation at the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. From here the piece celebrates outstanding leaders from the African-American community who tried to seize the potential generated by the boon of freedom, but quickly moves into a depiction of Union soldiers departing from the South as the Ku Klux Klan moves into view. In the last panel African Americans are shown fleeing north yet again in the Northern Migration, culminating in images that depict both the will for self-expression embodied in the Harlem Renaissance and the later confusion and frustration wrought by the Depression.
Hale Woodruff (b. 1900) also explored slavery as an historical topic for murals when he created the Amistad series, which gave tribute to the most famous episode of Africans who mutinied while being transported to slavery. And Jacob Lawerence (b. 1917), too, has devoted a considerable portion of his efforts to chronicling in paint aspects of African-American history and created graphic portrayals of slavery in, for example, a children's book on Harriet Tubman. Around 1960, however, some African Americans in New York began gathering to discuss the notion of a black visual aesthetic. Led by Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and others, they were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement to begin articulating the role the artist plays in addressing social conditions. They named their group "Spiral," to denote progress, and created this forum to force "recognition of aesthetic aspirations and problems related to African-American artists' search for identity" (Bearden and Henderson 403).
As a group they never quite succeeded in accomplishing their goal of generating a specific definition or articulation of a black aesthetic because they could not overcome the diverse viewpoints that reflected a dynamic characteristic of African-American public experience and private needs. Should art uplift and ennoble the race and treat topics specific to the African-American community, or should it be broad and inclusive enough to accommodate European and other influences and the idiosyncrasies of creative genius? In their search for an identifying style they agreed that art should not be limited to black subject matter, but beyond this they came no closer to resolving the African-American identity crisis than W. E. B Du Bois did when he formulated the notion of a "double-consciousness." Between these poles of African and American, between essential and socio-cultural constructs of self, is where African-American artists like Glenn Ligon continue to find themselves.
However, throughout the development of African-American art and aesthetics -
as it has been set forth by conventional standards of aesthetic judgment such as those rendered by Bearden and Henderson - black artists have been creating in forms and participating in traditions not customarily recognized by arbiters of aesthetic judgment. The folk-art tradition in African-American culture is its oldest and most enduring. It testifies to a sensibility whereby the perils attendant on double-consciousness and other binary constructions of identity are inconsequential. The reason this bifurcation was not so keenly felt by folk artists is because of the transcendent component that informed and inspired much of their work. Creating out of what they found and responding to the movement of the spirit within, these "ordinary" artists carried on a tradition in which aesthetic sensibility was informed more by an African perspective of unity than a Western consciousness of duality. These artists made beauty out of everyday objects - in pottery, textiles, wood carvings, iron work, architecture, and funeral monuments - and further demonstrated that the creative spirit is not bound by social constructs but can indeed manipulate context to serve a creative purpose. Neither racial and social status nor economic prosperity inhibited these artists. The work of these artists also preserved in more verifiable ways the retention of African aesthetic forms and beliefs.
As Dan Ben-Amos points out, relations between the arts have a particular poignancy in non-literate traditional Africa. In such a society, he explains, "Words do not have visual presence, images do not refer to canonic texts, script does not explicate pictures nor do pictures ironize verbal propositions. A whole set of relations between words and images which has been explored in literate societies is simply beyond the range of possibilities in traditional Africa" (223). Yet paradoxically one finds in traditional African culture that in use and in performance the verbal and visual arts are constantly intertwined. As Ben-Amos explains, "Rituals have both masks and myths, movements and songs. Oral narratives create, or build upon, known images in the mind, and proverbs could be the solutions for visual metaphoric enigmas. Artistic messages are both verbal and visual, and affect and meaning are expressed through the interdependence of words and images, sound and sight" (223). This kind of complex relationship among the arts that is characteristic of traditional Africa is also present in African-American folk art. The retention of African forms and ideas testifies to an enduring sense of identity that is essential in human terms and that persists despite and because of the complexities of societal constructions and influences.
Glenn Ligon's work To Disembark shares in this same spirit of shifting the inquiry into identity from either an essentialist or a socially constructed perspective by revealing how very many contexts comprise American social/historical constructs. In the process Ligon raises new explorative questions and pays homage, in indirect ways, to African and several African-American aesthetic traditions at once. While his technical proficiency and recognition of the formal possibilities of manipulating text as image demonstrate his position in a post-modern aesthetic, his very use of text as image and the inseparability of genres of expression derive from traditional African world views.
Abstract ideas about life and art play a crucial role in the relations between verbal and visual expression embodied in both African art and Ligon's installation. As in traditional African forms, words and images are on the same level of abstraction and embody a relation not only to each other but to the creative energy they embody. One distinctive form of creative energy is nommo, whereby the correct naming of a thing brings it into existence. As ex-slave narrators named themselves and brought their identities into articulate awareness by writing their texts, so too does Glenn Ligon name himself and seek to explore those elements of self that name him or that others would use to name him. He demonstrates the acquisition of this creative energy when his installation moves from "other" descriptions of himself found on the runaway slave posters to his self-descriptions when he casts himself as the author of slave narratives.
Ligon, therefore, positions himself in a tradition evocative of African forms where the aesthetic and the sacred cannot be distinguished from the prosaic and secular, and it finds "voice" in the sounds Ligon selects to issue forth from the boxes. Ligon's use of sounds in the box component of the exhibit emphasizes the complex relationships among arts in traditional African culture, which in turn is further reinforced by his selection of music which owes much in terms of rhythm and content to retained African ritual forms. The rhythmic and thematic emphasis is picked up again in the chanting effect created by the repetition of phrases on the stencils. In a sacred space, Ligon has created for the benefit of museum visitors, the sounds - both actual and silent - that chant to the viewer, become a kind of incantation calling forth a higher power to assist one in participating in the ritual process of viewing (hearing and reading) the exhibit. Furthermore, his use of "found" words - such as those culled from the Hurston essay - and "found formats" from the past - runaway slave posters and title-pages from nineteenth-century slave narratives - ties him to the folk-art tradition where one creates out of what is available and relevant in one's own culture or environment.
In addition to these general cultural and historical influences on Ligon's installation, there is also the specific precedent provided by the work of Charles White. Although Ligon has not acknowledged this influence, one can trace back to Charles White - in particular his portfolio collection of drawings know as the Wanted Poster Series, published by the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles in 1970 - a direct antecedent for To Disembark. This corollary at once ties Ligon to both the visual-folk or low-art and the high-art ends of his African-American heritage and its literary and visual traditions. Charles White was an accomplished draftsman who was committed to applying his talents in such a way that his art would be made available to millions. Moreover, as Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson point out, "White sought to make a universal statement about the heroic efforts of humankind to be free of oppression" (405). During the Civil Rights struggle, White created moving portraits of black men and women against a background of old runaway slave WANTED posters as one attempt among many to comment on oppression. In discussing the origin of this series, White describes an experience similar to Ligon's discovery of the image of Henry Box Brown. He came across some pre-Civil War posters advertising slave auctions and WANTED posters for runaway slaves. He then took these found objects and used them as an image by which to search for past feelings and created the Wanted Portrait Series.
White found the posters highly evocative and used them - complete with wrinkles and folds - as backgrounds for portraits of contemporary black Americans. One, for example, has a portrait of a twelve-year-old boy who could be purchased for thirty dollars. He rendered these images in a thin oil wash, combining sepia and black tones to create a startling clarity. The historical element, he realized, gave a haunting impact to these contemporary likenesses and asked us to consider what value we place on black life. Bearden and Henderson note that this series has largely been ignored by critics and art historians. Ligon's attempt to reintroduce the same historical context as a setting for exploring similar issues will perhaps compel us to take another look at the work of Charles White. And Ligon's success may rest on the fact that, unlike Charles White, he is not dependent on the actual representation of image in using this found source. For Ligon, the words themselves become the image and force us to consider in more literal and literary ways how we image black identity and constructions of self.
White, who wanted to create images that all humankind can personally relate to, saw his work as striving "to take shape around images and ideas that are centered within the vortex of the life experience of a Negro" (Fax 78). He selected this perspective because he found in the life of his people "the fountainhead of challenging themes and monumental concepts." These specific themes and concepts, in turn, represent universal human conflicts, dreams, and ideals. The social and economic dislocation that one uncovers in African-American experience White renders in his art as universally accessible because of his "stubborn, elusive, romantic belief that the people of this land cannot always be insensible to the dictates of justice or deaf to the voice of humanity" (Fax 78).
Ligon, who describes To Disembark as his first show "based on a single set of ideas" (Rubinstein 124), shares in the social and aesthetic concerns articulated by Charles White. While Ligon's interest in slave narratives is recent and born of his fascination with their mode of address and "the conditions under which they were written," he sees in this historical model or context "certain parallels to my questions about audiences and cultural authority." Ligon traces a relationship between the conditions under which slave narratives were composed and "contemporary traces" in the current state of black representation in other media. He asks, "What are the conditions under which works by black artists enter the museum? Do we enter only when our 'visible difference' is evident? Why do many shows with works by colored people (and rarely whites) have titles that include 'race' and 'identity'? Who is my work for and what do different audiences demand of it?"
In asking these questions Ligon is, at last, confronting issues of cultural literacy in a post-modern world where deconstructive inquiries into meaning hold sway and resist any fixed notion or closure about intended meaning. By manipulating two modes of literacy at once - the visual and the textual - he is exploring the historical process by which we have imaged and continue to image humanity. Literacy is customarily defined as the assigned meaning of a body of information that a group shares. What Ligon realizes is that what passes for literacy in contemporary culture is now more visual than it is verbal. To see has come to mean understanding, and the process of seeing has broad implications, especially for an artist who uses verbal texts as the basis for his visual work. Ligon appreciates, as ex-slave narrators did, that once language literacy was developed, writing was seen as higher than visual and tactical modes. Logos began to carry the collateral meaning of thought and reason in the English word derived from it, logic. Noam Chomsky explored this collateral meaning in his analysis of language that defines deep structure as biologically innate but verbal literacy as something learned. It was this elevation of the written word that slave narrators seized in making their case. Knowing that on an essential level they were part of the human community, ex-slave narrators also understood how literacy is associated with higher development, and used this in their defense of their humanity.
Thinking in concepts, however, emerged from thinking in images by way of abstraction and symbolization, just as phonetic script emerged from hieroglyphics. And the language of vision remains more universal than the language of words because it can create more possibilities for communicating ideas than the over 3,000 languages that are currently in use. "Language," as one theorist has observed, "separates, nationalizes; the visual anneals" (Dondis 66). There is, therefore, an inherent tension in the relationship between word and image that arises out of our dualistic formations that ascribe different values to each mode during different phases of history. Going back to the prophetic analyses of McLuhan and Koestler, we realize that, despite our elevation of language as representative of a "higher" state, we have, nonetheless, become far more visual than literary in how we apprehend and perceive reality. McLuhan notes that this is true because, as word order came to be substituted for inflection as a principle of grammatical syntax, there persisted, especially after the development of printing, a shift from the audible to the visual. Moreover, with the rise of industrialism and improved means of creating printed matter that includes visual as well as literary elements, such materials were given new meaning and functions (Dondis x).(5) Paradoxically then, the proliferation of printed images (and the impact of moving forms) made visual efforts far less effective. Ligon, however, has exploited the potential in printing as one of an artist's tools by showing that it can be much more than a duplication process. By using styles and formats from the past and adapting them to his own vocabulary he has reversed the usual filter-down process of form and style from the fine to the popular arts.
Ligon, therefore, underscores the dominance of the visual, that "our language culture has moved perceptibly toward the iconic. Most of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe, what we recognize and desire is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph" (Dondis 7). But Ligon also appreciates that, although this state of affairs is a feature of contemporary life, it is also, as Koestler notes, a throwback. As he writes, "Thinking in pictures dominates the manifestations of the unconscious, the dream, the hypnogogic half dream, the psychotic's hallucinations, the artist's vision. The visionary prophet seems to have been a visualizer, and not a verbalizer; the highest compliment we pay to those who trade in verbal currency is to call them 'visionary thinkers'" (Dondis 7). Ligon understands that this connection between elevated visionary thinkers and visual representation has all but been lost. As Tom Wolfe observed several decades ago, much of modern art is rendered in forms that require an accompanying text (usually in the form of art criticism or theory) to explain to the viewer what she or he sees, thereby creating a climate of distrust rather than confidence between the artist and the viewing public.
Wolfe's concept of "the painted word" that comments on both the relationship between word and image and the relationship between the artist and the public is one Ligon deconstructs in To Disembark. Ligon's turn away from abstract expressionism to conceptual art may be an expression of how pure form "isn't rich enough to deal with what's going on," but it may also be an expression of our circumstances, wherein we no longer read or understand the kind of visionary truth presented in narratives, especially slave narratives. To Disembark suggests that we begin to learn how to re-read liberating texts by first seeing them. In the process Ligon is making a statement about the change in art now recognized as a hallmark of early modernism - a movement William Rubin has described as a change from "narrative to iconic" works.
Rubin remarks that, after Picasso's rejection of narrative, stylistic differences within paintings came to substitute for the articulations that had been provided by narrative. James Elkin, in his essay "On the Impossibility of Stories: The Anti-Narrative and Non-Narrative Impulse in Modern Painting," suggests that narratives do survive in contemporary art but in "fragmentary, oblique, and elliptical" constructions - "more like parts of a story or parts of many stories than like 'full' storied narratives" (348). Ligon rescues the narrative possibilities for visual arts that, while they bear traces of the fragmentary quality Elkin describes - i.e., posters and title-pages - also embody narrative in a full way because he points us back to narrative as a strategy to overcome both our mistrust of and uncomplicated acceptance of iconic forms.
Ligon has found an alternative strategy for storytelling that goes back to a traditional American literary genre and recasts this form in an iconic representation. He fills in the gaps of memory that would separate us from these forgotten and partially concealed narratives. And the icons he creates depend on narratives, both in an actual sense of derivation of form and a thematic sense of content. He creates in the process what Elkin speculates might be "a special poetics" which enables us to understand the narratives buried in ostensibly non-narrative icons. Elkin cites a general mistrust on the part of the post-modem sensibility not with narrative per se but its "directness, unity, and chronology" (364) - features present in the slave narratives that kept them for so long out of the American literary canon. Our tendency is to judge direct, unified, and chronological narratives as somehow false, shallow, or naive. We are suspicious of narrative. But Ligon shows us that narrative is where we begin to understand not only the past but also the present. Ligon creates a literary/figurative form where linguistic and iconographic expression coexist and form a coherent whole (Tomasi 373). Squarely positioned in the African-American aesthetic tradition, Ligon's art calls for a response from the viewing public. Between thing and concept, between reality and imagination, and between icon and word, Ligon reaches toward and personalizes the unknown or "other." He reveals others to be just like him or just like us, because of the essential narrative way we image humanity and in spite of the complicated contexts from which our identities emerge.
1. Whether Ligon intends this allusion to Gwendolyn Brooks's book as a tribute or as an ironic comment remains ambigious to me. The title functions in both works to evoke the recognition that African Americans are still coping with the remnants of slavery and its ongoing manifestations in racism. But Brooks's book carries throughout it a theme that prioritizes the essential and the pen-African character and quality of black experience and identity, whereas Ligon's installation seeks to explore how African- American racial identity is uniquely a product of American experience and is socially constructed. An example of sentiments expressed throughout this volume of poems is the comment: "The blunt/blackness. That is the real thing" (28).
2. Unless otherwise cited, quotes by Glenn Ligon are taken from the brochure prepared by the Hirshhom for the exhibit of To Disembark (11 Nov. 1993-20 Feb. 1994) or from personal correspondence between the author and the artist.
3. Gay and straight could also be construed as a set of dualities To Disembark urges us to confront. Ligon makes reference to his sexual orientation in three of the nine title-pages. Although his investigation into construction of identities centers largely on racial issues, his sexual orientation is another dimension of self-construction that functions in a similar way.
4. The guard who was attending the exhibit when I viewed it noticed my intense fascination and my effort to scribble down notes and engaged me in conversation. A mature African-American gentleman, he was himself quite moved by the exhibit and proceeded to describe for me how he witnessed the artist installing it. He was especially proud to show me something he had noticed that the artist (and I) had missed. In the sequence of stenciled lettering that spelled out 'I am not tragically colored," in one of the repetitions of the phrase, the artist had omitted the negative modifier not. After the guard drew this fact to Mr. Ligon's attention, the artist declined to re-do the stencil work. The guard, in telling me this, smiled a knowing smile and implied that the omission may have been yet a further comment on Ligon's enterprise that came not from his studied, conscious reflection, but from deep in his unconscious feelings.
5. Advertising, for example, which originally began as a way to inform, became a means to persuade. Ligon's use of advertisements for runaway slaves exploits both functions. He demonstrates how the existence of the posters did more than advertise; they also persuaded people to take a position on slavery - i.e., either assist or resist the recapture of a fugative. By moving this form into a gallery he seeks to inform viewers of social conditions by first and loudly advertising their presence.
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Kimberly Rae Connor is the author of Conversions and Visions in the Writings of African-American Women (U of Tennessee P, 1994). This article, which grew out of her participation in an NEH Summer Seminar led by William L. Andrews at the University of Kansas in 1993, is adapted from a book she is writing on the slave narrative tradition and liberation theology.
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|Author:||Connor, Kimberly Rae|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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