Thursday, June 6, 2019

Something to Look At

Take a look at this picture. Take some time with it. What do you see? And beyond that (or under it, or past it) what do you see?




This is what I see. I see a black man, wearing the collar and garb of a slave. The collar is of a type, I think, intended to deter escape attempts, used on slaves who have already attempted to escape. Collars of this general type were certainly used in the United States, and some sources suggest that similar or identical collars may have been used in Africa on slaves who had not yet been traded to foreign parts.

The photograph is modern. While it could, in technical terms, have been made any time after, say, 1851 or so, it would not have been. Setting aside the specific subject matter, simply in terms of technique, of method, this is a photograph that is extraordinarily unlikely before 1970, improbable before perhaps 1980. The combination of modernist sharpness with painterly styling, especially the black background and the empty space right would have been extremely weird in anything before the modern era.

The man in the collar makes eye contact with us, with the camera. But he is not aggressive, nor cowed. He offers neither defiance, nor supplication. His expression is neutral, perhaps slightly proud. While we know almost nothing of how a genuine slave might have appeared in a photograph of this sort, certainly any modern man playing the role of a slave would offer some intense emotion: fury, fear, supplication, something. The subject here is not playing the role of a slave, although he is dressed like a slave.

His left hand appears slightly active, as if perhaps it were arrested mid gesture, as if he were about to lift his hand, or has just brought it down. Otherwise, he is more or less at ease, his hips slightly cocked. Look at the line of his body, classically curved. He is a man standing as comfortably as possible while wearing the probably heavy, probably awkward, collar. He is looking at the camera, occasionally moving.

The light accentuates the slave accouterments, ensuring that we see all eight points of the collar, the heavy padlock, the fabric of his rude garment. We are supposed to notice these, to focus on them.

The lighting, the subject's energy and posture, and and the large empty space to the right speak loudly of "fashion." The space on the right could be something symbolic, a compositional choice, or it could as well be space for copy. Most of the time when we see this design, the intention is: space for copy.

I think it is inescapable on inspection that this is essentially a fashion photograph of a man modeling the clothing and equipment of a recalcitrant slave. Astounding. Grotesque. How on earth?!

The photographer is Fabrice Monteiro. He is half Belgian, half Beninese. Born in Belgium. Raised in Benin. Lives and works in Dakar. He was a model, and now he is a photographer. He is certainly African, although also Belgian.

You may well not know this, but Benin is a country in Africa, and its modern boundaries encompass the former Kingdom of Dahomey which was a major player in the slaving side of the infamous Triangle Trade. Is Monteiro the descendant of slavers, or of slaves? It turns out that that the Fon people, who ruled the Kingdom of Dahomey, were both, as were some of their neighbors. Slaves being big business, they seem to have raided one another with enthusiasm. On the other hand, there were people from the interior of Africa who were routinely enslaved but not themselves slavers. The situation is complex, and probably not entirely knowable. Much has likely been lost, or obfuscated beyond hope of recovery. Regardless, the country of Monteiro's childhood was ground zero for the African slave trade.

At this point we are, I think, likely to wonder who could, and who could not, take this picture. I certainly could not. Not particularly because I fear the army of angry twitterati, though they could in desperate extremes bring harm to me. No, the largest reason is that I would not cause such a collar to be placed on a black man. I was not raised to do that, I rebel from the very notion at a visceral, unreasoning, level. An African can maybe take this picture, though? Evidently one can.

Does the picture even deserve to exist? I consider it likely that the artist intends us to wonder exactly that. We, I think it likely, are supposed to wonder exactly that. I consider it likely that this picture, and the others in the same series, are a direct challenge to our sensibilities. My position is that no picture deserves to exist, or to not exist. While I would not take this one, I do not object to its existence. It's just a picture.

As a reminder or a warning, it would be virtuous. As a fantasy for the future, it would be appalling. As shown to us by Fabrice Monteiro, it is neither, we are left to make something of it ourselves.

Is it intended as an offense? A challenge? A reminder? An object of grotesque but real beauty? I think all of the above. But, I am not Mr. Monteiro.

At this point I think perhaps I will wander well afield of what one might reasonably agree upon about this picture, and move on to my own ruminations.

It occurred to me, as I wondered about Monteiro's Beninese ancestors, what the ethnicities of the models are? To my inexperienced eye, there could be several different ethnicities here. Monteiro works in Dakar, more than 1200 miles from the closest point in Benin. Where would he have gotten access to these implements? Did he shoot this in the USA, in Dakar, in Benin? In Belgium, somehow? Are these people of the same ethnicities as American slaves were? Are they descendants of slavers? Are they entirely unrelated? Africa is a big place.

Note that by ethnicity I mean a fairly vague term. Something like family, something like tribe. I mean whatever group or groups Monteiro and his models identify themselves as being of. But, I don't really mean race as such, that bankrupt term built around a randomly assembled group of heritable features designed to separate an Us from a Them.

It occurs to me, or I am reminded, that it is on the trip on the slave ship from Africa to the The Americas that the slave loses his or her ethnicity and becomes an interchangeable member of a mere race. I am old enough to have seen Roots and, flawed as that miniseries event may have proved to be, I do recall that central lesson from the show.

So there you have it. Look at some of Monteiro's other work. I love it all, although much of it alarms me. He's throwing up some challenges.

My blog is maybe not stalled but merely slowed, we shall see.

16 comments:

  1. My first impression was also that this is a contemporary man photographed in a studio, modeling the horrible thing. He's showing it to us, not exactly wearing it. And his left hand is indeed ready for something.
    Apparently he's a contemporary African intellectual taking a self portrait.
    It's like Cindy Sherman using herself as a model for images of women, or Chris Burden getting himself shot to make a point about violence. They take it upon themselves.
    That is to say, it's what I want artists to do (well, not get shot). It's wonderfully provocative and interesting.
    I have been horrified to discover how ignorant I was growing up in Jim Crow america, thinking I was a good liberal, and totally missing the fact that the country got a 300-year head start using slave labor, and that I'm afraid of young lanky dudes in hoodies. So this photo immediately hits that guilt nerve.
    But really it's just a picture by an artist doing his thing. And as for that vast blackness to the right, it does suggest a magazine spread, but it might also be the Darkness, as much a part of the picture as any.

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    1. While the photo is not, I think, an actual self-portrait, that is a brilliant reading of it. I had, of course, read some stuff before coming back to really examine the pictures (idiot!) so had already got hold of the "fashion" idea.

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  2. An interesting piece of looking and seeing and saying. Doing the heavy lifting of reading Berger has put muscle on your own writing, I suspect. Don't lose it over the summer!

    Mike

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    1. Thanks! I am trying out this idea of actually looking at visual art!

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  3. I don’t know anything at all about the subject/photographer, and now that I do I’m going to do my best to push it out of my mind.

    My first reaction was, naturally, a surface-level one. And on the surface, the picture is beautiful, especially the lighting. The contrast of black skin against the black background is sublime.

    Next, I was horrified at my initial reaction. Images of slavery are strong in my mind and this seemed to be irretrievably yoked to them. . How could I look at this purely on an aesthetic level? Surely it was some kind of comment about African-American history.

    Then I set about trying to decipher what he was wearing around his neck, and quickly discovered that it was four hammers. To me, this pretty clearly was meant to be a symbol and I begun trying to unravel what the symbol meant. Hammers mean work. Was he saying that the blacks of the slave era had gotten rid of their chains simply to become wage slaves in the modern economy?

    That take seemed too pat. I decided to allow the artist more ambiguity than simply trying to solve a mystery. Clearly, slavery is evoked. Just as clearly, the hammers transport the subject into modern times. Something to chew on.

    So we have a picture that works on the aesthetic level and also leaves the viewer thinking. Can’t ask for more than that.

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  4. https://www.cnet.com/news/ai-da-the-robot-artists-first-exhibition-has-us-asking-what-even-is-art/

    A topic for a future blog post, perhaps.

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  5. Paul Braverman's comment above about hammers and work made me think of the phrase "work will set you free."

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  6. I don't think those are actual hammers. They appear to be pieces of forged steel with pointy ends. The extreme padding on the right hand side, essentially changing what is a vertical subject to wide-screen, doesn't really add meaningful context except, I dunno, "arty"?

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    1. On second look, I agree. Those aren’t hammers. Still, in my mind some sort of labor is being evoked.

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  7. I can't believe I'm writing this but I did a web search on neck-related torture devices, found pronged collars, and the one in the pic may be a variation. They make work difficult and night time rest nearly impossible. I'm done thinking about this.

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  8. I check in for new check in for new writing now and then, so I’m continually seeing the picture. And something that I’ve felt subconsciously up until now just became conscious: The cinema-sized aspect ratio implies the passage of time. It suggests that the subject has a past and a future, while portrait-sized pictures tend to fix a subject in time, to suggest that the moment of picture making was a singular point distinct from any narrative. The sitter will change his or her clothes, the photographer will pack up his gear, and that the moment is finished.

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    1. Same here; guess we'll just have to talk among ourselves for the time being :) Your thoughts about the frame shape and how it might influence the temporal nature of the photograph resonate with those of John Berger who suggests that a photograph has more in common with a 'quotation' than a 'narrative' (Another Way of Telling; 1982). The past and future has to be provided by the viewer, since the photograph is generally silent on the matter. The frame shape may assist by leaving physical space for this to take place In discussing how a photograph actually works Berger, unlike so many contemporary critics, is not afraid to engage with the actual content of the frame. Yes, prompted by AM I too am revisiting Bergers work and finding it refreshingly transparent.

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    2. So why not make a wide-screen motion picture? The image (like all photographs) would be stronger, more focused if the subject were appropriately framed. The framing of this one amounts to little more than a 'wannabe' pretense. But there's a lot of that going around in the art photographer bidness. A still photograph is not a motion picture, full stop.

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  9. The large dark/black area on the RHS of the frame makes me think of all the worse things that probably went on but that aren't shown here.

    If the person had been framed in the middle of the frame, would the dark/black areas on either side have that same effect? I don't know and unfortunately it's not possible to "unsee" this picture and start again.

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    1. "unfortunately it's not possible to "unsee" this picture and start again"

      Sure it is. Crop the fucker, and do it right.

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  10. Since you asked what I see: I find the modern padlock distracting and the cloth not quite believable either.

    As to the design of the collar, you will find the original here:
    https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-a259-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

    I was in Bénin (ex Dahomey) about a year ago. Ethnicities are a very complex subject there and one we can't really grasp as Europeans. The palaces in Abomey were constructed with human blood as mortar, so internal wars were obviously cruel. There were 2 Dahomey wars with the French colonial empire. At the end, the French won using troops from Sénégal. Dakar is the capital of Sénégal, so maybe the place has a meaning in the art project as well, I do not know.

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