- Black Skin, Black Masks: The Citational Self in the Work of Glenn Ligon
“I am an invisible man”: so declares an untitled work of 1991 by the American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon before the queasy text smudged across the canvas gives way to illegibility (figure 1). A brief survey of Ligon’s contemporaneous works reveals the sustained use of this declarative “I”: another painting of the same year states, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” An untitled work of 1992 reads, “I’m turning into a specter before your very eyes.” The form the paintings assume is unvarying and simple: each repeats its given phrase over and over, stuttering across the white surface and gradually bleeding into an indecipherable inky mass. Unencumbered by other visual cues, Ligon’s paintings appear as a straightforward series of self-reflexive statements organized along the axes of racial and gender identification.
Yet, for readers, a nagging sensation of familiarity may belie the apparently autobiographical nature of these texts. They in fact originate, respectively, from the writers Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Genêt. In repurposing these textual fragments from seminal works on racial identity and socialization, Ligon charts a conversion of the particularities of racial experience into the generalities of fiction from which he selectively gleans to represent his own experience in a black male body. The sources that comprise the “I” of Ligon’s work are a multitude, appropriated from art and literature to suggest a series of racial, sexual, and gender particularities that resemble Ligon’s own, an “autobiography” of which the subject has written not a single word. Even the appearance of Ligon’s own body in his work does not signal a simple act of self-reflexivity. This is deceptively true of a photo-serigraphic dyad of 1998, which initially appears to report the facts of Ligon’s physical features with a simplicity bordering on banality. For the inscrutable sameness of Ligon’s Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features and Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features exists to critique notions of racial “difference” put forth in [End Page 507]
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a 1981 self-portrait in which conceptual artist Adrian Piper purported to exaggerate her “Negroid Features.” In Ligon’s work, identificatory declarations come from other lips, and the artist’s body represents not a unitary self, but a dialogic, citational, and wholly subjective being-for-others.
It is by coalescing a legion of voices into an approximation of a unitary speaking subject that Ligon both gestures towards and offers thoughtfully a means of navigating a problem endemic to “black” art since its conception in the early twentieth century. “[B]lack art,” writes Darby English, “began its life as a component of a political program of uplift,” as leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois deemed “positive” representations of black American life to be a central plank in the project of enfranchisement.1 The development of the Black Arts and Black Aesthetics movements in the 1960s and 1970s imposed still more specific expectations upon black artists tasked with “representing” on behalf of their race,2 a responsibility further compounded by external as well as internal pressures in the 1990s as the politics of multiculturalism evolved into a central concern of a white-dominated art world suddenly interested in staging self-consciously the spectacle of racial difference within cultural forums. The presumption, and expectation, that the black speaking subject represents always on behalf of bodies external to her own emerged at the selfsame moment as the notion of the “black artist” itself. When one takes into consideration also that the black body itself constitutes, in English’s words, “a black representational space par excellence,”3 in that the actions of individual black subjects are routinely scrutinized and judged to be indicative of qualities endemic to their race, the full weight of the burdensome, promiscuous task of developing black subjectivities comes to rest.
By offering appropriated declarative statements on race in lieu of his own black body...