“She’s a machine, a high-powered Porsche, hip-hop technology. She consumes everything around her. She’s a neon Marilyn. White girls, Asian girls, Black girls all want to be her… She’s the vortex, the churning sprawl of the future, she’ll live forever. There’s a Beyoncé in every universe so that if and when the world ends she’ll be replicated into infinity.”
In Scaffold Room, a new multimedia in-gallery performance work by Ralph Lemon, this is one of the ways Beyoncé is discussed—as an overwhelming force of cultural and economic capital that takes over our senses. She’s monstrous and flawless at the same time. With Scaffold Room as a jumping-off point, one of its performers, Okwui Okpokwasili, recently sat down with scholar Saidiya Hartman to discuss the iconography and cultural consumption of the black body and, in particular, black women’s bodies, recalling the Venus examined in Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts.”
Following is an excerpt from their wide-ranging conversation, which referenced varied moments in Scaffold Room, from images of a goat-headed woman or a spaceship in the midst of the Mississippi woods, to pop-cultural touchstones such as Beyoncé or vaudeville standup comedian Moms Mabley.
Okwui Okpokwasili: Is it problematic to consider Beyoncé a contemporary Venus?
Saidiya Hartman: Yes and no. Part of the way iconic figures circulate is they plug into prevailing cultural and national texts. It seems that in Scaffold Room you want to create an opening for another kind of imagining. Beyoncé is the readymade who seemingly gets us closest to a vision of black female agency, black female pleasure. However, the paradox and the danger of the icon is that it obscures as much as it brings into view. The terrain of the non-iconic or the everyday life is incredibly complex and rich. And part of the power of that iconic figure is actually about flattening out the unevenness of the terrain.
Does all the historical baggage that accompanies the black female body make it pretty near impossible for the audience to see you and April [Matthis] moving in the space in a different kind of way? That is, free of all that baggage?
* * *
Okpokwasili: I sometimes think the course of my “narrative” in the piece is to go to outer space, which suggests some attempt to be in the realm of gods.
Hartman: Or maybe the desire for outer space is about wanting to be untethered from these social scripts that are so absolutely confining. And the identification, the longing for the stars and the celebrity, seems, for most people, the only escape route, the only path of exit from the social scripts. But I think in everyday practice people endeavor to make other forms of social life.
* * *
Hartman: Why is the issue of black women’s sexual pleasure so difficult and so entangled? Because the black body is always already vulnerable. It’s the body that you can do anything to with very little cost or consequence. So what does it mean to open up that which is presumed to be open and always already available for everyone else’s use anyway? So much of the effort to be respectable has been on closing down that openness for protection and trying to hold violence at bay. In a context where violence is the norm the whole idea of opening up the body and inviting a form of dispossession that can engender pleasure is so difficult. The miracle is that we can do it at all. But both those things—the violence and the pleasure—have to be understood together. What does it mean to open one’s body in precisely the way that Scaffold Room demands when that body is already so vulnerable? It takes an even more forceful claiming of one’s right to pleasure because the risks are potentially so great.
* * *
Hartman: In Victorian America, the people that you could see naked were black people. In scientific treatises and in ethnographic and zoological studies or via pornography disguised as cultural inquiry. There’s this book called The Secret History of Anthropology, which contains naked photos of third-world women, but not in the tradition of European painting, which is the nude. These naked figures exist in a primitive state or a kind of animality. As black people, we’ve been in this historical and social position where we’ve enjoyed an intimacy with these other categories of being, whether it’s objects or animals. Because part of what a racist discourse or a colonial discourse has enforced and enabled is for black subjects to imagine themselves in relationship to roosters or hens or oxen or dogs, so there’s been this way that we’ve been forced to think about ourselves along certain lines that are actually potentially liberatory and open up the category of the human and topple the hierarchies of life forms, the vertical order of being. Of course there are people who want to maintain those hierarchies by keeping us as the buffer between the world of western man and the vegetal or the animal. The unique character of the historical formation of blackness is this intimacy with these other forms of life. We’ve been forced to imagine ourselves in proximity to and in association with animate and inanimate forms in ways that other people haven’t.
* * *
Hartman: Why do young black girls want to be thick? The world says: you’re thick-headed, you’re thick-lipped, you’re thick-hipped. All that’s supposed to be wrong, wrong, wrong. And we say: No, I want to be thick because I’m creating this other order of values. It’s about this other realm of beauty. So what you’ve named as a problem, I’m envisioning as a resource because I am operating within another scheme of values. I’m producing something else.
Okpokwasili: But producing it to what end and to whose profit and benefit? The video vixen has the junk in the trunk and the thick lips and the thick hips, but her butt is getting slapped, she’s splayed before the camera and I don’t know her name and whether she owns her image or profits from it.
* * *
Hartman: It’s interesting to think about Moms Mabley appearing in her housecoat, with the big silly shoes, appearing in the most non-threatening way possible to actually say some very scandalous and challenging things. There’s both “Oh, I need to disarm you” and “I need to be the kind of person you think you can laugh at, so that then I can tell you some things that you would never listen to under any other circumstances.” And again we need to think about doubleness and existing in parallel lives – there’s Moms leaving the set, the stage of the Apollo, and putting on her silk shirt and her man’s suit with her beautiful girls in her arms. So the performance appears to confirm the world as we know it, but all the while it is deforming the terms of mastery. Moms Mabley or any performer endeavors to reform or remake the audience so that she can say something that they are not yet ready to apprehend, while seemingly operating within their limits.
* * *
Okpokwasili: With Scaffold Room, it’s a room, a lecture hall, a spaceship, a vessel for you to travel—through your mind, through memory, to potential spaces—
Hartman: It’s a structure for transport—
Hartman: —but the transport isn’t literal.
Okpokwasili: And the narrative of Walter in space, conflated with the narrative of Solaris, the shuttle and the spaceship ship built in Mississippi, sitting in the woods around a tree, somehow tethered to the landscape while at the same time suggesting transport. Does the mythology of Mississippi combined with this speculative fiction, create a useful tension?
Hartman: It’s both because Mississippi and the south as a region are so steeped in history and blood and terror, but then there is also this lovely figure of flight and transport.
If we meditate upon the object—the spaceship is just a figure for the decolonization of the mind, you know?
Okpokwasili: The spaceship as a mode, a positioning for the decolonization of the mind to leave the earthly body, recalling the yearning for the loss of self in some expressions of sexual desire—to be filled with and absorbed in someone else, the exquisite feeling of vanishing or transforming—
Hartman: A religious, ecstatic experience.
Okpokwasili: Possession, trance, getting the spirit. These are all modes of transport.
Hartman: Yes. And so I think that all of these things happen in our bodies, right?
* * *
Hartman: I have friends who have collected lots of found photos that they revere, and they’ve created these devotional families with orphaned images of black people. And I think that it’s an interesting form of redress. I mean, in many black families, they don’t have generations of photos, right? So the orphaned image acts as a surrogate for the ones never taken or lost or for all the people whose names we can no longer call. I was at a friend’s house looking at a large framed photograph on the mantle and I asked, “Oh, is that your great-grandmother?” And she said, “No, but she could be.” [Laughs]
My work has centered around these anonymous lives and these orphaned objects, and for me, the attention to an object—or a space or a photo of an unknown Negro girl taken in 1882—is a form of redress. I am obsessed with anonymous lives and lost objects and the questions that haunt them. In 1882, how did a ten-year-old Negro girl wind up in an artist’s studio to have her photograph taken in the classic posture of the Odalisque? And why isn’t her name inscribed on the back of the albumen print? And how come we can’t place her in someone’s genealogy? What I attempt to do is recreate her world.
And for me, when I look at the image, no matter how grotesque or violent an image it may be, she’s never lacking some essential humanity.
So, I know a bit about the circumstances that may have framed this image, but more than this knowledge is required. Is that girl making a claim on me? Is she soliciting a different kind of response from me as a viewer? Is there a way of opening up the image of a nude girl arrested on an arabesque sofa? If so, how might we open it up? Is there a way of transforming this into a different kind of image that might yield another kind of story? I think this is what you’re doing in Scaffold Room, right?
Okpokwasili: Right. How do you articulate the complexity of her life?
Hartman: And what are the kinds of questions that such an image might raise, so it’s not simply about reinscribing or containing or reducing a life to the structures that devalue and objectify it? Rather, the question is: how is life made and lived in a domain that is uninhabitable? How do you love or make beauty or have desire in the space of violence, negation, or poverty, which is the everyday condition?
* * *
Hartman: One of the images that I found so powerful in the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, was a photograph of a young man holding up a cardboard placard with a question: “CAN I LIVE?” And that’s the huge question that we’ve been discussing: Can I live? How do I live in this order? And the domain of desire and sexuality is where we do a lot of the work and the exploration of finding an answer to that question.
Okpokwasili: Perhaps a piece of Scaffold Room is also thinking about how a black woman lives as an artist—expressing the desire to be subsumed in the body of a lover, wrestling with the iconography of Beyoncé and Amy Winehouse and going to outer space—while existing within a social construct positioning her at an intersection of icons and signifiers and pathologies.
Saidiya Hartman is the author of Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Lose Your Mother: A Journey on the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007). She has published articles on feminism, photography, memory, and slavery and is currently completing a book about riotous black women and the anarchy of everyday life entitled Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. She lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University. Okwui Okpokwasili is a cross-disciplinary artist and writer living in Brooklyn. The winner of multiple Bessie awards, including for her performance in Ralph Lemon’s Come home, Charley Patton, she has recently toured the world performing Bronx Gothic, her original solo work.