- Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance by Uri McMillan
Uri McMillan’s magisterial debut book engages while naming a two-century-long tradition of black women’s performance art in the United States, intervening in the problematic racialization and gendering of particular art historical traditions buttressed by the presumed absence of black women’s aesthetic and political enactments. Yet, McMillan is less concerned with black women’s “inclusions” in these traditions than in the traditions’ philosophical, racial, and sexual reorientations in the face of an aesthetic resistance never deemed possible. Part of the greatness of this book is its complicated engagement with racialized, gendered, and sexualized objecthood as method, the risk-taking practices whereby the historically unfree recalculate the possibilities of objecthood for smuggling in liberatory alternatives. McMillan distills the avatar—a kind of fleeting second self—as device for such recalibration. In becoming-with another persona, the black women artists discussed in this book self-avatarize in ways that illuminate the ontological promiscuities that constrain their movement while elucidating objecthood’s own kinetic potential. In other words, McMillan shows how the avatar announces (to echo Huey Copland) an object that is not one.
Turning in chapter 1 toward “the curious case of Joice Heth,” an enslaved black woman mythicized by P. T. Barnum to be George Washington’s wet nurse (and, as such, 161 years old!), McMillan demonstrates ethical performance studies historiography as he queries the stakes of naming the artfulness of those who are, following Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, coercively theatricalized. He strikes an important balance between thinking the terrible structural conditions of Heth’s exhibition on the one hand and the arduous work her “coerced theatricality” (to use Hartman’s term) required on the other. For McMillan, the trespassive (re)animation of blackness as antebellum, feminized structure of feeling through the undying affective reach of what he calls “mammy memory” is tied to racial slavery’s ceaseless surrogations. This powerful assertion is importantly joined by his recognition of Heth’s anti-avatarization: she was allegedly overhead saying that the “debil take ’em all, don’t know notin ’bout [George Washington]” (58). Here, McMillan argues that contending with the fact of anti-avatarization is crucial (such overlooked moves always related to histories of black women’s performance art) while suggesting that maybe the overheard and overlooked might be better off left alone. In other words, after Toni Morrison and along with Hartman, McMillan wonders whether Heth’s story “is a story not to pass on,” illuminating the kind of careful attention he pays to a performative device thickly haunted by histories of anti-black surrogacy, but that can be repurposed for unanticipated fugitive movement (62).
Such fugitivity vis-à-vis what McMillan calls “prosthetic performance” is mobilized toward black liberatory futures in the chapters that follow. In the second chapter, he delicately engages the narratives of fugitive slaves and abolitionists William and Ellen Craft as “performer[s] on the run” (70). Following Fred Moten, McMillan attends to the interplay between the stylized and the experimental in the Crafts’ complex performative inhabitation of a “freedom drive,” and astutely and acutely directs his focus to Ellen Craft (71). Arguing that her choices in clothing and comportment (which include feigning a physical disability) constitute “quotidian modes of performance art,” he attends to her craft as proto–black feminist corporeal creativity (69). Most notably, McMillan shows how Craft’s performance art, particularly her feigned injury, indexes (although is not reducible to) under-engaged intersections like blackness, disability, and performance, but also itself enacts whiteness’s inherent corporeal precarity. That is, in episodes from Charleston to London, Craft’s alternately disabled and darkened whiteness defamiliarized the relations among race, ability, and appearance, revealing that in the end, an anxiety about black fugitivity is nothing other than a fear of whiteness’s own instability in disguise. [End Page 320]
In one of the finest, most comprehensive engagements with Adrian Piper to date, chapter 3 engages with the avatar and objecthood performances of an...