“Every time I call your brother’s name in the grocery store, all of the white men turn around as if I am addressing them.”
It was this statement from my Mama echoing through the phone line via Kentucky that stopped me dead in my tracks during my deinstallation. The image her statement conjured up said everything that I had been wanting to say with my art and within my life for years. The image summed it all up. I was in the midst of reflecting on my very last thesis exhibition at CalArts. It was called The Kneegrow in the New World. The exhibition was focused on the many iterations of naming and stereotypes historically placed upon the black body. I utilized everyday materials and loaded them with social commentary about race. A grid of 100 red Avery Hello My Name Is nametags graced one wall with names ranging from Ape Dick Jr. to Pretty Young Thing. On the wall I painted a visual score of the word Nigger in which the N was stretched from a stammering whisper to a ragging shout that then trailed off the cliff the largest N to an uneventful “igger.”
I had a 20ft paper scroll hanging from the ceiling that had various hyphenated American names: African-American, Coon- American, HIV-American, Yo Mama-American, Big Booty-American and so on. I also wrote a letter to the word “Nigger” demanding that it stopped appearing in the hearts, minds and mouths of people. It was a show filled with dark biting humor, contradiction and schizophrenia concerning the impossibilities of self-identification in the face of repetitive historical branding.
This show caused much controversy on campus and sparked several conversations concerning racial relations and selfhood. Some of my peers were annoyed with the work. Someone argued that I shouldn’t talk about these issues because these were issues that the news covered. Some people assumed that the work was redundant because it was authored by a black body ( a perceived victim of the language acts. I argue that both the recipient and the author of the speech act are both victims within a system of oppression, ignorance and hatred.) To say it plainly many people thought I could have done better with my final showing opportunity and were disappointed that I chose to make a show about race. (This speaks to larger issues of diversity within art graduate programs!)
Many people were offended and brought in experiences into the space that I became the culprit of just because of the nature of the work. On the flip side actors from the theater school came into the gallery and took pleasure in doing monologues based from the text on the 20ft scroll. A biracial girl said that the show made her confront her own relationship with her blackness for the first time. I consolidated all of these responses and I considered the show to be a major success because this is exactly what I wanted to happen. I wanted to intensify our historical relationships to naming within the traditional setting of the gallery. I felt that as trite as the subject matter was that the audience and I still needed to unpack the issues and to think about what we all have been called and more importantly what we want or need to be called. The book about Sir came in the midst of this investigation. Through all of the pseudo definitions to claim/name the black body I wanted to discover a name that undefined the defined.