Huey Copeland / Interview Olivia Anani & Alix Koffi

In something we Africans got issue #6
In issue #6, find our selection on : Panafricanism in part 1 
Morocco’s intellectual and art scene in part 2
Cultural links Africa – USA in part 3


« (…) In order to understand how blackness is operating within the visual field artistically we need on one hand, a kind of extra-vision to be able to penetrate, literally, beneath the surface of these paintings to see the way in which they were interwoven within the discourse of race and blackness. But in the same time we need to be able to look at and recognize what is in front of us. »

– Huey Copeland 

Huey Copeland

Huey Copeland has the wonderful ability to put his finger right were it hurts, and to do so in the most gentle and erudite of ways. Take the arduous topic of Blackness – which he dates with great clarity from the institution of slavery, this moment of  invention of the « other », that would come to define our present era – or the highly complex, but so necessary confrontation with modern art history in Europe. In this conversation, the award-winning scholar and author of Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America, traces the journey of the Black figure and back – the female subject, especially – from Edouard Manet to Faith Ringgold, from Cindy Sherman’s Bus riders to Malevich’s Quadrangle. Back to square one, are we? Forward, rather, as according to Sun Ra, we are indeed, « already after the end of the world”.

Anna-Alix Koffi and I had the pleasure to meet him in Paris, last November; the following text is an excerpt from our conversation. 


Huey Copeland: Blackness is in many ways this force field that emerges out of the context of transatlantic slavery and its effort to construct and justify the denigration of people of African descent. The system of slavery and colonialism became something that even exceeded that. So I think a friend of mine was right when they said that “Blackness does not belong to black people.” 
We can think about Blackness relating to the people of African descent but it’s not something that is only about a kind of typical skin recognition, it’s also about our position towards culture and a relationship to power. 

I often think about this issue in relation to which the great afro-pessimist, African American theorist Frank Wilderson would say, I mean understand it as a political ontological position, where the “black” is that subject that can be murdered with impunity, that can be the victim of all kind of state and extra-state violence. In fact, the very act of spectacular murder is key to organizing a social structure that always places black folks outside the realm of the human, in order to define human-ness as a provenance of white and whiteness. 

I think in the US it’s a complicated and interesting question when we think about recent immigration from the African continent. In many ways although we are all black and of African descent, they don’t have the same experience of historical enslavement, and yet they find themselves vulnerable to the same kind of violence and the day to day of being black in America. They do not necessarily have the same relationship to the larger culture or the same identification with that kind of positionality… but again one could argue right there. Regardless of where one sets their sight across the world there remains a hierarchy and a structure of anti- blackness, so wherever you go, the people who are closer to whiteness are more likely to be at the top of that hierarchy. To give an example, I think Haiti is really interesting to talk about for the color politics there. People who have really dark skin are able to “climb up” the color ladder because of their political position and to exist as “middle class”. And so they are able to get “out of” a certain kind of blackness through that kind of political power. 

In an African context, one of the texts which I find particularly useful to think about this ontological position is Yambo Ouologuem’s “Bound to violence”. It’s an incredible book, where he talks about the historical production over the centuries, of this class that is translated into english by “the nigger trash”. It is the kind of subjects who will always be “black”, and who can’t ascend through prestige or privilege to a state of relative freedom. This is due to the profound, everyday kind of structural violence that goes along with that position, and that is constantly producing and producing this type of experience, and becoming this site of extraction. 

These different points are maybe how we can start thinking about blackness and some of the themes relevant to this issue. It is also important for me how images and art work politically as well and what the repercussions are for understanding the visual fields and artistic practices constructed from modern art to contemporary times. 

Kasimir Malevitch, « Black square »

Anna-Alix Koffi : Precisely. How do you apply that to art? What is Blackness in art? 

Huey Copeland: I think Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square is a wonderful example. Malevich was a member of the Russian avant-garde, associated with the movement called suprematism. This is a time when the Russian avant-garde would very quickly assimilate, thanks to patrons such as Sergueï Chtchoukine among others, what was happening in the western part of Europe: cubism, futurism etc. Malevich would go on to create this key painting that really pushes and announces suprematism; a simple black square originally shown in 1915, which he would position in the upper corner of the room, which is traditionally the place where Russian icons would be displayed. So he aligns his work with a certain kind of transcendence. 

But it’s recently come out through restoration and analysis that underneath that black square, this very fundamental modernist, as abstract as abstraction goes, this gesture of nihilism and negation of a painting, underneath that symbol is a racist joke in Russian that says, roughly translated: “Negroes fighting in a cave at night”. And what he is referring to is a cartoon from the 1880s by the French artist Alphonse Allais. 

For me this completely crystalizes the way in which this artistic practice which we consider being about negation, autonomy, abstraction, which has nothing to do with the problematic of racialization is in fact burdened by a kind of racist logic. So for me in order to understand how blackness is operating within the visual field artistically we need on one hand, a kind of extra-vision to be able to penetrate, literally, beneath the surface of these paintings to see the way in which they were interwoven within the discourse of race and blackness. But in the same time we need to be able to look at and recognize what is in front of us. A great example in this case would be Manet’s Olympia. If you read the discourse on Olympia which is at Musée d’Orsay, an incredible painting often associated with the rise of artistic modernism because of the confrontational gaze of the white female figure within it, there is a black female servant in the background of the painting. For a hundred years people could talk about this painting without hardly mentioning her at all, even though she occupies almost half of the canvas. This incapacity to see what is right in front of you is what weakens the discourse. So in one hand when we think about blackness, we have to be able to fight against the ideological blinders that prevent us from seeing and at the same time we have to investigate what’s underneath the surface to understand the ways in which blackness saturates the cultural fields and the visual field. So what that means in terms of how I think about modern and contemporary art in my own teaching, in my own research work, is that I want to focus on and understand the deep ways in which blackness matters to the construction of what we think of as the avant-garde of western art and the narratives born out of it. For me the one narrative of Olympia as an example, makes clear that it is not just blackness, but particularly the black female body, a figure that is perceived as particularly sensual in the context of the west, or at least in white culture’s imaginary, that represents radical gender difference and radical racial difference, from a presumed white male artistic historical position. And it is for that precise radical difference, that radical corporeal difference that it was conjured by artists aiming to break the convention of representation, to forward their own avant-garde. We can really trace this back to Manet in Olympia, or to Picasso in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon which is a strange superposition of the African and the feminine, we can look at Brancusi. One of the more recent examples is the early work of the white American feminist artist Cindy Sherman. We often know her for her Untitled Film Stills, but before that she was doing some performative work blacking her body up to be a black woman. It’s again an appropriation and a use of the black female body as a kind of engine or form of innovation. There are many examples that we could take up of fictional, invented black women and it’s interesting now to see we have a moment in which many black women are refusing to allow that appropriation to take place. They say: “The use you want to make of my image and my figure for your avant-gardist work doesn’t work for me.” 

Edouard Manet, « Olympia », 1863

There are three good examples that come to my mind, such as the artist named Joe Scanlan from the United States, who invented this fictional black woman, Donelle Woolford, who according to a fake biography, comes from Detroit. She is very highly educated and deeply interested in Picasso and the uses of the female body etc. But this figure is a complete fiction (…) Find the full version of this text in something we Africans got issue 6. 


                                                        in something we Africans got issue 6
Olivia Anani with Alix Koffi 
July 2018

In issue #6 find our selection on : Panafricanism in part 1
Morocco’s intellectual and art scene in part 2
Cultural links Africa – USA in part 3