- Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice by Krista A. Thompson Durham
In her brilliant Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, Krista A. Thompson considers four "lens-centered" aesthetic practices across the circum-Caribbean: street photography in Atlanta and New Orleans; Jamaican dancehall spectacles; extravagant prom entrances in the Bahamas; and the bling aesthetics of contemporary transnational hip-hop. Delving into the histories and visual economies of each, Thompson argues "contemporary diasporic formation takes place in the light of technology, in the flickering, unsettled, reflective and bright surfaces, the pixels, of photographic and videographic representation" (p. 9). Weaving together frameworks from performance studies, visual culture studies, ethnography, and art history, Shine offers an extended and deeply thoughtful meditation on how diasporic communities take up light's simultaneous illuminating and blinding effects as representational possibility and performative excess. For Thompson, shine itself offers a metaphor of, and material response to, diasporic fragmentation, a critical space for considering slavery's visual logics, and a new "representational space for figuring black subjects" (p. 35).
Shine's animating framework comes from the 1981 edition of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which uses the term "un-visibility" [End Page 90] to describe "the state of not being seen or not being recognized, as well as the 'moral blindness' toward the 'predicament of blacks'" (p. 40). Responding to Ellison, as well as Saidiya Hartman, Christopher Pinney, and Paul Gilroy, Thompson argues that the practices she studies "produce modes of visibility quite distinct from political investments in being socially visible" (p. 40) and manifest "the state of being unseen, or of making the un-visible's disappearance seen" (p. 41). For example, in the first chapter, Thompson analyzes how and why black urban youths pay street photographers to capture their poses in front of painted backdrops depicting mansions, sports cars, glimmering cityscapes, and other spectacles of conspicuous consumerism. While placing backdrop aesthetics inside a longer history of black photography in the United States and Jamaica, Thompson also notes that the photographs themselves (whether material or digital) are often less important than the spectacle of being photographed—of a person's ability to remain in front of the backdrop, commanding the attention of a line of impatient clients. In the post-civilrights-era world of de facto racial segregation where, as Mark Anthony Neal outlines, "self-worth increasingly became defined by the ability to consume" (p. 95), Thompson argues the spectacle of being seen consuming material wealth marks a move away from overt forms of black political engagement in the 1960s. Thompson's analysis of Charles H. Nelson's woefully understudied Backdrop Project (1999-2009) illuminates this point.
In the series, Nelson reimagines the street backdrop in ways that analogize the death of political activism to the specter of death that lurks behind photography and consumerism. Eschewing flashy cars and money, Nelson's backdrops depict Malcolm X, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and an image of Gustave Courbet's The Stone Breakers which advises posers to "Keep It Real."
In chapter 2, Thompson expands her argument through an analysis of video light: the bright, white, undiffused light from a single video camera that, in the 1990s, emerged as the focal point in Jamaican dancehalls. In dancehalls, dancers may pay camera-operators to keep the light on them as long as possible. Here, social status equates with performative spectacle, as the dancers' goal is to have others see them being seen by, even bathed in, the video light. To do so, dancehall performers transform their bodies into visual flashpoints, decorating their bodies with jewelry and sequins in shining sartorial displays meant to "catch" the video light. Through this lens Thompson analyzes the controversial practice of skin bleaching, which she positions as an effort to transform the body into "a medium that absorbs, reflects, reproduces, and records the impressions of light" which in turn serves to "destabilize understandings of...