In Conversation with Tina Campt, on A Black Gaze: Performers Changing How We See

Reading through Time: 5 a few minutes

The Brown University professor’s new book considers the task of contemporary Black artists and the command of their practise

So what can we learn from reframing the understanding of a ‘gaze’? Known for her disruptive analyses plus ‘grammar of Black futurity’, Black feminist theorist Tina Campt is congregating a brand new school of thought by investigating Dark life through the lens associated with art for its ability to ‘solicit visceral responses’ and ‘challenge dominant viewing practices’. Campt is professor of humanities, modern culture and media with Brown University and author of the newly released The Black Gaze: Artists Altering How We See (2021), published by MIT Push. It examines pioneering Black contemporary artists who are shifting the very nature of our interactions with all the visual, through their creation and curation of an exclusively Black gaze. The guide surveys the works associated with Simone Leigh, Deana Lawson , Okwui Okpokwasili, Dawoud Bey , Luke Willis Thompson , as well as Kahlil Joseph plus Arthur Jafa’s videos at the everyday beauty and grit of the Black experience – requiring viewers to do more than simply look, but engage in what Campt calls the ‘affective labour’ commanded by this Black gaze. Campt’s acclaimed book Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017) has been among the earliest that started a journey of artists reading into her exercise, and now, her reading in to theirs.  

Wildcat, Euch. Kahlil Joseph (2013)

Ethel-Ruth Tawe: Can you tell us a little about yourself, and exactly how you arrived at these innovative ways of engaging with pictures and archives?

Tina Campt : I describe myself as a Black feminist theorist of visible culture and contemporary artwork. I say that because it graphs the routes that I have taken to do the work that I do. [Early on] I encountered what many people tell you: that ‘there is no archive’. I had a very tenacious and supportive dissertation agent who said: “If there is absolutely no archive you have to create your own personal. ” So I began ‘reading’ the absences and silences in the archives.

I started thinking about the photographs that people want to understand to say nothing – serial photographs, highly formulaic photographs, in particular compelled pictures: mugshots, prison, passport, ethnographic photographs that are all said to be so mundane that they ‘say nothing’. But I realised we’re actually not hearing them. I started wanting to articulate what it means to ‘listen to images’, not necessarily just for the stories that they inform, but for the impression and impact that they make on us. We sometimes wish to think of photographs as documents or as factual, yet we respond to them viscerally, emotionally, and affectively both in positive and negative ways. If we examine those reactions, we learn as much about ourselves as we do as to what is captured in an image.  

Spit on the Broom Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich 2019 video 11 minutes

Arthur Jafa and Jay-Z, “4: 44, ” video still, Jay-Z watching Beyoncé execute.

Tawe: Your latest book, A Black Look, examines the shift in Black contemporary visual culture. You finished your book, Listening to Images, by discussing the modern, so it feels like natural development. But what made you choose to examine the particular artists you talk about and how they are defining this particular Black gaze?

Campt: I was seeing really powerful creative works that were speaking to conditions of Black folks within this moment of extraordinary anti-blackness. They were as powerful every political treatise or something textual… and it gripped myself. I wanted to understand why I was responding so strongly and what was different. When I say various, I don’t mean this was the very first time that Black artists are actually able to make work that addresses the political duress in which we live; that has been happening for some time. What I reached understand was that their function was demanding something of me and many others.  

Their particular work [can be] troubling and uncomfortable. Arthur Jafa’s work can make you squeal, so can Deana Lawson’s, and Luke Willis Thompson’s work. Yet, that irritation was being embraced in the artwork world. Suddenly it wasn’t work that was pleasing, amusing or abstract, it was totally in-your-face. It wasn’t so much of a gut punch, yet more about a sense of wounding. It had been something that had completely taken the ground from under myself, and I didn’t know how to place myself in relation to it. What I call that – what they make us position ourselves to – is ‘the precarity of Black life in the 21st century’ as well as the ways in which Black bodies have become disposable. [These artists] twin pain, trauma, reduction, with Black people’s virtuosity in survival, and the capacity to inhabit tremendous pleasure in spite of all these things. That will twinning is something that disorients you. What you end up carrying out in response to this work is a lot of affective labour in a way that changes how you see Blackness.  

The reason I known as it A Black Gaze is because I wish to challenge the idea that the gaze is only dominant or top-down. Black folks have a look. It’s not really about obtaining others to see through our own eyes, but to understand that will their relationship is not among mastery. There are ways of showing Black visuality that give up white people and they have in the future to terms with that; and that means you are confronting a Dark gaze. It was an experience associated with artworks making demands upon me.

Luke Willis Thompson Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, 2016

Tawe: Some ideas you theorise, like ‘reassemblage in dispossession’, cause me to feel think of how many contemporary Dark artists are drawn to the medium of collage, using it to reinterpret multilayered suggestions. What are your thoughts on the collage medium in relation to this Black gaze?

Campt: Collage is just not simply a confrontation with a solitary media in one moment in time. It does not take layering and the sedimentation various moments, memories, histories that come into contact and then overlap and juxtapose. That’s one of the things I think is so marvellous about collage, and what it offers musicians to have this multimedia plus multitemporal encounter both inside their work and in relationship with those that view it.  

Tawe: In the associated with Covid-19, engaging with physical works has become complicated. How do you listen to images digitally, with no haptics that much of your exercise is centred on?  

Campt: It has been a huge challenge. I’ve had to confront the extent to which I rely on physical encounters with artworks. I think it’s one of the reasons exactly why comparatively, I haven’t written as much. It’s because We hadn’t been able to visit artwork and sit with it.  

To answer your question, ‘how do you listen to images digitally? ’: with excellent difficulty. I’m very excited about the fact that museums and galleries are reopened. A couple of months ago I was part of a discussion with Garrett Bradley about her work. [Her film ‘America’] was showing in the Museum of Modern Art. I went there just after the particular museum reopened and it was an extraordinary experience. It reminded me there’s nothing like it. You cannot compare seeing some thing on the screen to viewing it in person. It made me cherish the gift of seeing art installed as the artist wants this to be. To respect what it takes to have the artist present something to you as opposed to you eating it in a way you think can be OK. There are interactions that are very specific to that experience.  

A Black Gaze: Artists Modifying How We See is published by MIT Press and it is available now

Ethel-Ruth Tawe

Ethel-Ruth Tawe (b. Yaoundé, Cameroon) is an image-maker, storyteller, and time-traveller based between Ghana and The Netherlands. She actually is a multidisciplinary artist plus writer examining archives plus identity in Africa and the diaspora. Using collage, pigments, words, still and shifting images, Tawe’s work displays on space and period, often from a magical realist lens. Her burgeoning curatorial practice took form in an inaugural exhibition titled ‘African Ancient Futures’, and is constantly on the expand through myriad audiovisual experiments.

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