This essay surveys Towson University’s Center for the Arts Spring 2017 Dark Humor exhibition featuring artists Joyce J. Scott and Peter Williams in addition to situating Radcliffe Bailey’s 2008–2011 installation Windward Coast within the fold of Afrofuturism by way of guest lecturer Nikki A. Greene. Originally written March 14, 2017
The Spring 2017 Dark Humor exhibit in Towson University’s Center for the Arts building is a compilation of Joyce J. Scott and Peter Williams’ work concerning the Black experience in current American history. They explore topics including, but not limited to racism, violence, and sexism. It is fitting that Nikki A. Greene would visit this exhibit after publishing her essay formed as a blog post “Eating Ice Cream While Black,” which shares her particular insight in experiencing a racist encounter being an African-American woman in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Greene is well-versed in the study of black art, being an art historian and assistant professor at Wellesley College and is currently writing a book titled Rhythms of Grime, Glass and Glitter: The Body in Contemporary Black Art. These experiences and identities combined make Greene ideal — with the exception of Joyce Scott herself — in developing a comparative essay on her lecture and the exhibit.
During her Towson University guest lecture entitled “African Diasporic In/Sites: Afrofuturism & Shine,” Greene spoke on the Afrofuturism that can be linked between current and past Black musicians. “Black,” here, will be used with the inclusion of Black Americans as well as Africans from the continent of Africa. The term “Afrofuturism” was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery and can be most simply described as predominantly Black science fiction. Greene’s lecture served the primary focus of proving the argument that Radcliffe Bailey’s installation Windward Coast (2008–2011) is an afrofuturistic work, but by first laying a foundation with related work and artists of the past.
Bailey is heavily influenced by Sun Ra, one of the “pioneers of free jazz” and one of his favorite musicians. Sun Ra believes that he was born on the planet Saturn and that “space is the place for black people” so intensely that afrofuturism’s definition would change from “Black science fiction” to “Black science fact” in his opinion (Greene). Later this would become the title of his 1974 sci-fi film Space Is The Place. Greene ties all of her findings back to the Yoruba –a Nigerian tribe– “god of the crossroads,” Eshu, possessing the “power to make things happen”. Interdisciplinary artist Ellen Gallagher has the most rooted connection to Eshu in her mixed media collage “Abu Simbel” (2005-’06) in which she makes afrofuturist references atop a historical tomb in Egypt, replacing pharaohs with funk musicians, thrones with Cadillac grills, and in the inclusion of a brightly colored spaceship which would presumably collect, transport, and ultimately “save” Black people. This inclusion of a spaceship suggests influences from Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic’s 1976 performance of “Mothership Connection” in which George Clinton landed in a spaceship, which is now held at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Radcliffe Bailey’s Windward Coast is an installation of one glittery black male head sitting atop several thousand piano keys. In this piece, though the placement of the head is essential, it becomes minuscule amongst the expanse of keys. The keys are arranged in such a way that reaches peaks where they resemble ocean waves. The placement of the head poses the question of its function in the piece. “Is it asleep? Drowning? Searching?” were some of the assumptions drawn by Greene. A seemingly hidden part of the installation includes a shell hung in a corner playing the sound of the keys hitting Bailey’s studio floor. The use of a shell as a speaker further alludes to an oceanic connection between Black identity and water. It is also important to note that the smell of the keys and size of the installation varies based on the gallery space so that the piece is a different experience for different audiences and individuals.
It is not by accident that the name of the exhibit –Dark Humor– is a pun on the work it holds. Dark Humor, or “Black comedy,” is a genre of satire, making light of heavy issues such as death. The decapitated head in Windward Coast is particularly reminiscent of Dis-Ferguston (2014) by Peter Williams in that black bodies are often overlooked, especially when they are dead. The loosely painted bodies lying on the floor in the painting can easily be disregarded, if not read about in the catalog text. Displaying black bodies in pain –or plain dead– creates desensitization and slow violence in not allowing them the full peace they deserve. This is a practice that media outlets have not been sensitive of throughout history and raising awareness of police brutality in the U.S. The unrelenting portrayal of harm to Black people in media causes weariness and may increase stress, anxiety, and/or depression in viewers who can particularly relate to the identity of the individual. Windward Coasts’ relationship to Black identity makes it an appropriate piece to present in congruence with the Dark Humor exhibit.
The “Shine” in Greene’s lecture title refers to the glistening of Black bodies in contact with water. This can be seen in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), a screen adaption of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. This film takes no shortcuts in capturing the shiny, moist hues of black men emphasized with oils and butters in low light. Other examples include Carrie Mae Weem’s triptych Blue Black Boy (from Colored People) (1989–1990) and The Gross Sisters who are portrayed with blue skin in Disney Channel’s animated show The Proud Family (2001–2005). Beyond visual art, “shine” in black identity can be traced back to the 1980’s fad of jheri curls that left Black hair wet and curly.
All of the aforementioned instances of Black identity and experiences tie together to encompass the “afrofuturism and shine” Greene believes exists in Black art. In addition to those in this paper, there are several other Black artists creating afrofuturistic work in the forms of music, film, and performance art all working to expand its field. Different genres of Black art are not yet prevalent in art history, but building these connections between past and present artists with similar influences can help establish its place in the art world.
Greene, Nikki A. “African Diasporic In/Sites: Afrofuturism & Shine.” 9 March 2017. Center for the Arts, Towson, MD. Lecture.
Isaacs, Judith, curator. (2017). Joyce J. Scott and Peter Williams | Dark Humor. Towson University Center for the Arts. 10 Feb 2017.