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  • Afro-Pessimist Aesthetics:An Open Question
  • Huey Copeland (bio), Sampada Aranke, and Huey Copeland

In the last few decades, Afro-pessimism has arguably become one of the most vital, trenchant, and often contentious modes of Black radical thought. Extending the work of cultural theorists from Frantz Fanon to Orlando Patterson and emerging from a deep engagement with the work of scholars Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman, Afro-pessimism at once reveals and reckons with the modern world's fundamentally anti-Black antagonism, which, in political-ontological terms, structurally positions the Black as the slave, the void, the site of noncapacity that makes possible whiteness, relationality, in a word, "the world" itself. 1

From this perspective, a critical understanding of how anti-Blackness shapes and deforms even seemingly innocent registers of experience and expression is vital to any contemporary inquiry worthy of the name. As Jared Sexton has written, Afro-pessimism is "both an epistemological and an ethical project" that attempts to find a language to speak to the ongoing violence enacted upon Black bodies while it also, in the words of Christina Sharpe, "embraces 'without pathos' that which is constructed and defined as pathology … insistently speaks what is being constituted as the unspeakable and enacts an … embrace of what is constituted as (affirmatively) unembraceable." 2 In its "tending-toward-Blackness" and its refusal to offer a narrative of progress in the face of ongoing racial violence, Afro-pessimism aims to troubles those notions and structures that are constitutive of the current order and actively looks toward its destruction. 3

Viewed in this light, the notion of an Afropessimist aesthetics may sound like an oxymoron at best, not only because the theory is intent on troubling normative categories but also given how key the critique of modes of performative, visual, and filmic articulation, themselves saturated by anti-Black violence, have been in the development of Afro-pessimism's critical lexicon and its identification of the limits of contemporary cultural practice. To recast a question posed by leading theorist Frank B. Wilderson III, [End Page 241] "can [the aesthetic] tell the story of a sentient being whose story can be neither recognized nor incorporated into Human civil society?" 4 Yet the term "aesthetic," as derived from the Greek, means, precisely, "sensitive, sentient, pertaining to sense perception," and it is often, I would argue, Black artistic modes that productively imagine and gesture toward what Wilderson identifies as a kind of revolutionary horizon: "Only when real violence is coupled with representational 'monstrosity' can Blacks move from the status of things to the status of … of what, we'll just have to wait and see." 5

In considering these provocations, we might look to the work of a practitioner such as Kenyan-born US-based Wangechi Mutu; her art bodies forth both an affirmative response to Wilderson's question—can the aesthetic tell the story of a sentient being whose story can be neither recognized nor incorporated into human civil society?—as well as to his proleptic desire for those representational monstrosities that emerge on the other side of the horizon. For throughout Mutu's Black radical feminist practice, we witness a conjoining of the earthly, the machinic, the animal, and the botanical, suggesting "the entire world stuffed inside the African female body" only to be "tortuously turned inside out," underlining the Black woman's position as the locus from which all forms of being take their bearing (Fig. 1). 6 Engaging with the particularities of such works, I want to say, opens onto productive questions about not only what an Afro-pessimist imaginary gives us to see and do but also about how we might consider the aesthetics, rhetorics, and performatives of Afro-pessimist praxis itself, which, assertions to the contrary, are necessarily bound up with aesthetic questions concerning abstraction and representation.

It is precisely such possibilities that Sampada Aranke, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Mlondolozi Zondi, and Wilderson—hailing from varying generations, disciplines, and national contexts—explore in their contributions to this

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Figure 1.

Wangechi Mutu, A'gave you (2008). Mixed media collage on mylar, 93 × 54 in. Image courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles...


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pp. 241-245
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